Toyota's first true hot hatch for the US is everything we'd hoped it'd be, and then some.

Third time’s the charm. The first “sporty” 12th-generation Toyota Corolla put a six-speed manual transmission in an otherwise pedestrian hatchback. The next one, the Corolla Apex, was basically a standard Corolla sedan that was stiffened to the point of annoyance. But now, we have a truly sporty Corolla that’s primed to do battle with the likes of the Honda Civic Type R and the Volkswagen Golf R. The 2023 GR Corolla is the hot hatch we’ve been waiting for.

From the first press of the start button, it’s obvious the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla isn’t your average grocery-getter. Its three-cylinder engine barks to life before settling into a surprisingly aggressive grumble at idle. As I sit in the pit lane at Utah Motorsports Campus, waiting for my turn on the track, I move the shift lever into the first-gear gate — a nice, precise snick — and as I receive the thumbs-up, I ease off the nicely weighted clutch pedal until I reach its well-defined bite point, and then it’s off to the races.

The GR Corolla’s specs make it obvious that this five-door ‘Rolla is ready to rumble. A 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-3 engine produces 300 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, although in the super-hot Morizo variant, an extra pound of boost bumps the torque figure up to 295. That motive force gets sent to all four wheels through a standard six-speed manual transmission, with an estimated 0-to-60-mph time of less than 5 seconds.

This car is more than just a standard family car with a peppier engine. The GR Corolla’s non-adaptive suspension is engineered specifically for more exciting driving, with the Morizo taking it one step further by way of stiffer spring rates. The body has 349 more spot welds and several additional feet of structural adhesive to boost rigidity, as well as additional bracing in the underfloor tunnel and rear wheelhouse. A set of 14-inch front brakes fill the space between the alloy wheels and the hub, and there’s a set of 11.7-inch rotors out back.

Does your Corolla have a G-meter built in? Toyota

The steering is nicely responsive as I press hard on the middle pedal and dive into the first corner, and I’m met with a surprising amount of braking force. Mid-corner, there is some obvious weight shift and subsequent leaning from the suspension, but it helps communicate the vehicle’s limits, and more importantly, it should make for a decently comfortable ride on regular roads. Even in its most aggressive setting, the GR Corolla’s throttle is plenty easy to manipulate, letting me dial in the right amount of gas for exiting corners, as the I3 shouts its way up the revs.

It only takes a couple turns for me to notice just how impressively balanced the GR Corolla is in its base Core trim. Even if I ham-fist it with improperly timed corner entries and get on the gas far too early, there’s no shaking this hatchback’s composure. Admittedly, some of that comes down to the sheer mechanical grip provided by the standard Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer tires, a not-uncommon sight on six-figure sports cars. Short of purposefully attempting to unsettle the car and induce yaw by throwing the wheel and punching the accelerator while the drivetrain is configured for a 70% rear torque split, it’s dummy simple to enter a corner and come out the other side totally unscathed. The 30/70 setting on the center console’s drivetrain dial is definitely fun, but I feel it’s best left in 50/50 when trying to squeak out better and better lap times.

The GR Corolla is happiest on the track, but curvy backroads will certainly keep piling on the smiles, too. Toyota

Considering how much fun the GR Corolla’s base Core variant is, I’m a bit surprised that the more hardcore Morizo model doesn’t really change the car’s character. Sure, it looks the absolute business, with no rear seats and a forged carbon roof, but it doesn’t really feel much livelier than the standard GR Corolla. The most obvious change is the six-speed manual’s shorter gearing, which I do enjoy on track since it has me shifting more often, but the extra 20 pound-feet of torque isn’t really front and center. Perhaps if both cars were wearing the same tires, the Morizo may feel squirmier and sharper-edged, but standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track-day tires provide an almost unfair amount of grip.

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The GR Corolla’s standard six-speed manual transmission is pleasant to wield. Throws are a little longer than what I find on, say, the manual Toyota Supra, but hustling between gates remains a satisfying experience. Automatic rev-matching downshifts are onboard. I do find my footwork outpacing the rev-matching system at times, with my left foot reaching the bite point before the Corolla’s computers blip the throttle to the correct spot on the tach, but fleet-footed track drivers will be happy to know the system can be turned off.

The GR Corolla’s shifter is so nice, you may find yourself shifting more often than needed, just for fun’s sake. Toyota

Inside, it’s still obvious that I’m inside a Corolla, but the GR models pick up some cool additions. There’s a proper mechanical handbrake for whatever antics your hooligan mind can whip up, and it rests next to a dial that only exists to change the vehicle’s per-axle torque distribution — 60/40, 50/50 and 30/70 front-rear splits are just a twist away. The base Core gets black and silver interior details, with the Circuit trim adding some red elements, while swapping the fabric seats for combination suede-and-leather ones. The Morizo takes it a step further with leather-trimmed seats, brighter trim detailing, a 12 o’clock red stripe on the steering wheel and a rear-seat delete. Since the Morizo only seats two, the rear window regulators were also removed to save a bit more weight, adding a blank panel where those window switches usually reside.

Of course, this is still a Toyota Corolla, so there’s plenty of livability in the new GR models. Automatic climate control is included, as is a keyless ignition, two USB-C charging ports, and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with over-the-air updates, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless device charging, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel are standard on Circuit and Morizo specs, and they’re optional on the Core. Every GR Corolla also includes a host of safety systems, including forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and blind-spot monitoring.

The GR Corolla’s cabin may have some sporty elements, but the basic formula is still mass-market practicality at its finest. Toyota

These days, automakers are often guilty of slapping all sorts of faux aerodynamics on a car’s body to give it a more aggressive look. The GR Corolla is definitely wilder than its pedestrian siblings, but it’s mostly in the name of performance. The honkin’ fender flares, which don’t look as tacked-on in real life as they do in Toyota’s debut press photos, help cover the car’s wider performance tires. The air ducts are functional, and on the Morizo and limited-edition Circuit variants, the brake ducts are too. Those models also pick up a forged carbon roof.

While we have yet to drive the new Type R, I think Honda should be paying plenty of attention to the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla. It provides a more interesting experience than the VW Golf R, with a much lower starting price and standard kit the VW doesn’t offer. The GR Corolla is an impressive hot hatch in the places it matters most, and it’s exciting to see Toyota finally take its place at this table.

Editors’ note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET’s staff are our own, and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Keyword: 2023 Toyota GR Corolla First Drive Review: Impressively Balanced

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