Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan / Toyota Canada
Published: November 14, 2022
VANCOUVER ISLAND MOTORSPORT CIRCUIT - To the majority of today’s car buyers, the Toyota brand has never been synonymous with being sporty or performance focused. Instead, the words reliable, dependable, and perhaps even boring or beige might come to mind. Yet, that couldn’t be further from the actual truth. Toyota has a rich pedigree in motorsport stretching back decades, and are currently the reigning champions at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. Be that as it may, Toyota has hardly marketed their victories in Canada, nor even boast a product lineup that lives up to the hype or cult status that the GR010 Hybrid commands or deserves. That’s about to change.
GR stands for Gazoo Racing, and is the performance arm of Toyota. Think of it like what M is to BMW, or AMG to Mercedes. The GR Supra was the vanguard in North America, resurrecting the legendary moniker to bring Toyota back into the performance fold. A manual gearbox was missing at launch but Toyota heeded the call and now offers one. The GR86 was next, an updated version of the 86 that instilled pure driving performance and engagement into a lightweight, affordable, rear-wheel drive package. The GR Yaris followed shortly after, launching with much fanfare overseas but remains forbidden fruit here in Canada.
What we do get is this, the GR Corolla, the latest hot hatchback to come from Japan, and it seems to have the skills and prerequisities to flatter. Like the GR Yaris, it utilizes a 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine (G16E-GTS) that punches out a healthy 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual runs the show, along with an all-wheel drive system, 235/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, front and rear Torsen limited slip differentials, and driving modes that let you shift the torque distribution between the axles from 60:40 to 50:50 or 30:70 to the rear.
The GR version receives a mega-looking body kit that clearly differentiates it from the regular Corolla, a rear spoiler, triple exhaust tips, and three trims to choose from: Core ($45,490), Circuit ($53,990), and a special Morizo Edition ($59,990) that offers a re-tuned engine with 22 lb-ft more torque, a close-ratio gearbox, lightweighting that deletes the rear seats, and Michelin Cup 2 tires, though it’s limited to 200 units globally with only 10 allocated to Canada.
To see what GR is really all about, Toyota brought us to the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit, a 2.3-kilometre track with 19 winding corners, wild elevation changes, and a mini Laguna Seca-like downhill corkscrew that tests the size of your cojones and rewards accurate car placement.
Snow isn’t normal in Victoria this early in November, and as we set off in the GR Corolla for a few morning reconaissance laps, track grip was low, wet patches were everywhere, and the tires were cold and far from their ideal operating window, yet the GR Corolla inspired confidence and flowed with front-end grip the moment we set off from the pitlane, the three-cylinder buzzing along like it’s got something to prove - it actually sounds like a mini-motorsport car from the driver’s seat with the piped-in cabin noise, though not as audibly appealing from the outside even with the distinctive turbocharged whooshes and pops. Think of it like a rowdier, more raw MINI Cooper S.
The steering offers superb clarity with consistent weight and response, and you don’t have to be as measured with your initial inputs as the GR86. The gear shifter is satisfying to operate, and one of the best this side of a Honda Civic Si and Type R, with travel that’s long enough to feel meaningful when you punch it into the gate, yet it does not exhibit any notichiness or ambiguity when rowing between them. The clutch pedal travel is longer than I prefer, with a higher bite point than the GR86 which took some adjusting, but the pedals are perfectly positioned for heel and toe shifting. The GR Corolla does come equipped with automatic rev matching but that can be disabled when switching it to Sport Mode.
The GR Corolla feels right at home on this technical track with blind corners and sweeping high-speed right-handers. And as the day moved on, the sun finally peeked above the treelines and the track quickly dried up. The more we drove, the more grip became available, and we diligently picked up the pace. Finally, we could see what the GR Corolla was capable of.
The Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires came up to temperature and the mechanical grip limits were high yet ridiculously forgiving when you end up overdriving the car and add to much steering or throttle input, as it enjoys playing on the fringes of grip and tire limits. Despite its pedestrian packaging and humble roots, we can immediately tell that this was a passion project clearly and meticulously crafted for drivers who prize handling and have engaging, winding roads to explore in their backyard.
The ability to alter the torque distribution for a 30/70 rear bias means you can rotate the GR Corolla with the throttle instead of the brakes like a rear-driven car. The brakes are more effective mid-corner in getting the front end pointed towards the apex, but it’s just so neutral and balanced that you can simply play by your own rules.
The power delivery is something we expect from a four-cylinder, not a three-pot. Punching well above its weight, there are heaps of mid-range muscle, so you can make outrageous progress down the circuit’s long straight as long as you keep the RPMs in the sweet spot of 3,000 - 5,000 rpm. The seats keep you snug and supported during high lateral loads, and there’s even enough headroom to wiggle about with helmets on. A graceful performer with a distinct rally-like personality, the GR Corolla is one of the most engaging, thrilling, and downright fun track cars we’ve had the pleasure of piloting.
The GR86 was next, and is a sports car we’re quite familiar with. It’s the purest one here in terms of handling and driver feel, though not as forgiving as the AWD Corolla if you are too overzealous with inputs. But once you get in the flow, everything feels so right, from the unfiltered steering rack to the beautifully balanced chassis and the eager, 228-hp 2.4-litre four-cylinder free from forced induction. It’s one of our favourite sports cars of 2022, and flogging it around 19 brisky corners only solidified our respect and gratitude that a RWD car like this still exists in this day and age.
And then there was the GR Supra, the revamped cult classic that is finally available with a stick shift. The manual gearbox is only available with the 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six but it’s a beautiful marriage. The BMW-sourced engine is a rev-happy, silky smooth, torque-filled monster that has always been begging for a gearbox like this. With total control from both feet, you can utilize the Supra how you want it. Yes, it’s three-tenths of a second slower from 0-100 km/h than the automatic (4.4 sec vs. 4.1), but the added engagement and driver reward is ten-fold.
But unlike the GR Corolla and GR86, the Supra feels almost too big and lofty for this serpentine track, a tad bit unwieldy and it needs more time to settle down before being rotated. It’s a Japanese muscle car that preys on circuits with long straights that can fully utilize every one of its 382 horses but not here. In isolation, the Supra is an objectively impressive product but it feels like a grand tourer in this company.
That said, the gear shifter is perfectly positioned within arm’s reach and is out of the way of the two cupholders by the elbow, but the shifter action is the weakest in the group. The short-throw travel is satisfying but notchy - navigating from second to third gear is like attempting to thread a needle through a tiny loop, not something you want to do under heavy braking from high speeds. The gate tolerance is narrow, and we found it easier to slip it into neutral and letting the shifter settle before aggressively shoving it up north into third, adding a precious few milliseconds to the shift time. On the bright side, we were happy to leave the Supra in third gear for most of the lap and let the torque do the talking. As far as track use is concerned, the manual Supra is still a delight and delivers a better sense of occasion than the 8-speed automatic. Elsewhere, we would have also preferred better bolstered seats to keep us from sliding about, and the ability to lower the seats further to keep our helmets from nudging right into the headliner.
Finally realizing the potential and appetite of the Canadian market for sports cars, Toyota GR has delivered an impressive trio to highlight their rich motorsport pedigree and have instilled their handling voodoo into each one of them. The GR86 is a pure distillation of driving pleasure into an affordable package, the GR Supra is a power-hungry weapon that eats up long straights and is comfortable enough to tolerate them, and the GR Corolla, well, is the most entertaining car that we’ve ever driven with a Toyota badge, housing a thick layer of track capability that covers all the right bases and strikes all the right notes. No wonder why there’s such a fever surrounding it.