2021 Toyota GR Yaris | UK Review

Christmas has come early. It's brilliant

By Nic Cackett / Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who knows what Tommi Mäkinen said to Akio Toyoda back in 2014 to convince him that Toyota should return to the WRC – but we should all be glad that he did. For one thing the manufacturer's presence rejuvenated world rallying and earned it silverware. For another, it delivered the GR Yaris – the 261hp, all-wheel-drive supermini that Toyota's CEO decreed would be built to support the programme.

To call the new model an outlier in the day-to-day function of the world's largest car company hardly does it justice. For one thing, Toyota hadn't dedicated itself to building a proper hot hatch from the ground up in decades. For another – by its own admission – it knew practically nothing about performance-biased all-wheel drive. It had a supermini called Yaris, of course – but it was the wrong shape and had too many doors. And it didn't have the right engine.

The team also had another problem, which compounded all the others. The GR could not be a hyper-expensive, production-limited plaything for the few – nothing like the homologation cars of yesteryear. To be eligible for the WRC, the model in question needed to register a production volume of 25,000. So the car had to marketed at something like a mass market cost. The GR could not be another Toyota-built unicorn in the Lexus LF-A mould.

Spiritually though, it would come from a similar place. Extracting genuinely exciting cars from Toyota's hyper-standardised, supremely conservative way of doing things is Akio Toyoda's ongoing mission in life. The GT86 and latest Supra owe their existence to his personal preference for sports cars – yet both were the product of cost-reducing partnerships. The GR Yaris presented Toyoda with the opportunity to go it alone, and produce something unique and uncompromising.

By all accounts, he seized it. The new model's marketing campaign has already talked up the CEO's place in the car's development, but having now spoken to the lead engineers, PH is inclined to almost think it has been undersold. All board members tend to drive the latest product as a matter of course, but Toyoda is said to have driven the GR at least every week through every stage of development – more often than not off road. It is he who personally commanded that the team seek to 'break the Toyota Standard' – i.e. go beyond the attention to detail that the manufacturer already routinely applies to everything it does.

Accordingly, the lead engineer told PH it broke many things along the way. And learned many fundamental lessons. Toyota's WRC team obviously taught it much, too. The reduction in door count, an emphasis on aerodynamic efficiency and reduced mass were all prescribed by those concerned chiefly with competitive rallying; hence the widespread use of aluminium body panels and a forged carbon composite roof that swoops 95mm lower than the one which features on the standard Yaris.

In fact, anyone searching for similarities between the GR and the base model will do so largely in vein. Outwardly, the cars share headlights and door mirrors and rear light clusters and the shark fin roof antenna. That's it. The wheelbase is carried over, but even the platform is bespoke, combining the Yaris's new GA-B architecture at the front with a rear section adapted from the GA-C underpinnings found beneath the C-HR and Corolla.

Yet in the flesh this Mäkinenstein monster does not give the impression – as projects biased towards motorsport often do – that it is a prescribed mishmash of parts. Its styling is coherent almost to the point of inconspicuousness. The GR is benignly handsome, sure, and that rectangular honeycomb mesh grille could only ever be used to supply air to an intercooler of the same proportions behind it – but for all its lowness and fattened arches, the homologated Yaris does not go out of its way to standout from the crowd like, say, the Mini GP3 or Honda Civic Type R do.

Inside, it tries even less hard. Anyone expecting a premium mix of trim materials in return for the sort of money that buys a shiny new Mk8 Golf GTI is likely to feel underwhelmed by the most expensive Yaris. Because it remains obstinately functional and Yaris-like. Perhaps mindful of this, Toyota UK has prepared a 'Convenience Pack' which adds things like sat nav, a head-up display and uprated stereo system – but you can't have it with the 'Circuit Pack' car that includes a Torsen limited-slip differential front and back alongside forged alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres.

Given the supreme amount of fettling that has occurred elsewhere, it's a wonder that Toyota doesn't allow you to sit lower in the GR. Instead, it has raised the gear level by 50mm and added a three-spoke steering wheel. The other noticeable changes are mostly related to additional switchgear: there's a prominent dial selector for the GR-Four modes (Normal, Sport and Track – more on those in a moment) and not-so prominent buttons for iMT (automatic rev-matching), stability control and the auto start/stop on the transmission tunnel.

Otherwise there is a smattering of GR badges, front sport seats which major more in comfort than support, and a teeny plaque that says: 'Developed for FIA World Rally Championship'. Even the engine note at idle is comparatively discreet. The 261hp 1.6-litre G16E-GTS unit might be claimed as the most powerful three-cylinder production motor in the world, but it doesn't feel the need to shout about it.

Or not till you're rolling at any rate. Dip the pleasingly middleweight clutch, engage the snappy short-shift lever, and the GR gets underway in a fashion that likely won't resonate with many Yaris buyers. For a start the steering resistance has been ramped up and turns lock-to-lock whittled back to a much more direct 2.3. Then there's the obvious patter of the road surface, filtering up through reinforced front MacPherson struts and rear trailing wishbones that have nothing in common with the basic model. And finally there is the engine again. Or rather, its turbocharger.

The single-scroll, exhaust manifold-integrated compressor is much like the rest of the 12-valve, 1.6-litre dual VVT-i petrol motor – tailor-made for the job. It too bears almost no resemblance to any other three-cylinder unit built by Toyota; the engine was designed to meet the WRC's Rally 2 regulations, and is a symphony of lightweight internals and Gazoo Racing-derived tech. The team confirmed it was among the many things it broke during development, giving you the distinct impression that what we're left with is the Rocky 4 of blown inline triples, worked repeatedly to near death somewhere frozen and desolate to better prepare it for a single, life-defining purpose.

At very low engine speeds it keeps its reason for being largely under wraps. But the intercooler-equipped, wastegate-endowed and ball-bearing-wearing blower can't wait to whip its shirt off and cartwheel into the ring. It would be wrong to overstate the volume at which the GR hisses 'forced induction' at you – it is hardly a 1000hp Nissan GT-R – but there's no mistaking the business of inhale/exhale in the Yaris. Nor its effect.

That the three-pot is heavily reliant on its turbo for the good stuff is not a terrific surprise. If you drive the GR very gingerly, you will find yourself waiting for the boost to come on – 266lb ft of peak torque does not turn up till 3,000rpm, which is an ice age in modern terms. But this will happen infrequently as more often than not you will be a gear ratio lower than you strictly need to be. Because between 3,000rpm and the redline at 7,000rpm the G16E-GTS is a Catherine wheel of tightly wound, trebling shove.

Predictably, it does rather set the tone. The Yaris is too deliciously small and devilishly light for you to not fizz about the place like a popped champagne cork. It is not merely that it is fast either – though certainly, at 5.5 seconds to 62mph, it is. It's that the engine has obvious and invigorating appetite for revs despite its reliance on turbocharging. When asked about the reasoning behind a three-cylinder motor, Toyota identified packaging (i.e. weight) and responsiveness as its main criteria – and, boy, have they nailed the effervescent, neck-wringing sensation you want from a hatchback weighing 1,280kg.

Like every small car with an oversized output, it does make accessing a good time cheeringly easy. Expect to work the gearbox with adolescent glee. Don't expect to feel guilty doing it either. The GR does everything with a cheek-pinching level of innocence that belies the level of technical sophistication Toyota has engineered into it. Were it merely this engine, 200hp per tonne, rudimentary four-wheel drive and three doors, it would likely have guaranteed our good graces. But that's the least of it.

In three hours of driving, the vast majority of it very spirited, and all of it on bomb-cratered B roads, the GR's chassis did not produce a single memorable instance of an abrasive or ungainly response to the kind of intrusions that would typically flummox three-stage dampers. Defying expectation, the ride and handling compromise struck by the Yaris's passive suspension is exemplary. It floats like the proverbial butterfly on what feels like miles of spring travel, and then reigns it all back in just enough to inspire enormous confidence when cornering.

Plainly, everything has been arranged in its favour. The body shell features 259 more weld points than the standard Yaris and almost twice the amount of structural adhesive. Detailed improvements abound – all with the aim of dramatically increasing the GR's torsional rigidity. The chassis itself is no less trick than the engine: improved stiffness and weight reduction have been sought – and delivered – everywhere. Toyota merely calls the dampers 'exclusive'. Lord knows what they cost.

Nevertheless, it's the tuning which speaks to the final experience. Having driven the car, PH asked Toyota's lead engineer how much development time had been spent off-road. Fifty percent. Mostly on gravel, it seems. Little wonder then that the bump absorption appears exceptional in the UK; half the entire process was spent making the car work on surfaces where consistency and smoothness are in short supply. Ideal preparation for the B2126.

The rest of the time – a period which can be measured in years, according to its makers – was spent making sure that the GR-4 all-wheel-drive system functioned as intended. Without any meaningful data to work from, the engineers lent hard on the rally team and its drivers. The entirely new configuration is permanent, but with an active torque split electronically controlled by a multi-plate clutch. Different gear ratios in the front transfer and rear differential allow more power to be transmitted to the back axle, even with no slip at the front. It means the system is technically capable of sending 100 per cent of available torque in either direction, but in fact the distribution is split between 60/40 and 30/70.

This is where you come in. Driver preference dictates which ratio the GR adopts. It defaults to 60/40 in 'Normal', is rear-biased 30/70 in 'Sport' and predominately 50/50 in 'Track'. These are selected via the dial (you push the central button down to return to 'Normal') and that's it for drive modes, which is fabulous because it means the character of the engine and chassis remain unchanged throughout. Which is precisely what you want in the GR.

Truthfully, PH spent most of the time in 'Normal'. Not because the other modes are not interesting (the fact that they cannot be satisfactorily explored in three hours of driving speaks to just how intriguing each pre-defined torque split actually is) but because for PH's money the Yaris is at its most cohesive on the road when the ratio matches the weight distribution of the car. With 60 per cent of the power at the front, and 40 per cent keeping it honest at the back – not to mention the system's on variation based on conditions and the interaction of two limited-slip differentials – the GR is the 4WD hot hatch we hoped it would be: grippy, fast, agile and direct. A special stage supermini.

Then there are things we dared not hope for. A three-cylinder engine that thrives on high revs. Twinned with gear ratios and a power output just long enough and large enough to fully stretch out. Mounted to a chassis that prioritises a fluid, harmonious contact with the road, and clues you into the ideal cornering speed by judiciously leaning over rather than hunkering down. Powered by an all-wheel drive system that enhances traction, but not to the exclusion of all else.

Toyota's overriding and unexpected triumph is to make the Yaris feel raucous. In 'Normal' mode you can tip it into a roundabout-sized corner too fast and back off, and it'll rotate on the weight transfer and then pull straight again under power. Tackle a sighted B road in 'Sport' and the front-end bias tangibly shifts to the rear, allowing you to turn in that bit faster. Or keep it in 'Track' (which should really be called 'Gravel') where the GR will begin to over-rotate every wheel in a stupendous effort to keep you on whatever ham-fisted line you've chosen. It isn't three cars in one, of course – or even necessarily perfect in any one state – but it's endlessly and ferociously entertaining.

And then it isn't. Because, incredibly, and in no small part thanks to its shrewd ride quality and pleasing lack of pops and bangs, it is also capable of a passing impression of a Toyota Yaris. Yes, there is more road and induction noise (some of it coming from the stereo speakers, sadly) but the seats are very accommodating and for all its fireworks at one end, and sizzle in the middle, the three-pot is generally content to dawdle. Toyota says it'll do 34.3mpg.

It will do all this for £33,495. Which is a significant amount of money when you consider that a Fiesta ST Edition – no slouch in any dynamic regard itself – is £27,075. Obviously the GR is significantly faster and more sophisticated (though less well equipped); but it's harder to claim either advantage over a Honda Civic Type R GT, which is £34,820, more practical and much more pleasant to sit in.

It's a thinker, certainly. But to dwell on it too long here would be a disservice to Toyota's achievement. Because honestly the Yaris feels like it's worth every penny. The manufacturer might have invested half the time and money it has thrown at getting the GR to this note-perfect stage, and still turned out a turbocharged AWD hatchback worthy of the pile 'em high approach (we know this because virtually every premium manufacturer on the planet has indulged itself). Toyota hasn't. The Yaris is as distant from a BMW M235i as a zoom mixer is from a good time.

It features a turbocharger and four-wheel drive because that's what you go rallying with; it rides sublimely well in the UK because it was developed to work somewhere even worse; it is noisy and small and sparsely equipped because that keeps the weight off and the cost down; and it is gratifyingly (not gratuitously) fast because that makes it fun. The GR does not ever mistake straight line speed or invincible grip or dead-eyed lateral control for a good time. It is only ever nonchalant when you're going slowly, never fast. Go looking for something more, and the car departs normality like a moon shot. It is totally, totally up for it. You should be too.


Engine: 1,618cc, inline-three, turbocharged
Transmission: six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power: [email protected],500rpm
Torque: 266lb [email protected],000-4,600rpm
0-62mph: 5.5 seconds
Top speed: 143mph (electronically limited)
Kerbweight: 1,280-1,310kg (minimum and maximum)
MPG: 34.3mpg
CO2: 186g/km driving
Price: from £29,995 (or £32,175 with the Convenience Pack and £33,495 with the Circuit Pack)

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