Like many of you, I am eagerly anticipating the GR Corolla’s Thursday reveal, mainly because it’s the closest we’re going to get to the GR Yaris in much of North America. (I say “much of” because you could, in fact, buy a GR Yaris in Mexico.) I’d rather have the Yaris, as it’s a bona fide homologation special; nevertheless, the Corolla will repurpose the Yaris’ drivetrain in a bigger package, quite possibly with more power. That’s still a pretty solid consolation prize.
The GR Corolla has also been a long time coming, too. Sure, “Corolla” might be a byword for efficient, unassuming transportation across much of the world, but it also owns a sporting history we’ve all taken for granted. And I’m not even talking about the AE86’s tenure in drifting and touring car racing.
In the late ’90s, Toyota campaigned a Corolla in the World Rally Championship to replace the aging, cheating Celica ST205. The team won the manufacturer’s title in 1999, with Carlos Sainz (Senior) at the wheel of the lead car. Sainz would’ve won the driver’s title in a Corolla the year prior too, if not for one of the most infamous, unexpected upsets in motorsport history. One not terribly unlike Toyota’s 2016 Le Mans meltdown, ironically.
Anyway, that bug-eyed, bulldog-faced Corolla familiar on WRC stages is very unfamiliar to us Americans. The Corolla was one of those nameplates that belonged to vastly different cars in each of the territories in which it was sold, much like its closest rival, the Civic. When Toyota rallied the Celica, it sold a homologation special model of sorts in Europe and Asia — the Celica GT-Four. But when it campaigned the Corolla, no such vehicle existed for public consumption. The closest it came was the G6 series of the Corolla three-door hatch, and the limited-edition G6R and G6S.
The Corolla G6 wasn’t a hot hatch by any stretch, with just 106 horsepower from Toyota’s 1.6-liter 4A-FE inline-four. However, with a six-speed manual it was the most fun Corolla you could buy at that time and in that body style, in Europe. A spicier looking version — emphasis on “looking” — named the G6R reached a few countries, in limited quantities in late ’98. The G6R added larger alloys, side skirts, stabilizer bars, disc brakes at all corners and a lighter hood made from aluminum. It resembled the rally car a little more in appearance, but still was worlds apart in performance.
Germany and Germany alone got the best flavor of the E110 Corolla — the G6S. This was essentially a G6R with all of Toyota’s own dealer cosmetic and performance options equipped, like a more prominent spoiler and front bumper along with a Remus exhaust, per Car Throttle. It also wore a Toyota Team Europe badge, evoking the Corolla WRC, and rode on a set of the brand’s stunning 17-inch Grandstand rims.
Again, make no mistake — these were still relatively tame, lightly-tuned versions of front-wheel-drive econoboxes, unlike the Celica GT-Four, the GR Yaris or the GR Corolla. There was never a road version of the European E110 Corolla that was any closer in spirit to its rallying counterpart, like the Impreza WRX STI or the Lancer Evolution. That’s because with the transition from the Group A regulations of the early-to-mid ’90s into the World Rally Car era right before the turn of the century, manufacturers didn’t have to offer homologation specials to the public anymore, so pretty much all of them stopped. This block of text from Wikipedia explains it well:
The base model did not need to have all the characteristics of the WRC car, as evidenced from cars such the Peugeot 206, 307, Citroën Xsara, and Škoda Fabia, which during this period had no road car variant with a turbocharged petrol engine or four-wheel-drive. One of the requirements was a minimum length of 4000 mm; the standard Peugeot 206 had an overall length of 3835 mm so Peugeot had to produce at least 2500 units featuring extended bumpers to comply with the required dimensions.
All this is to say we never got that Corolla that really honored the nameplate’s rallying legacy — until now. The GR Corolla is bringing out the all-terrain potential that was always inside Toyota’s sleeper compact, and it’s about damn time.