Toyota GR Corolla GTS vs Cupra Leon VZx vs Subaru WRX RS comparison review

We had GR-eat expectations for Toyota's hottest Corolla, but how does it stack up against a European upstart and the latest in a long line of rally-bred royalty?

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Group Thomas Wielecki 9

Things we like

  • GR Corolla: Drivetrain, driving position, ride & handling, brakes
  • Leon VZx: Packaging and quality, acceleration, handling, brakes
  • WRX RS: Visibility, grip, handling, space, drivetrain refinement

Not so much

  • GR Corolla: Small boot and back seat, infotainment, road noise
  • Leon VZx: engine note, patchy infotainment, no manual, ride quality abrasive at times
  • WRX RS: Steering, throttle, storage, ride, brake feel and response

With widespread electrification making its inexorable advance, it’s a brave move on Toyota’s behalf – and perhaps a long-overdue one – to finally introduce a high-performance variant of its big-selling Corolla so late in proceedings.

We’ve now had two decades’ worth of Volkswagen Golf R variants, a bunch of Honda Civic Type-Rs and a barrage of other high-quality hot hatches, yet the ‘Gazoo Racing’ GR Corolla GTS is the first genuine attempt by Toyota at a red-hot ’Rolla since … um, the Celica-engined Corolla Sportivo in Australia (2002-06) and the Corolla-based, V6-engined Blade Master in Japan (2007-12).

Yet Toyota’s loyal fanbase has remained ever-faithful – scrambling to acquire every build allocation of GR product the world over, starting with the GR Yaris in 2020 and now continuing with the new GR Corolla.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Hatch 1

Developed mostly to satisfy the North American market (which doesn’t see the Yaris version), the hairiest Corolla carries over much of its baby brother’s hardware and performance focus – including being six-speed-manual-only – blended into a more refined package … though as we shall see, the highly focused GR Corolla is more incidentally liveable rather than deliberately cushy.

Australia and New Zealand are among a handful of markets to receive both GR Yaris and GR Corolla models, with Toyota Oz managing to secure 700 examples of the five-seat GR Corolla GTS ($62,300) over the next 12 months – officially on sale from the first week of March – and 25 examples of the more hardcore two-seat Morizo Edition ($77,800) arriving later in 2023. Both before on-road costs.

By virtue of its similar focus, performance, AWD handling flavour and pricing, the fiercest rival to the GR Corolla is clearly the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R ($66,990 before on-road costs), though VW Australia is currently not taking orders until our MY23 production resumes during the second quarter.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla Hatch Red Thomas Wielecki 26

So as a substitute, we headed leftfield for the GR Corolla’s first comparo and opted for the Golf’s arguably cooler Spanish cousin, the Cupra Leon VZx ($59,990 before on-road costs). It’s the top variant in the Leon hatch line-up, complete with a GR Corolla-matching 221kW, though sent to its front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

To keep the manual-only AWD GR Corolla honest, we’ve included Subaru’s new-generation WRX AWD sedan in RS manual form. While the purist’s WRX seems curiously positioned in the line-up – lacking the excellent adaptive dampers and multi-adjustable drive modes of the CVT-equipped WRX tS flagship, as well as its smattering of STi-branded kit – it does possess one major advantage, and that’s price.

At $50,490 before on-road costs, the firmly suspended WRX RS manual seems almost cheap compared to its Toyota, Volkswagen and Cupra competitors, though is that pricing coup alluding to something missing from its repertoire?

2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Blue Sedan 15

In performance terms, the Subaru feels strong in isolation but does concede a degree of animalistic intent to the GR Corolla and Leon VZx. On paper, its 2.4-litre turbo-petrol flat-four punches out a solid 202kW at 5600rpm and an accessible 350Nm from 2000-5200rpm, though you don’t need to be Alan Turing to decipher that reduced outputs from greater engine capacity equal a significantly lower state of tune.

The WRX deploys its all-wheel-drive purchase and tight-ish gearing to nail 0-100km/h in a respectable 6.0sec, yet the Subaru’s drivetrain is more about effortless torque and silken refinement than genuine thrills. The FA24 engine has a likeable flat-four sweetness about it, though it doesn’t really have any induction sound, or any exhaust note to speak of – at least from inside the cabin.

And while its tractability is admirable, it doesn’t have the bite that performance drivers would like it to have. It’s all very soft-edged – especially the RS manual’s throttle response (it doesn’t offer the ‘SI-Drive’ throttle-sensitivity tuning of the CVT versions), even at 4500rpm or higher.

2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Blue Sedan 17

The GR Corolla offers a completely different flavour.

Like the WRX, it needs 2000rpm showing to start boosting, and 2500rpm to really start hauling, yet from there, its muscularity simply grows and grows.

It has the sensation of power, performance bandwidth and sharpness of throttle response that elude the softer Subaru, as well as the headroom to explore its peachy, thrummy three-cylinder ripeness right to 7200-7300rpm, despite its urgency starting to fade beyond six-five. Yet what makes this engine such a delight is that it blends this addictive personality with a classy level of refinement. A vibey three-pot this most certainly is not.

While the GR Corolla’s 1618cc turbo-triple is clearly the same unit as the GR Yaris, Toyota has lifted power by 21kW (to 221kW at 6500rpm) and expanded its 370Nm torque spread from 3000-5550rpm (instead of 3000-4600rpm) via a triple-exit exhaust with reduced back pressure, reinforced pistons and exhaust valves, and increased capacity for the direct-injection fuel pump and engine oil cooler.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Hatch 10

That said, with overall weight increased by around 200kg, the GR Corolla’s claimed 0-100km/h time (5.29sec) is marginally slower (5.2sec for GR Yaris) and its claimed top speed is the same (230km/h).

Given it doesn’t have the off-the-line traction of its AWD rivals, the Leon VZx’s impressive 5.7sec 0-100km/h claim is reflective of just how rapid this Euro hot-hatch is – especially on the move.

Packing 221kW from 5300-6500rpm and a meaty 400Nm from 2000-5200rpm, it capitalises on this vast output spread and the lightning-quick upshifts of its seven-speed DSG to deliver ballistic rolling acceleration, despite Cupra claiming a chunky 1503kg kerb weight that positions it mid-way between the AWD Toyota and Subaru. In reality, it feels much lighter on its feet than that figure would suggest.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 19

Where the Leon VZx loses out somewhat, at least in comparison to the barky Golf R, is engine acoustics.

In ‘Cupra’ drive mode (or with the engine at its sportiest in Individual mode) there’s a degree of crackle from its super-cool four-outlet exhaust when backing off at light- or mid-throttle positions but in flat-out driving, it’s all exhaust whoosh and turbo slurp from the driver’s seat (though maybe less so outside the car).

It doesn’t have the purity of sound of the ballsy Corolla yet, conversely, it doesn’t have the purity of sound of the smooth WRX either, though the Cupra does seem much sportier than the Subaru.

Translate the considerable performance of this turbocharged trio into dynamic situations and three similarly disparate personalities emerge – each with their own individual charms, combined with really satisfying chunks of driver appeal.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 20

With its adjustable drive split (60:40, 30:70 or 50:50 front-to-rear), Torsen limited-slip differentials on the front and rear axles, and 349 additional spot welds to improve body rigidity (among multiple other improvements), the GR Corolla is the most intriguing on paper and offers the broadest array of talent on the road.

Seated in its lovely perforated-suede bucket seats, the gear lever is right next to the driver’s left leg and the round shift knob feels instantly tactile, so even before taking off, the GR Corolla offers a neatness and an ergonomic synergy that seems perfectly suited to a performance hatch.

Being 2023, it offers multiple drive modes (Eco, Normal, Sport and Custom), though given it doesn’t have adaptive dampers, Toyota would’ve been better off just choosing one ideal setting.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 16

All three testers agreed that Sport adds arguably too much weight to the steering unless you’re absolutely flogging the GR (though it does sharpen throttle response slightly), leaving Normal as the crisper preference for day-to-day driving (or the preferred steering option in Custom drive mode).

For our hard-charging back-to-back route, however, I put the GR Corolla in Sport, switched the stability control to ESC Sport Expert (which is the closest to having it turned off) and set the drive split to 30:70.

Under brakes (which are excellent), lifting off turning into corners, it’s not oversteery – rather you can feel the GR settling its weight and balance on the tail – making it feel incredibly chuckable and fun. In that respect, it has loads of bandwidth.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Group Thomas Wielecki 11

The wider the road and the better the surface, the greater the fun potential with the Toyota in terms of cornering approach.

It offers plenty of nuance through tight, bumpy bends and even though it feels stiffly suspended, it absorbs bumps better than the Subaru. It feels more level than the WRX, without its vertical movement, though it doesn’t move around as much in the mid-corner.

But when it does start moving – sliding its tail out or holding oversteer drifts, which is achievable depending on your chosen drive setting – it’s the organic nature of the GR Corolla’s attitude adjustment that really shines. Here is a ballsy, tough-looking, high-tech AWD hot hatch that can actually feel surprisingly analogue, almost as if it’s rear-wheel drive at times.

On a perfectly smooth surface, the GR Corolla defines ‘on rails’ handling, yet on dusty country road bends, it doesn’t have the front-end bite of the Subaru because the Yokohama Advan Apex V601 tyres tend to serve up initial understeer unless you very deliberately trail-brake the nose into a corner, much like a pre-997 Porsche 911.

2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Blue Sedan 5

In that respect, the GR Corolla is very much a performance car with multiple layers – including a surprisingly liveable and absorbent ride – though we suspect a different high-quality road tyre could improve its all-surface handling considerably, and perhaps even its all-pervading road noise, which is a constant companion.

With the WRX’s engine maxing out at just over 6000rpm on a very soft cut-out (compared to the GR Corolla’s almost theatrical rev limiter), there’s an obvious disconnect between the way the Subaru performs and the way it handles and rides.

The drivetrain doesn’t have the sharpness that you want, which is at odds with the chassis because the non-adaptive RS suspension is really quite firm. The sharpness of the WRX’s steering and the general point of its dynamics are really positive, yet that’s the opposite of its throttle response – making it feel like two completely separate teams did the tuning.

2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Blue Sedan 11

While the Subaru’s steering is very quick off-centre and really does turn in well, it doesn’t have enough weight or feel particularly natural.

And the steering wheel itself seems too thick, with oversized spokes and grainy, rough-textured leather that doesn’t feel at all sporty.

At least its gear change has a nice, snicky feel once you get used to it, and its all-electric front seats are excellent, though the gear lever placement is distant from the driver – meaning it lacks in the in-cabin intimacy of the Corolla. Yet as a general performance sedan, the WRX has plenty of appeal. Its handling is well-balanced, grippy, and almost adjustable.

It moves around a little over bumps, yet that seems to amp up its involvement. But its brakes feel wooden, with quite a lot of pedal travel, and don’t provide the initial retardation you’d expect from a car like this. They simply don’t inspire the confidence that proper performance brakes should.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 28

With optional Brembo front calipers ($3600) clamping much larger rotors, the Leon VZx has none of those issues. And on smooth roads, with its wheel-mounted drive mode button set to ‘Cupra’, it’s a cracking hot hatch – feeling light on its feet with razor-sharp turn-in and excellent power-down out of tight corners thanks to the deftness of its front limited-slip diff.

But on our much bumpier dynamic route, the Leon’s kryptonite proved to be the brittleness of its ride, despite being the only car here with adaptive dampers.

In one direction, on the way down a tight, challenging hill, I left the Leon in Sport mode and it felt too stiff – the front wheels crashing through over a few bumps, which could perhaps also be attributed to the fact its tyre placard recommends an inflation of nearly 40psi.

On smooth roads, with its wheel-mounted drive mode button set to ‘Cupra’, the Leon a cracking hot hatch
2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 1

Before heading back up in the other direction, I selected Individual drive mode – positioning its dampers between Comfort and Sport – and it delivered a much better compromise, absorbing more road hits than before (though even in Comfort mode it’s still not exactly plush). But if you can live with the Cupra Leon’s firmness of ride, you’ll revel in its handling involvement and throttle adjustability.

The way you can move the tail around and precisely drive it on the throttle through corners is superb, though the steering really needs to be in Cupra mode to get closest to offering the weighting meat it deserves because all the other modes feel generally too light.

Still, the tactility of its flat-bottomed steering wheel is outstanding, with beautifully supple leather – perforated in sections – and a really cool design.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 21

Where the Leon truly shines is as a proper adult-sized hatchback.

It offers genuine four-person capability, with the in-cabin storage to match, and its 380-litre boot is superb – as good as any small hatch on the market, let alone a performance version.

Clearly, this is a true European family car turned into a sexy fire-breather, whereas the GR Corolla merely compounds the packaging issues of Toyota’s regular Corolla hatch.

Only the driver gets (manual) seat height adjustment in the GR, leaving the front passenger sitting so close to the ceiling that they actually have less headroom than anyone misfortunate enough to be sitting behind them in the claustrophobic rear seat.

You can fit four adults in the Toyota but only the driver will feel truly at home. And with just 213 litres of boot space, you’ll need to be very choosy about what luggage to bring along.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla Hatch Red Thomas Wielecki 3

In terms of vision and overall space, the WRX almost feels like an Outback XT sedan. There’s an expansive feel to it, like everything has been super-sized to house larger-than-average American bodies, and combined with a 411-litre boot, you have the capacity to carry all their stuff as well.

But it stumbles in the details. Oddly placed USB ports, undersized door storage and an unlined boot all seem to compound the fact that it costs so much less – even though the top-spec WRX sedan is afflicted with the same issues.

All of which places the likeable Subaru behind its two rivals. Even though this RS manual is the sportiest the WRX can get in terms of its purity, it’s still one sizeable step away from being where it really needs to be to have the proper edge that its badge and heritage deserve.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Group Thomas Wielecki 1

With a suitably tuned drivetrain, its sharp handling would be adequately supported from an overall driver’s perspective. As it stands, you’d be better off with a WRX tS sedan, seeing that its CVT transmission is surprisingly good and its adaptively damped suspension offers superior sophistication.

For $10K extra, the Cupra Leon VZx gets much closer to the GR Corolla in terms of driver appeal. Being front-wheel drive fails to detract from its dynamic involvement, given its handling adjustability and its front-end diff smarts are so deeply satisfying.

Yet it doesn’t quite get it together in terms of ride comfort – feeling far better suited to smooth European roads than our turbulent surfaces – and seems to lack the ultimate absorbency polish of its Golf GTI and R relatives.

That said, the handsome Leon VZx is ballistically quick, and it possesses an X-factor in terms of appearance and individuality that should lure performance punters like flies to a summer barbecue.

Which leaves the GR Corolla as the king of hot hatches – at least in this comparison test.

There’s a performance focus to the GR Corolla that is so clearly evident, yet it has multiple layers to its personality, rather than one decent one and a few that aren’t quite realised as with the WRX.

Sure, its accommodation is compromised but from a driver’s perspective, the Toyota is really on another level. It’s both the most comfortable and the most fun, and defines the sort of bandwidth that makes a hardcore hot hatch truly great in 2023.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Toyota GR Corolla Subaru WRX RS Group Thomas Wielecki 10


Toyota GR Corolla

The Corolla-on-steroids has an ergonomic synergy from the driver’s seat, with a superbly petite steering wheel, great gear lever and pedal placement, and delightfully huggy suede front seats (with all-manual adjustment) – perfect for a performance hatch.

It has a deeper cowl and less vision than the WRX – though still decent – unlike the claustrophobic rear-seat and emaciated boot. The GR's all-digital 12.3-inch instrument pack looks great and works well (once you master the steering wheel buttons), while drive mode/drive split controls near the gearstick make logical sense. A strong eight-speaker JBL stereo is offset the merely adequate 8.0-inch touchscreen.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla Hatch Red

Subaru WRX RS

Similarly supportive seats to the Corolla, though broader, mounted higher, and all-electric. The WRX’s best aspect is its superb all-round vision, though it does feel rather like the sedan version of a turbo Outback – as if everything is super-sized, rather than slim-fit (apart from stingy door storage and detail flaws) – and its busy steering wheel is way too chunky, with grainy-feeling leather.

No drive modes in the manual RS either, which impedes its immediacy. But the portrait centre screen is intuitive, the 10-speaker Harman Kardon stereo is excellent, the rear seats are vast and boot space is generous (though cheaply finished inside).

2023 Subaru WRX RS Manual Blue Sedan 16

Cupra Leon VZx

Petrol-coloured upholstery and copper stitching instantly set the Cupra apart, which is not only the classiest inside but also the most practical. Proper door grabs, great bottle storage, an enormous boot (for a hatch), and a pervasive feeling of quality. Although our MY22 test car’s touchscreen proved somewhat glitch-prone, that is amended with upgraded software and a new 10.25-inch screen for MY23.

The Leon’s steering wheel feels superb, with a Porsche-inspired drive mode button, and the winged seats do a brilliant job of accommodating all body types. A nine-speaker Beats stereo matches its rivals cracking audio delivery.

2023 Cupra Leon V Zx Hatch Grey 15


🥇 Toyota GR Corolla GTS: 9/10

What we liked

  • Delightful drivetrain
  • Tough appearance
  • Excellent driving position
  • Crisp steering
  • Multi-layered handling
  • Decent ride
  • Arresting brakes

Not so much...

  • Restricted boot size
  • Claustrophobic back seat
  • Too-high front passenger seat
  • Mediocre multimedia screen
  • Constant road noise

🥈 Cupra Leon VZx: 8.5/10

What we liked

  • Handsome proportions
  • Superb packaging
  • Rapid acceleration
  • Adjustable handling
  • Interior trim quality
  • Strong brakes

Not so much...

  • Abrasive ride quality at times
  • Whooshy engine note
  • Patchy multimedia software
  • No manual transmission option

🥉 Subaru WRX RS: 7.5/10

What we liked

  • Class-leading vision,
  • Prodigious grip
  • Well-balanced handling
  • Spacious interior and boot
  • Drivetrain refinement

Not so much...

  • Steering doesn’t feel natural
  • Soft-edged throttle response
  • Cabin storage flaws
  • Vertical ride movement
  • Wooden brake feel and response


Toyota GR Corolla GTSCupra Leon VZxSubaru WRX RS
$62,300 (before on-road costs)$59,990 (before on-road costs)$50,490 (before on-road costs)
Engine3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo-petrol4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo-petrolflat 4, dohc, 16v, turbo-petrol
Layoutfront engine (east-west), all-wheel drivefront engine (east-west), front-wheel drivefront engine (north-south), all-wheel drive
Power221kW @ 6500rpm221kW @ 5300-6500rpm202kW @ 5600rpm
Torque370Nm @ 3000-5550rpm400Nm @ 2000-5200rpm350Nm @ 2000-5200rpm
Transmission6-speed manual7-speed dual-clutch6-speed manual
Bodysteel, 5 doors, 5 seatssteel, 5 doors, 5 seatssteel, 4 doors, 5 seats
Track (f/r)1589/1624mm1554/1520mm1560/1570mm
Boot213 litres380 litres411 litres
Fuel/tank98 RON / 50 litres98 RON / 50 litres95 RON / 60 litres
Economy12.8L/100km (tested)11.8L/100km (tested)12.8L/100km (tested)
SuspensionFront: struts, A-arms, anti-roll barFront: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll barFront: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar
Rear: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll barRear: multi links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll barRear: double wishbone, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steeringelectric rack-and-pinionelectric rack-and-pinionelectric rack-and-pinion
Front brakesventilated discs (356mm)ventilated discs (370mm)ventilated discs (316mm)
Rear brakesventilated discs (297mm)ventilated discs (340mm)ventilated discs (290mm)
TyresYokohama Advan Apex V601Bridgestone Potenza S005Dunlop SP Sport Maxx
Tyre size235/40R18 91W235/35R19 91Y245/40R18 97Y
ANCAP rating5 stars5 stars5 stars
0-100km/h5.3sec (claimed)5.7sec (claimed)6.0sec (estimated)

Things we like

  • GR Corolla: Drivetrain, driving position, ride & handling, brakes
  • Leon VZx: Packaging and quality, acceleration, handling, brakes
  • WRX RS: Visibility, grip, handling, space, drivetrain refinement

Not so much

  • GR Corolla: Small boot and back seat, infotainment, road noise
  • Leon VZx: engine note, patchy infotainment, no manual, ride quality abrasive at times
  • WRX RS: Steering, throttle, storage, ride, brake feel and response
Nathan Ponchard
Thomas Wielecki


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