Once upon a time, car manufacturers loved motorsport. Doing battle on the world stage provided not only great exposure, but also highlighted just how clever they all were. So clever in fact that engineers started to produce fascinating road cars with baked-in motorsport advantages in a bid to circumnavigate homologation rules. However, global passion for motorsport is not what it once was, and its viability as a marketing tool has seen big brands finding it difficult to justify. Not Toyota, though!
The casual observer might see Toyota as a bit boring as it produces millions of Prius and Aygo city cars, but take a step back from the staple offerings and you’ll see the Japanese marque has a real passion for motorsport. Touring cars, NASCAR, endurance racers and top-flight rally cars are all interwoven into Toyota’s DNA. Let’s also not forget that today it offers not one, but two sports cars in a climate that bean counters say are far from optimal for such vehicles.
All things considered, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the Toyota GR Yaris exists. Reigniting a fire that has only smouldered since the 1990s, this hot hatch is a genuine homologation special for the WRC. This car’s box of tricks should give it an advantage in competition, but even better, it puts some pretty impressive engineering in the hands of Joe Public.
The badge might say Yaris, but in truth it shares very little with the B-segment hatch. Sure, it retains the headlights, taillights and door mirrors, but everything else is bespoke. From the wheel nuts to the chassis itself, this car has been designed for motorsport.
From the moment you set eyes on this compact car you know that it’s not your typical urban runaround. Gaping intakes, forged ally wheels and swollen wheel arches gives it the appearance of a bulldog – small but mighty.
Some of the car’s most extreme design is to be found at the rear where the arches have been flared to the extreme in order to facilitate a widened track. The roofline also dramatically slopes to improve airflow to what would be a huge WRC-spec wing bolted to the back. There’s lots of ‘insert rally parts here’ elements to this car, including cutouts in the bonnet to allow clearance for beefier suspension. All this geekery feels wonderfully Cold War as the automotive superpowers find ever more creative way to add an advantage – except it’s only really Toyota that has put its money where its mouth is.
As you might expect of a homologation special, the budget has been spent on more technical elements than material choice in the cabin. It will be familiar to those who have spent time in a Yaris, with a nice durable feel to everything you touch. Its more function over style with a lot of hard black plastic forming cubby spaces.
Much more motorsport are the deeply bolstered leather and Alcantara seats, each proudly embroidered with GR logos. They hug you tight and suggest that while your forward view is that of a Toyota fit for the Tesco car park, they are in place for good reason.
Another hangover of being a homologation is that the rear seats are more of a formality. Master the art of human origami and you can just about squeeze two adult in the back, but even the most petite of passengers will be hunched due to the low roofline. You might just about get away with young children.
Boot space hardly seems important considering this car’s primary mission, but then punters will actually have to live with the GR Yaris. Cargos space is 174-litres and is only really enough for a few shopping bags. You’re unlikely to put people in the back seats, so we found ourselves using them for extra storage.
The GR Yaris comes in three different trims, something that dictates more than just how plush the gear knob is in this case. In standard guise it costs £29,995 and comes with all of the all-wheel drive goodness you could want and a set of 18-inch alloy wheels. Connivance Pack cars get parking sensors, navigation and premium audio system. Our test car is a £33,495 Circuit Pack machine that features two differentials, forged wheels, stickier tyres and tweaked suspension.
The annoying thing is that if you want the Circuit Pack car, you have to sacrifice parking sensors and navigation. Why? Toyota says it’s to do with the wiring, but it just seems a bit strange to us.
All cars come with an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system which functions just fine, but the user interface is rather clunky. We found ourselves making the most of its Apple CarPlay functionality, something you’ll have no choice in if you want to display a map on the screen in a Circuit Pack car.
Shall we get the boring bit out of the way? You haven’t really tuned in to read all about how easy the GR Yaris is to parallel park – its small proportions make it a cinch – have you? Around town I was pleasantly surprised how well behaved the rally fighter was. The steering is weighty, but not overbearing when manoeuvring, and the lack of any substantial turbo lag makes for a responsive throttle when exiting junctions. The ride is on the firm side at low speeds, however, this actually improves as pace builds. My only real gripe with the day-to-day liveability of the GR is its restricted rear visibility and lack of wiper that makes the reversing camera a necessity.
But who needs a rear windscreen wiper when the car is this good to drive? Believe the hype ladies and gents, the Toyota GR Yaris is the performance car hero you’ve been waiting for. Powered by a turbocharged three-cylinder engine and conducted by a deliciously snappy six-speed manual transmission, 254bhp and 395Nm of torque will get this micro machine from 0-62mph in just 5.5 seconds. Top speed? 143mph. However, it’s not the car’s straight-line hustle that has our hearts all of a flutter.
Away from the treacle-like progress of the M25 and juddering traffic in busy towns, deep within the rolling countryside of our green and pleasant land resides the true playground of the GR Yaris. Enthusiastically surging on to its redline, you snatch another gear from the manual box as acceleration swells once again. The roads are undulating, cambered, off-camber, brittle, wet and covered in considerable scaring where the surface is eroding. Without hesitation, this hot hatch marches on at a blistering pace.
The GR Yaris’ square footprint isn’t the only thing that provides such a stable platform, but a very mechanical all-wheel drive system ensures that not a single horsepower is wasted in even the most adverse conditions. Grippy Michelin Pilot 4S tires bite the road, front and rear Torsen differentials work hard, and its fine tuned suspension does a remarkable job of damping the impact of road imperfections. Regardless of what the road ahead has to throw at the little Toyota, the car’s ability to maintain momentum is truly life affirming. A Porsche 911 Turbo S is capable of such a cross-country gallop, but you wouldn’t dare in reality. The Yaris is as enthusiastic as you are to tackle challenging roads and provides religious reassurance that it will stick when the going gets twisty.
The car features three selectable driving modes that each tweaks how the car behaves. In ‘Normal’ torque is split 60:40 in favour of the front for a balanced drive with a touch of understeer. Switch things up to ‘Sport’ and 70% of torque is sent rearward, sharpening turn-in and allowing for more movement when scything through a sequence of bends. However, ‘Track’ gives a perfectly even split and this is where the true rally car comes out to play. Traction levels are phenomenal, and if you push through that initial whiff of understeer when charging headlong into tight turns, you’re rewarded by the car pulling the nose tightly back towards the apex, and even a nip of oversteer front time to time. It’s involving, enthralling and totally intoxicating.
If you were lucky enough to find a large patch of deserted Tarmac, and naughty enough to turn off the electronic assists, you might make use of the rally-engineered handbrake. In technical speak it has the ability to take advantage of the GR-Four coupling system that fully opens when the handbrake is used – or in layman’s terms allows for gracious and totally predictable handbrake-induced power slides. Also, a cheeky doughnut or two!
Is there anything not to like about the GR Yaris? Well, the fake exhaust note pumped into the cabin can be a little overbearing, and the steering could do with giving the driver a bit more feedback, that’s about it.
The Toyota GR Yaris is a very special car, one that goes above and beyond in pursuit of performance in comparison to other hot hatchbacks. What you are buying here isn’t the usual brochure-led drivel about being ‘motorsport inspired’… This actually is a motorsport machine! It feels like a real purebred, something typically reserved for supercar royalty.