What: Toyota's new hot hatch
Where: Amaroo layout, Sydney Motorsport Park, NSW
Conditions: Wet, overcast
What is it?
Toyota's follow-up to its wildly-popular GR Yaris, this all-new model is based on the popular Corolla small car and gives the brand an entrant into the hot hatch market. This is the first time the Japanese giant has had a true hot hatch and it lines up against the likes of the Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS and Volkswagen Golf R.
The GR Corolla has just landed in Australia and Torquecafe was able to sample this long-awaited hot hatch on-track at Sydney Motorsport Park at its official local launch.
Why does it deserve a track test?
The ‘GR' stands for Gazoo Racing, and as the name implies it has evolved from the company's motorsport involvement. Gazoo Racing was actually out-going president Akio Toyoda's personal project originally, a small racing team that competed in events like the Nurburgring 24-hours to help test road cars in the heat of racing.
It has since evolved to become the company's official motorsport and performance car division, encompassing not just the Yaris and Corolla but also its Le Mans Hypercar, World Rally Championship and Super GT programs around the world.
Toyota has leveraged its racing projects to directly influence its road cars. The GR Yaris is a unique three-door model designed specifically as a homologation special for the WRC. And the GR Corolla uses the same engine as the GR Yaris but with some key new components for more power, parts that were tested in Japanese production car racing.
What's it like inside?
Like all hot hatches the GR Corolla has its roots in a conventional small hatchback, but to make it look and feel sportier Toyota has changed some of the key components.
Following the same formula as the GR Yaris, there's a leather-wrapped steering wheel with ‘GR' branding, aluminium pedals and leather-wrapped manual gear selector.
There's also front sports seats, which offer more support and are trimmed in a combination of suede and artificial leather with contrasting silver stitching.
How's it go down the straights?
As mentioned earlier, the engine is largely carried over from the GR Yaris, it's a 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine designed specifically for these GR hot hatches and not just plucked from the parts bin.
Importantly for the larger Corolla, Toyota has upgraded the power, so it now makes 221kW, compared to the 200kW of the Yaris. Torque remains unchanged at 370Nm.
It's mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and there's no automatic option available (for now), with Toyota preferring to focus on driving enthusiasts for its initial run.
Power is sent to the road via an all-wheel drive system, but more on that later.
While the engine may sound small on paper, on the track it punches well above its weight. It has plenty of grunt and combined with the all-wheel drive systems and Yokohama Advan tyres, it punches out of corners on the Amaroo Circuit at SMP with ferocity. Even on a wet track we could feel the engine had excellent pulling power through the mid-range and would keep on powering if we had a long straight to stretch its legs on.
What's it like in the bends?
The Amaroo Circuit is the twistier layout at SMP, utilising the more-recent track extension, which made it an ideal place to test the handling characteristics of the GR Corolla. Unfortunately our test drive was blighted by rain, but that didn't dampen the fun we could have exploring the limits of this new pocket rocket.
The Yokohama Advan tyres are a more dry-weather option with an aggressive tread pattern, but even so they hung on well – and certainly a lot better than the Dunlop Sports Maxx fitted to the GR Yaris, which struggle in the wet.
What really helped in the wet conditions was the GR-Four all-wheel drive system that's fitted to the GR Corolla. This is closely related to the version on the GR Yaris Rallye, with a pair of Torsen limited slip differentials on the front and rear axles. These have been tuned to offer adjustable torque distribution to each axle, and there are three modes to dial up – 50/50 (front/rear), 60/40 (front/rear) and 30/70 (front/rear).
The even split is the default setting in Track Mode and (unsurprisingly) offers up a neutral balance, whereas the front-biased setting will pull you out of corners for what feels like a faster lap time and the rear-biased option allows you to slide around a bit more and hang the tail out.
These traits were highlighted on a run on the SMP skidpan, where Toyota was able to also demonstrate the car's other party trick – its rally-style handbrake. Toyota has swapped the electronic parking brake for an conventional-looking handbrake lever that connects to a clever system that can disengage drive to the rear axle when you pull it up (without you needing to dip the clutch).
This means you can flick the GR Corolla on its axis to do a spectacular rally-style hairpin turn. On the wet skidpan with the rear-biased all-wheel drive mode, you can pretend to be Sebastian Ogier and flick the GR Corolla around and powerslide it from one turn to the next.
Overall, especially on the track, it feels a better balanced car than the GR Yaris thanks to its longer wheelbase and wider track giving it a more stable footprint. It's still very playful and engaging for the driver with well-sorted steering and suspension.
Is it a front-runner or backmarker?
Toyota hasn't been shy about its entrance into the hot hatch market, with the GR Corolla going head-to-head with some of the best in the business, specifically the incoming new Honda Civic Type R and the well-respected Volkswagen Golf R.
While we can't declare it better than either of those without back-to-back testing, the GR Corolla is certainly capable of holding its own against any rival. This is a quick, capable and clever hot hatch that demands your attention – a definite front-runner.
2023 Toyota GR Corolla price and specifications
|From $62,300 plus on-road costs
|1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol
|221kW at 6500rpm
|370Nm at 3000-5550rpm
|Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive