REVIEW | Sporty Toyota GR Corolla revives the brand's performance roots
The Toyota Corolla has an accomplished reputation as a working-class hero. A high-volume stable in just about any global market you care to mention, with a presence cemented over decades.
But the Corolla also has a defined sporting streak, with performance-orientated derivatives that showcased the more exciting side of the mainstream model.
We spent three spirited days with the latest Gazoo Racing (GR) iteration of the Corolla and it prompted a trip down memory lane.
A good place to start when discussing hot Corolla history would be the fourth-generation E70 version, which was rear-wheel drive.
In 1983 the Liftback variant of the E70 was the canvas for a unique South African special development: the 1.8 SE TRD. The acronym stands for Toyota Racing Development and 300 units were produced for motorsport homologation in the local rally championship. Count yourself lucky if you see one in the flesh, set apart by its white-on-red livery, four-spoke alloys and aerodynamic skirtings.
Under the hood, the 1.8-litre motor was fettled to produce 86kW and 150Nm, an increase from the standard 58.5kW and 129Nm.
The fifth-generation E80 Corolla took on a front-wheel drive layout, except in the case of the two-door AE86 models, which were not sold in South Africa.
Though we missed out on the “Hachi-Roku” craze, we did get the legendary 4A-GE Twin Cam motor in the GLi versions of the Corolla sedan and Avante fastback.
Most would argue that the 1.6-litre, 16-valve four-cylinder was complemented best by Conquest body format. A reminder that the now-retired Conquest moniker applied to the hatchback iteration of the Corolla in our market.
In 1987 the Conquest RSi was released locally, powered by a fizzy 1.6-litre, four-cylinder good for 86kW and 136Nm. The sixth-generation, E90 Corolla took on a more rounded, streamlined appearance, possibly why it became known as the “Kentucky Rounder” in colloquial terms. Performance was still a major part of the evolution and the new Corolla Sprinter GLi and Conquest RSi gained a little more power.
The Twin Cam 16 unit now served up 87kW and 139Nm, a minor bump, but the overall package was far more refined. In its April 1989 appraisal, Car magazine described the Conquest RSi as the most “Mr Respectable” of the hot-hatch brigade.
Edging towards the new millennium, Toyota put the E90 generation to pasture and in our market it was succeeded by the E110, sold here in sedan guise.
The potent Corolla RSi saw the return of the proven 4A-GE power source, but the updated 20-valve motor was massaged to deliver 115kW and 150Nm. Joining the RSi was the RXi, offering a bit more in the way of amenities, but mechanically identical.
Toyota has a low-mileage, museum-quality example of the Corolla RSi in its heritage fleet, which it allowed us to drive some time ago. Even by modern standards, it is an impressively sporting instrument, with its 9,000rpm tachometer, short-throw, six-speed manual and crisp handling characteristics.
With the ninth-generation E120 Corolla, the breed took on a more grown-up, sophisticated persona. Gone was the Twin Cam 16 motor at the top of the range, with the 180i GSX as the flagship of the Corolla range. The same 1ZZ-FE unit was to be found in the RunX RSi, but in a superior state of tune. Incorporating variable-valve timing with lift, the engine had a claimed output of 141kW and 180Nm, linked to a six-speed manual, sending power to the front wheels.
Most agree that it offered a rewarding drive, though it never achieved the mystique of the 4A-GE-powered Corolla RSi.
With the 10th and 11th generations of Corolla, the E140 and E160 seemed to have forgotten about the more performance-orientated driver.
The hatchback variant of the Corolla now went under the Auris moniker, and there was a TRD version of the first-generation model, but it was met with a cold reception. The 2011 Auris TRD was a locally developed offering based on the 1.6-litre derivative, armed with a supercharger, producing 132kW and 202Nm.
Now here we are with the 12th-generation (E210) Corolla, which came to the country in 2020. For the first time, Toyota applied the Corolla title to the hatchback derivative too. With its edgy styling and premium-style cabin, the latest is an appealing prospect.
Testing the 1.2-litre turbocharged hatchback years ago, with its bucket seats and sprightly performance, we salivated at the prospect of a high-performance version. And that prospect was finally realised when the brand's GR division worked its magic.
By now we are all familiar with the fiery GR Yaris, a product that has garnered unanimous acclaim, with a well-stocked trophy cabinet.
Like the GR Yaris, the GR Corolla employs a 1.6-litre, turbocharged, three-cylinder unit. Sounds diminutive on paper, but it feels quite different in reality. The engine has deep lungs, with a 7,000rpm redline, producing 221kW and 370Nm — 23kW and 10Nm more than the Yaris.
Between the two front seats you will find a good old-fashioned manual gear lever with six-forward ratios dispatched through short throws. Now the GR Corolla might not be able to sprint from standstill to 100km/h as quickly as a Volkswagen Golf R, with its dual-clutch automatic transmission, but for those who enjoy being an active part of the driving process, that will not matter.
While the Volkswagen is fast but forgettable, the GR Corolla feels alive and is a truly exhilarating way of connecting distances. In addition to the manual gearbox and traditional handbrake, drivers can also select their preferred torque split, from the 50:50 default to 60:40, and 70:30 for real thrills.
Press the dynamic stability control button once to engage Expert mode. In this configuration, the GR Corolla is playful, but not lairy. At higher cornering speeds, grip from the four-wheel drive system is tenacious, but provoking sideways action is not impossible.
For R61,400 over the cost of the standard Core model (R841,000), the Circuit version includes a Torsen limited-slip differential, head-up display, leather-on-suede upholstery and carbon-fibre replacement plastic (CFRP) roof. Well worth the outlay in our book.
There is no shortage of options in the hot-hatchback arena in 2023, but few others can claim to be as uncompromisingly driver-orientated as the GR Corolla.
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