The Toyota GR Corolla debuted in Japan today, but the event was perhaps imbued with a different meaning than the US launch. Turns out, it’s the culmination of a years-long effort by company President Akio Toyoda to make the Corolla interesting again. “Because it is a beloved car by so many people,” Toyoda said, “I don’t want it to become a commodity.”
It’s quite a different spiel than what we got. Basically, it was implied that Toyota was throwing Americans a bone with the 300-horsepower hot hatch because we couldn’t get the GR Yaris. Apparently, that wasn’t the whole story.
Akio Toyoda seems to have a special place in his heart for the Toyota Corolla. He is the grandson to Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corp., and probably could have had any car he wanted. But the first car he ever bought with his own money was a KE70 Corolla. The cynical among us may think this is some kind of marketing spin, but the man truly does appear to be fond of Corollas. Back in 2015, in an extremely rare public appearance at Cars & Coffee Tokyo, Toyoda-san immediately gravitated to a TE27 Trueno. The immensely lucky owner was so shocked that the president of Toyota was admiring his car, he behaved as if he was being visited by the Pope.
The Corolla might have a reputation for being a reliable but boring A-to-B car in America, but it enjoys quite a bit more enthusiast cred in Japan. For almost its entire life, Toyota sold some sort of performance variant alongside the commuter specials. There were six generations of Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno twins, lasting all the way up to the year 2000. By contrast, we only got two, the AE86 and AE92, as GT-S trims.
Enthusiasts in Japan are far more familiar with the Corolla’s motorsports history as well. The Japanese press release references early racing victories earned long before the Corolla developed a rap as a grocery getter. Ironically, the Corolla’s very first WRC win happened right here on US soil, at the 1973 Press-on-Regardless Rally in Michigan. The event was actually a World Championship round, albeit briefly from 1973-74. Better known was the TE27’s victory at the 1975 running of the 1,000 Lakes Rally, today known as Rally Finland.
The materials don’t even mention the colossal influence the AE86 has had. What they do show is a determined Akio Toyoda trying to shift public perception of the Toyota brand taking the helm as president in 2009. For years, he raced under a fake name, Morizo, as he honed his skills. It’s also why the special edition GR Corolla Morizo Edition revealed Wednesday has had its rear seats, rear door speakers, rear window regulators, and rear wiper removed.
An accompanying video shows Toyoda himself leading development of the GR Corolla’s driving dynamics. It offers glimpses of prototypes undergoing scrutiny and critique — too much understeer, not sporty enough, not as exciting as the GR Yaris — and a test mule drifting into a snow wall. It’s a rare peek behind the curtain of manufacturing perfection that Toyota usually likes to display publicly.
Finally, a Morizo-approved level of fun is reached. Akio Toyoda went into the job at a time when Toyota had almost nothing to offer enthusiasts. It’s taken him over a decade, making risky bets with Subaru and BMW collabs along the way. We will have to wait until the driving impressions are in, but for now it would seem Toyoda-san has finally reached his goal.