Smithology: A little GR, a lot of BS


How do you solve a problem like Corolla? Call it the sound of three-pot music, after that Julie Andrews film. I am calling it G-Rolla. Partly to salute old hip-hop. What other nicknames exist, anyway? High ’rolla? Holy ’rolla? The only ’rolla you need?

The current Toyota Corolla is neat. Not fast, not even if you squint, but a hoot to huck around, as small cars once were. The downside is a 3000-pound curb weight and an engine that produces nearly 170 hp on a good day, not that you’d notice. Chihuahuas make more torque per ounce. Water climbs hills quicker. Clutch dumps off the line resemble not so much acceleration as falling forward into a headwind.

2023 GR Corolla Circuit Edition drift track

Enter our savior, our delight: The 300-horse, 3200-pound, factory-built GR Corolla, unveiled late last month. (GR for Gazoo Racing, a phrase whose history is both entertainingly Japanese and worth googling.) The stock Corolla’s 2.0-liter four is absent, replaced by a 1.6-liter turbo three. There is all-wheel drive with adjustable rear bias, and the base gearbox is a manual. On paper, this makes for one of the runtliest little aggro snotrockets this country has ever seen. Evidence also suggests the Toyota may be among the best of its species: a WRX that doesn’t hate its front tires, a Golf R that never forgot what it feels like to be young, a Focus RS not aimed solely at weightlifters who like sniffing their own armpits.

Apologies: That’s hyperbole. Sometimes, as my friend Bob Sorokanich says, ya man gets excited.

Two fun bits of news met the world last week: First, Toyota revealed the G-Rolla. Huzzah. Second, Bob was hired as editor-in-chief of Jalopnik. Double huzzah. I worked for that website, once, in the Wild West blogdays of the late 2000s. The site was then only a few years old, counterculture in spirit and whacked in voice but only lightly respected in the business. It has since grown into a 300-pound gorilla, with more than ten million monthly unique viewers and real industry clout.

The author (left), and Mr. Sorokanich, looking only moderately respectable. Eric Weiner

Bob should be a good fit. He and I worked together for much of my eight-year stint at Road & Track, a period in which I track-tested countless supercars and only once parked a Caterham Seven by the office printer for giggles. Bob is a good human, hailing from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and loud like a bomb. We once shared an off-track excursion in a Mercedes E63 wagon during a blinding thunderstorm. Later, during an evening work event, Bob helped me throw patio furniture into the pool of a Hampton Inn so we could clean out a bourbon bottle from homemade aqualoungers. We locked him in a Miata trunk once, for a video and larfs, as you do.

Not the sort of person who takes life too seriously, as it were.

Naturally, after the news broke, I texted him for thoughts on an unserious Toyota. Congrats, I said, and more important, is this Toyota not grand? Agreement seemed guaranteed.

The author’s Caterham, years back, awaiting a printout. Sam Smith

There was a beat. That little iPhone animation, where your contact is busy typing, for a bit too long.

“My opinion, he finally wrote, “is that Sam Smith is an angel cherub and everyone reading him should click on [COMPETING WEBSITE NAME REDACTED] starting Monday, April 11th.”

I laughed. Then I hooted into my phone keys, in protest.

“Sorry,” Bob sent back, “but I’m on vacation before the new job. Not thinking about cars this week.”

No one should be forced to work on vacation, I thought. Then I paused for moment before texting back and suggesting that he immediately make a large and obscenely strong cocktail while streaming The Wailin’ Jennys cover of “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” Because that is what I would have done, in that moment, were I on vacation and out of life’s normal. You want your friends to be happy.

“See,” he sent back, “this is a request I can get behind.”

And then I heard little from him for the rest of the day, which should tell you much about Bob.

Should you get behind the GR Corolla? There are good reasons not to, but I want one anyway.  We are well into the age of EVs and forced induction, where fast is a commodity, perpetually a software tweak away. Most new sport sedans are ferociously capable but a dead fish below max attack. Tire-melting power is everywhere, which means it is also nowhere. The hedonistic treadmill is real; curb weights have never been higher, and 400 hp is the new 150.

2023 GR Corolla Circuit Edition drift track

Counterpoint: Feedback and character in cars has never been more important. Nor do we talk enough about the importance of good bones. In the last three years, I’ve met three separate Corolla test cars and driven them around the country. The best of those was a manual-gearbox hatch tried near Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park and borrowed from Toyota’s marketing department. (The media fleet held no manuals, because media fleets hold what people buy, unless those people are me and like fun.) Hills were jumped four wheels up. Corners felt like the good kind of work. A rare transparency and fizz.

How nice it would be, I thought, if they took this surprisingly chipper little platform and tweaked it beyond reason?

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, fun power is just fun. The turbo three in the Corolla GR is a hot version of a triple built for another car. A few years back, Toyota’s competition department was prepping for the World Rally Championship. The best answer for this task, they felt, was a three-door hatch, footprint as small as possible, with forced induction and independent rear suspension.

The GR Yaris, in full comp trim, Yaris-ing up the place. Toyota

The WRC is a production-based series, so they needed a roadgoing version. Problem was, Toyota did not make a three-door hatch, much less with IRS. Someone suggested gluing the front of a four-door Yaris to the back of a Corolla. Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s car-mad CEO, shrugged and signed off. The world was thus gifted the 268-hp GR Yaris, a production car now beloved by everyone from its own creator to the gentleman farmer who built Evo.

Three-pots can be gruff little things. The odd cylinder count earns fun prizes from physics. Studying the forces at work will teach you terms like “rocking couple” and “primary moment,” but it will also serve as reminder that certain engine vibrations cannot be practically solved by traditional ideas like balance shafts and mass dampers. (Ford’s current I-3, the 1.0-liter Ecoboost, goes so far as to use an unbalanced flywheel and front pulley.) The upside is a compact and power-dense package, especially under modern engine management. Personality is a bonus, the exhaust note born of firing intervals every 120 crank degrees, same as a Porsche 911.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla G16E-GTS engine horsepower
Under that plastic, three puny pots of power. Toyota | Bill Leigh Brewer

The GR Yaris is not sold here, so seat time means a trip overseas. One British magazine described the car as “snargly” and “gargly.” A “big-lunged turbo,” they said, “huffing and puffing between gear changes.” A journalist friend who tried the Yaris in England called it a life-changing experience, sideways on demand. The larger, fatter G-Rolla is around 400 pounds heavier and 32 horses stronger. It also has a more spacious back seat, which is nice, as a Yaris is a tiny thing, and my kids are not Oompa-Loompas. The other spec-sheet highlights are pure throwback—fat front fenders plus overfender rear flares and available Torsen differentials. The latter means no computerized clutches, just a simple, traction-happy pair of gearsets. (Digital diffs are great in the right environment, but small cars work best basic.)

The WRC team did not need the GR Yaris for competition, it turned out, and they needed this car even less. No rational person would argue for its existence. In the apparent twilight of the internal-combustion engine, in the age of SUV bloat and two-pedal everything, we are thus gifted… a quick little joy buzzer of modest price and comp-sourced goofball heart?

And so a massive international conglomerate gathers itself and, after much consideration, builds a neon sign reading, “Sumisu-San, for you, a weird apart.”

2023 GR Corolla Circuit Edition interior dash cabin

Price has not been announced. The base Corolla hatch starts at $21,000; competitors like the WRX and Golf R are from 50 to 200 percent more. If we’re lucky, the Toyota will land somewhere in the thirties. Such are the finances of journalists and middle-class parents that I sit here wondering how many kidneys must be hocked to make that happen. Perhaps the draw is the whole point. The appreciation, even if you can’t swing one. A machine like this, in a time like this, from a source once of AE86 and turbo Supra but now mostly of Prius. As much a politically incorrect gift to the faithful as GT4 RS or CT5 Blackwing.

Cars of this nature typically burn short and die bright. They make little sense to accountants and product planners and gobs of sense if you lead purchase decisions with your spleen.

Questions abound. Where will the sticker price land? Have the Wailin’ Jennys covered that song from the Julie movie? Should I visit a part of this country where certain mind-altering compounds are legal, then use my altered state to justify poor financial moves while yelling incoherent wastegate noises across a desk to a deeply confused bank-loan officer who couldn’t spell Tommi Mäkinen if you pointed a loaded Disco Potato at his head?

In The Sound of Music, that song comes from a nun trying to suss someone. She doesn’t get why another character in the film won’t fit into a standard box.

Why are we always so worried about fitting into boxes?

She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee
Her dress has got a tear
She waltzes on her way to mass
And whistles on the stair
And underneath her wimple
She has curlers in her hair

She’s always late for everything
Except for every meal

I’d like to say a word in her behalf

Maria makes me laugh

Been too long since I’ve dumped a deck chair into a pool, and I’ve never pictured myself as the sort of person who buys a Toyota. Neither is something you do every day, but every so often, Japanese whimsy feels an awful lot like a blue morning. So you grab the ice and the glass, and you crack open that configurator, whistling and waltzing and never once thinking about bank loans, or consequences, or just what, precisely, the hotel staff is going to do to your bill the moment they find out.

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