2023 Toyota GR Corolla: Better than a WRX, Civic Type R, Mustang?
It is not often I fall head over heels for a vehicle…. Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration. It is not too often that I am willing to put my money where my mouth is with the vehicles we test, this one changes things.
In this line of work, generally speaking, the manufacturers are sending us top-of-the-line vehicles to test and show off ALL of the available features. Rarely do we get a test vehicle from any of the brands we work with that is more like the trim or spec we would buy if we were actually out at the dealership shopping with our own money. This makes for a good way to play pretend each week. Sometimes we are in a loaded Mercedes that has massaging seats and we can pretend that we belong to the best country club in the town. Other weeks we are in an affordable family car, albeit the top trim of that car, and we feel a little more like ourselves; testing a vehicle we could easily see ourselves owning.
For me, this week in the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla was that, a week in a car I could genuinely see myself living with daily.
As a father of one, and as a former owner of my “dream car” in a Chevy Camaro SS, the appeal of a V8-powered RWD muscle car has not left my brain, but it has left reality. Loading a kid in the back of a Camaro or any other muscle car would be a burden. And, as I am frequently carting Tucker to his grandparents’ or school, I would want/need a vehicle that is agreeable to him just as much as it is to me.
Perhaps this is why we are seeing a decline in sports cars in general. More and more people are ditching the 2-door platform altogether regardless of whether or not there is a back seat in the car in question. Sales of SUVs are up and are showing no sign of slowing, to the point a new sub-genre of SUV has emerged: the “SUV Coupe.” Shoppers want the practicality of an SUV with its rear hatch and increased storage space but with the performance look and feel of two-door sports cars and muscle cars. Enter the hot hatch.
The hot-hatch segment is one I never really got in my youth. As a fan of muscle cars, I generally wrote them off, see my article on the Honda Civic Type R. In this profession, however, I have gotten to experience them more, and in their preferred environment: the track. It also does help that I am older with a few more responsibilities.
The VW Golf GTI is really the agreed-upon father of the segment, which was announced at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show and released the following year. Rising to popularity during fuel shortages, the hot hatch segment really could trace its origins to the muscle car boom of the previous decade. Taking a popular platform and modding it for driving fun, the hot hatch formula was nothing new even if the form factor of the vehicle and the engine displacements were.
While the GTOs, Mustangs, and Camaros tore up the streets in the 60s as relatively affordable high-powered fun, the hot hatch rose to prominence in the years following and has maintained a strong fanbase since.
Now, in my mid-30s, I can appreciate the hot hatch in a way I couldn’t before. My time on this earth has opened my eyes to new ways of looking at things, and everything that made the original hot hatches so popular is still evident here in this new generation. Take our 2023 Toyota GR Corolla, for example, it takes one of the best-selling family vehicles of all time and stuffs a high-powered engine that is relatively easy on fuel consumption under the hood and pairs it with a manual gearbox. We get the added fun of selectable AWD in the GR Corolla as well, something only a few of its “true” competitors can offer.
Need to take a kid or friends with you? There is a decent-sized back seat with rear doors. Need to haul larger items? Load it in the rear hatch with the back seats folded flat. Don’t want to spend a fortune on fuel? It only has 3 cylinders. It checks a lot of boxes for practicality for sure.
Want to go fast? It has 300 horsepower and will sprint to 60 mph in under 5 seconds. Want to feel part of the experience? It has a really good 6-speed manual gearbox. Want to take it to a track? There is a track mode!
Everything that made this thing fun a couple of weeks ago when I was blasting around the track at Eagles Canyon Raceway also make it a blast on the curvy backroads of my hometown. Everything that made hot hatches practical in the first place, makes this a practical vehicle for me now.
When it comes to comparing it to its competition, there are two ways to look at it: by price, or by formula. You can actually get (for a precious few more months anyway) a V8-powered Camaro for less money than this GR Corolla, but generally speaking, a V8 Camaro or Mustang will run you north of this car’s as-tested price of $40,159. A 2024 Mustang GT will cost you $41,495 and give you considerably more horsepower at 480, but with a lower practicality score.
Its peers in the hot hatch segment include the VW Golf R at $44,740 with only 15 more horsepower, the Honda Civic Type R at $43,295 with the same 15 hp bump as the Golf R but with a FWD-only layout, and then there is the Subaru WRX. While no longer a hatchback (offered only as a sedan) the WRX has lost its rally-ready STI variant, leaving the top model to be an underpowered 271 horsepower with a continuously variable transmission and at a $43,395 price tag. I have gotten to sample the Civic on a track and the WRX on city streets and, at least after living with this one for a week, would take this Corolla all day long.
When it comes to comparing to my beloved pony car, the practicality of this hatchback makes more sense for me at this life stage, and it too wins out over the pony cars as well.
Yes, it is safe to say that this is my favorite Toyota product I have tested thanks in part to its practicality, but also its driving characteristics I elaborated on in my track time. Its AWD powertrain, willingness to rev, and ease of changing directions all paired with its four doors and rear hatch make this a winner for me. In fact, at just a hair under $41,000, this really is my favorite car at that price point as well. I cannot think of many or any other $40,000 vehicles I would want that could hold a candle to this one. Sure the Mustangs and Camaros of the world tug at my heartstrings a little more, but if I optioned them the way I would want them, they would cost significantly more than this Corolla, easily reaching into the $60,000 realm. Same with other family vehicles we have tested like popular SUVs. If we optioned any other vehicle the way I would want to own it, they would easily eclipse the price tag of this GR Corolla which is darn near exactly how I would option one myself.
My only hindrance to buying one is that we have two perfectly fine cars in our garage right now that are both paid off and a constant stream of new test vehicles to test for the channel that leaves me months between driving my actual car as it is. If my life situations were different (different job and actually looking to buy a vehicle) the Toyota GR Corolla would top my list.
2023 Toyota GR Corolla Specs:
1.6L Turbocharged Inline 3-Cylinder Engine
273 lb-ft of Torque
6-Speed Manual Gearbox with Rev-matching
Driver-selectable Torque Split:
60 Front/40 Rear
30 Front/70 Rear
MacPherson Strut Front Suspension
Circuit-tuned Coil Springs, Shock Absorbers, and Stabilizer Bars
Double-wishbone Multi-Link Rear Suspension
Four-piston Front Two-Piston Rear Brake Calipers
14-inch Front Ventilated and Slotted Rotors
11.7-inch Rear Ventilated and Slotted Rotors
Front and Rear Torsion Limited Slip Differentials
235/40 R18 Michelin® Pilot® Sport 4 S Tires
Toyota-claimed 4.99 Second 0-60
12.3-inch Digital Instrument Cluster
Added Aero for Increased Downforce
Cloth Front Sport Seats with Increased Bolstering for Cornering Support
8-inch Color Infotainment with Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
Qi Wireless Phone Charger
Toyota Safety Sense 3.0
Pre-collision System with Pedestrian Detection
Dynamic Radar Cruise Control
Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist
Lane Tracing Assist
Automatic High Beam Headlights
Road Sign Assist
JBL 8-speaker Premium Sound
Complimentary 1-year National Auto Sport Association (NASA) membership, *including one free High-Performance Driving Experience (HPDE) *
EPA Fuel Economy 21/28/24 (city/hwy/cmb)
Starting Price: $35,900
Price as tested: $40,159