/ 4 November 2023

Contender for the hot-hatch crown

If there ever was an eagerly anticipated car, the GR Corolla is it, with heaps of expectation loaded upon its shoulders, thanks to a stout GR Yaris just a few years before. 

We were disappointed when, after the GR Yaris took gold in our inaugural Speed Week 2021 feature, Toyota SA announced that the GR Corolla was not under consideration for our market at the time.

We’re not entirely sure what happened after that announcement but, a few months later, Toyota changed its mind and, hence, we’re reviewing the four-door sibling to the GR Yaris. 

It might have had something to do with the introduction in South Africa of a certain Japanese hot hatch but, either way, this GR Corolla is certainly worth the hype. 

The GR Corolla is to the new performance car segment what Prime Hydration is to little children. We have never been starved of hot hatches. There are plenty of them out there. But a hot hatch with a GR badge adorning its flared bodywork is something we all want to try. 

Much like the Prime drink that crowds supermarket shelves, the GR Corolla was begging to be sampled, and the schedule allowed us to test it under just about all conditions.

A family of five in a hot hatch requires that a few items be left behind, but we all fit in, perhaps slightly compromised by the transmission tunnel from the middle seat. 

The boot lip sits higher than in some other hatches and therefore the space appears to have more depth than it does. Actually, compared to its rivals, it has one of the smaller cargo areas. It passes the test, though.

Feedback from the backseat can be summed up by “uncomfortable” and “jittery”, and as a driver, I could agree with those adjectives. 

The chassis is indeed taut, ultimately delivering a harder ride than a tamed Corolla, for instance. 

The GR Corolla Circuit version is a purpose-built sports car with a penchant for spending more time at the apexes of corners than dawdling to the local corner store. 

The main difference between the Circuit edition and the Core edition is the addition of limited-slip differentials at the front and rear of the Circuit car. It is just that much more serious — as is the price, which is R60 000 higher.

It is there that all of the GR-infused engineering aptitude comes to the fore. For starters, that 1.6-litre, inline, three-pot turbocharged engine develops even more power than it does in the Yaris — some 23kW more. 

You can feel it as you rush through the slick, manual six-speed box. 

The GR Corolla is exclusively available in manual transmission, keeping you focused and engaged. 

The steering is excellent too. It is well-weighted and confident, a sign of how good the front end is.

The GR Corolla features Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel drive system with a torque distribution feature. 

From the cabin, you can decide how the power should be transferred. The options are 60:40, 50:50  or 30:70, with the first number marking the front and the latter number for the rear. 

The opportunity to engage with each setting is what blew my mind about the smart performance of this car. The torque distribution change alone allows you to exploit the chassis, the steering and the power delivery for hugely rewarding driving. 

The car has a depth of talent that will suit and excite most drivers and  there’s also a safety cushion in the way it handles the different modes, i.e., that 60:40 split exhibiting the least understeer. 

Note that it takes a lot to make the car wash out and that front-fitted Torsen LSD (limited slip differential) ably contracts the duration of the understeer when it does happen. 

This is a well-sorted vehicle that exhibits a kind of cup-car chassis bounce at the limit. It feels more Renault Megane R.S. 300 Trophy than Golf R, for instance. 

And then, to add to the joy of the drive, the front pews are well suited to keeping one’s body in check, while the iMT rev-matching on downshifts is pretty sweet as well, giving focus to the loud purr from the exhausts.

You might find the interior of the GR Corolla less spectacular than the drive itself and that is perhaps my only other small criticism of the car. 

On the one hand, it features all manner of technology and driving assistance, while presenting the current standard in in-car infotainment and expected features. 

A smart adaptive cruise control is present as part of Toyota’s latest Safety Sense suite. So, it’s not lacking in technology but rather in some interior appointments. 

Setting the GR apart from its less-skilled sibling are the GR badges, and the seating setup — and that’s pretty much it. I like it but some of our team and a few friends and colleagues wanted more.

At R902 400, welcome to a very worthy contender in the hot-hatch segment. It looks the part, with its stealthy stance and trio of exhausts that are, at the very least, uniquely designed.