The words “homologation special” will instantly put a sparkle in any gearhead’s eyes. Simply put, a homologation special is a road-legal vehicle built for the sole purpose of meeting the regulations of a motorsports series an automaker wishes to compete in. Think instant legends like the Ferrari 288 GTO, Ford RS500 Cosworth, and the original E30-generation BMW M3, etc. It’s been a while since the world has seen a new one, but in 2020, Toyota and their Gazoo Racing division wanted to make a comeback to the World Rally Championship series. And so, the GR Yaris — the hot hatch that inspired the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition — was born.
As is often the case, these motorsport specials aren’t usually sold in North America, although the GR Yaris did make its way to the Mexico. Lucky for us, Toyota hatched a plan for the ultimate consolation prize — drop the GR Yaris’ drivetrain into a highly modified Corolla hatch, turn up the boost, and stiffen the underpinnings with a plethora of spot welds and structural adhesive. We’re talking about a full-on Gazoo Racing build, signed off by Toyota president Akio Toyoda — or Morizo, the pseudonym he races under. The GR Corolla so special that it’s built in Toyota’s famous Motomachi plant in Japan, like the legendary Toyota Supra and Lexus LFA of the past, and right alongside the GR Yaris and Lexus LC 500 of today.
Arguably the most hyped car announcement of 2022, the GR Corolla took the internet by storm. Everyone immediately threw their name down on a reservation list, even before pricing and availability were announced. Seventeen months later, the excitement has dropped somewhat, mostly due to Toyota’s inability to deliver the vehicles in a timely fashion. With allocations just now being delivered, we jumped at the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the Circuit Edition — the mid- or top-spec trim, depending on whether or not you count the ultra-limited Morizo Edition — to see if the GR Corolla has been worth the wait.
So, what’s all the hubbub about a Toyota Corolla in the first place? Well, just look at it. The GR Corolla looks like the hottest of hatches with its wild aero, wide stance, and triple exhaust tips. Toyota went all out designing the GR Corolla, giving it bespoke wide front and rear bumpers, vented wide front fenders, and aggressive side skirts proudly adorned with the GR-FOUR logo.
The Circuit edition adds all the exterior goodies that enthusiasts crave — a bulging hood with functional vents, a beautiful matte-finish carbon fibre roof, and a big spoiler out back. Gloss black 18-inch wheels wrapped in sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires expose big GR-branded red brake calipers. Finished in the Circuit-exclusive Heavy Metal paint job, it’s hard to take in the Circuit edition’s aesthetics and not think the base Core is missing some key bits.
However, it may not be as simple as more equals better. Toyota took things to the next level with the basically unobtainable Morizo edition, said to be the most “track-focused” of them all. With a name like Circuit, you’d think this one is pretty track-focused as well, but for the Morizo, Toyota’s top engineers have deleted the rear spoiler and opened up the front bumper vents that are closed off on the Core and Circuit, due to the aerodynamic impact of the rear spoiler. Hmmm.
Mechanically, the GR Corolla Circuit is basically identical to the Core, and as such, they pretty much drive the same. That’s no slight, as equipped with the beast of a 1.6L turbocharged three-cylinder engine, Toyota’s adjustable all wheel drive system, and front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials, both are absolute weapons.
Press the start button and the exhaust booms. Everything under 2,000 rpm puts out this unbelievable bass; it’s actually a touch too intrusive for my taste, but I’ll give it a pass for all the fun noises the GR Corolla makes on the boil. Tuners who like to tinker should be extra cautious about modifying the exhaust, as things could get too rowdy in a hurry.
Under acceleration, the 300 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque on tap feels every bit as strong as the all-wheel-drive, turbocharged, and sometimes Boxer-engined hot hatches of the past, but achieves fuel economy those other cars couldn’t even dream of. Rated at 11.1 L/100 km city, 8.3 highway, and 9.8 combined, I averaged 9.9 L/100 km in my week of commuting and backroad hooning.
The drivetrain isn’t perfect, though. The mechanical shift linkage is a joy to use with satisfying shift action. Between this and the two other manual Toyota GR cars — the 86 and Supra — the Corolla is easily my favourite, but the gears are so tall you hardly need to shift. I can see why Toyota fitted a close-ratio gearbox to the Morizo. Hopefully this gearset becomes available for the other GR Corolla models.
Also disappointing is that the GR Corolla won’t allow you to left-foot-brake; stomping on the gas and feathering the brake at the same time will cut throttle, instead of building boost to power you out of a bend. Hopefully tuners will find a way to circumvent this through software tuning. At least Toyota fitted the car with a physical handbrake, so you can still lock up the rear to help rotate out of a tight corner.
The GR Corolla has some pretty fancy technology, as you might expect from a homologated drivetrain. The electronic centre differential has three modes to vary torque split front/rear — Front (60/40), Rear (30/70) and Track (50/50). These modes make an immediate difference to the way the car handles, and can be changed as quick as you can turn the dial. Also of note is the auto rev-matching system, which works flawlessly if you are too busy to heel-and-toe for yourself.
Suspension tuning is fairly stiff, just on the right side of being acceptable for daily driving unlike the overly stiff 86 and Supra. The deceptively long wheelbase is actually the longest among the three GR cars, so while the Corolla inherently stable, it also makes for a poor turning radius at low speeds. Fortunately, the quick steering rack and differentials work their magic when hustling at speed, making the GR Corolla feel quite nimble.
By far the biggest letdown to the entire package is the interior. That enormous wedge of a plastic dash might be acceptable in the $30,000 Corolla Hybrid, but on a near-$60,000 car, it’s a tough pill to swallow. The Circuit does its best to spruce up the space with the inky black, suede-like sport seats and the upgraded JBL audio system. You also get a heated steering wheel, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, and a wireless phone charger, things we sorely missed on the Core. The shift knob bearing Morizo’s signature is undeniably cool, but Morizo himself must’ve driven this car with racing gloves on and missed the sharp edge on top of the knob, which can make it literally painful to use. I was also disappointed that the cool-looking, rally-style gear indicator wasn’t hooked up to a neutral position switch and only worked at speed, otherwise leaving a blank space in the gauge cluster. The cargo hold also feels pretty small for a hatchback, but when it comes to daily driving duties, the Corolla is still miles ahead of the other GR cars.
After driving both the Core and Circuit models, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over getting your hands on a Circuit over the Core. The carbon roof is certainly a very nice piece, but dynamically, the cars are virtually identical, at least in Canada. The Core starts at $48,600, whereas our Circuit tester — limited to 181 units — tops out at $57,355 as-tested, with the extra $255 going to the colour. You could take the $8,500 difference between the two and spend it on upgrading the Core. Plus, given how fun-to-drive and capable the GR Corolla is, the aftermarket support for the platform should explode. To me, the Circuit hood is a must have item and it’s surprisingly inexpensive, considering its massive visual impact and functional improvement.
So, to sum up, was Akio Toyoda’s swang song as president worth the wait? If you can get your hands on one, absolutely. Cars like this just don’t come around often. You can pretty much do anything in the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition — take it to the track, tackle a gravel backroad, and drive it to work and pick up groceries on the way home — no matter what the forecast says. Toyota announced the GR Corolla Core and Circuit will be back for 2024, but beyond that, how long they’ll stick around is anyone’s guess. Better get your name on the waitlist before it’s too late.