Think back to the 1990s and early 2000s and the world of rallying gave us some of the most intriguing, exhilarating, and enthralling sports cars around, and drew a particular light on what Japan had to offer in the performance car realm.
Think of cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Galant VR4 and Lancer Evolution, and the Toyota Celica GT-Four – a new breed of turbocharged all-wheel drive road-going rally racers was hitting the road and showing just how much bang for your buck you could get. Sure, rallying in the 1980s had been dominated by the Europeans at Audi and Lancia, it was around the time of the millennium that the Japanese came into their own.
Eventually, all three Japanese marques pulled out of the sport, and the World Rally Championship lost some of the flare it once had, but now, thanks to the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team, the Japanese are looking to get back into it.
With the cars the series features now being superminis, the car Toyota would have had to enter is the humble Yaris, of which an all-new model has just recently launched. However, Toyota has appointed one of the most successful and well-known figures in rallying as an advisor to Gazoo Racing WRT – Tommi Mäkinen, whose namesake is borne on the Evo 6 Tommi Mäkinen Edition, a storied model that was celebratory of his four back-to-back championships in the 90s – and with someone like that at the helm, simply hot-rodding the normal Yaris wouldn’t be enough. It needed to be wider, more aerodynamic, and more balanced.
And so, enter the Toyota GR Yaris. It might bear the Yaris name, but it only shares three things other than the name with the normal Yaris you’d be getting the keys to from a rental desk – the headlights, taillights, and wing mirrors. The body is bespoke, with a lower and more aerodynamic roofline, only two doors, and a noticeably widened track and drastic widebody treatment.
It’s because of these changes that the GR Yaris exists at all. WRC regulations stipulate that at least 25,000 road-going versions of the car a team is entering must be produced within 12 continuous months, and while simply turbocharging a normal Yaris – of which millions will be sold – would alleviate this issue, doing things properly in Mäkinen’s eyes means that for the first time in a very long time, we’ve been gifted with a homologation special as you’re constantly reminded of by the plaque on the centre console.
However, there’s a catch to all this – due to the coronavirus pandemic, because of course it was that, development of the 2021 GR Yaris WRC car was canned, and although the Mäkinen-led team is focused on its car for the 2022 season, there are no doubt question marks around whether it will even be able to compete then as well given teams will be required to make the switch to hybrid powertrains.
Regardless of whether or not the car ever gets to race in one form or another, at the very least it’s given us one very special road car – one that clearly recalls that golden era of Japanese cars, which is a reputation that’s dwindled in recent years with many Japanese manufacturers lagging behind and paving the way for the likes of the South Koreans to be the new affordable motoring innovators.
The recipe that makes the GR Yaris so special is a proven one – a diminutive two-door body, a very advanced constant all-wheel drive system, a short-ratio manual gearbox, and most importantly a little engine being fed a lot of boost by a big turbocharger – but it’s all been done with a distinctly modern flare.
The rise of companies like Rocket Bunny and Liberty Walk means that its bold widebody look is perfectly representative of today’s tastes, and although these companies still offer kits to take it even wider, it’s hardly necessary. Despite the Yaris badge on the back, this thing is a real head-turner, and the multitude of people I ran into around Melbourne and Geelong during my time with the car all knew how clearly special it was.
Its engine is clearly a product of the 2020s as well. It may displace 1.6-litres, but in this age of downsizing it’s a three-cylinder, not a four. Thanks to its huge turbocharger though, it’s able to produce an incredible 200kW at 6000rpm and 370Nm from 3000-4600rpm – truly staggering numbers for an engine of its size that are enough to ensure that, until the launch of the Koenigsegg Gemera, it’s the most powerful three-cylinder engine fitted to a production car.
Its six-speed manual gearbox has a nice and modern flare to it as well, as it features an auto rev-matching system – dubbed iMT, intelligent manual transmission, in Toyota-speak – which is handy both in traffic or when you’re pushing it hard, not least because the pedalbox is spread too far apart.
The ‘GR-FOUR’ all-wheel drive system it features is a very clever bit of kit, too. There are three driving modes on offer, all of which have an impact over it. Normal mode sees it automatically calculate how the power needs to be divided, although its typically a 60:40 split; Sport changes that up to a 30:70 split, favouring the rear; and Track mode divides it evenly at a 50:50 ratio.
When you first set off into traffic, where I spent most of my first day with the car in Melbourne, you’re certainly aware that it is a three-pot as there’s that typical off-beat thrum to it and a tiny bit of gruffness when you’re off-boost. Surprisingly, it also rides rather well – I’d have thought the combination of a short wheelbase and firm suspension would have make it feel bumpy and twitchy, but there was none such feeling – and the direct tiller makes manoeuvring it through city traffic a breeze, as does its diminutive size.
There are some annoyances in traffic, though – the clutch take-up is a bit inconsistent and tricky to get a feel for at first; the start-stop system is absolutely woeful as it takes too long to fire back into life as you depress the clutch and if you start trying to set off before the engine’s started back up again, you’ll look like a learner driver and stall; the road noise intrusion is deafening on freeways; the boot is a tiny 141 litres, which was barely enough to fit my luggage; and there’s no rear wiper so the tiny back window gets all mucky when it rains – but all in all, there are fewer compromises than I’d have expected. Even its relatively high seating position isn’t an issue, as although it’s quite counterintuitive to how you’d expect to be sat in a hot hatch, you quickly get used to it.
But of course, a car like this is totally wasted in traffic as it’s as far removed from the normal Yaris as my standards of appropriate journalistic etiquette are from Piers Morgan’s. To figure out just what’s what with the GR Yaris, I ventured to the Victorian High Country where wonderful, deserted, winding roads like Reefton Spur beckoned for me to unleash every kilowatt this thing’s tiny little engine had to give.
When you finally give it some beans and wind it up above the 3000rpm sweet spot, it transforms from feeling like a thrummy and cheery little three-pot into a boost-hungry monster. The harder you push it, the happier it seems to feel as the big dose of compressed air you feed it only smoothens this engine out more and more.
Its pace is truly impressive – 0-100km/h is dispatched in a claimed 5.2 seconds, although real-world testing reveals that this figure is actually conservative, and the ferocity with which it claws into the ground to put all that power down is just staggering. Stick it into Track mode with that 50:50 torque split and it truly does channel the incredible feeling of tractability you get in the Evo 6 TME – something that’s obviously no coincidence.
Certainly, it’s a well-balanced and finely-tuned package on roads like those in the High Country – the ride keeps it flat with it only erring on the side of some slight body roll, which I prefer; the slotted disc brakes hold up well to repeated hard stops on the road, although I feel they mightn’t be quite so durable on track; and the quick but reassuring steering allows you to place it right where you want it.
If something lets it down, though, it’s a tendency towards understeer. Granted, it was a damp day, but the lack of Torsen limited-slip differentials on this standard GR Yaris (which the Rallye version in Australia, and Performance Pack version in Europe gain) and mediocre Dunlop rubber on Enkei wheels (as opposed to Michelin Pilot Sports on lighter BBS wheels on the Rallye) mean it does tend to want to plow wide if you leave the all-wheel drive system in Standard, or even in the rear-biased Sport mode.
However, sticking it into Track helped to tame the understeer significantly, so much so that on the road I doubt the majority of people would ever need the LSDs, although buying one for track use makes that a different story. Changing out the tyres, though, would be a wise move, I’d suggest, and between that and its wicked Track mode, it’ll likely do anything you could ask of it on public roads.
With the grip that’s on offer, the confident brakes, and the auto rev-matching, it’s an easy car to drive fast, and even on gravel it’ll hold its own, as you’d perhaps expect, and it just begs you to push it harder and harder, which few cars truly do these days.
But when you put your sensible hat back on and steer it homebound, it manages to feel impressively civilised as you lounge back into those supportive suedecloth seats, turn on the heated seats and steering wheel, utilise the dual-zone climate control, fire up the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and play some beats through the eight-speaker JBL stereo (to drown out the road noise), flick on the adaptive cruise control (which does remain active even when you upshift and downshift) and simply cruise your way back.
It’s a truly marvellous car and without doubt the most thrilling and special-feeling hot hatch on the market, although calling it a hot hatch I feel isn’t terribly fitting. Yes, it’s a hatchback with a very hot engine under the bonnet, an yes you could use it every day if you don’t need back seats and never carry more than a tin of biscuits in the boot, but the reality, I feel, is that it’s better viewed as a weekend sports car.
The pricing makes it look like it’s one, too. Although the initial Australian allocation of 1000 cars were sold at a drive-away deal of $39,950 all subsequent cars (set to arrive in the second half of 2021) will cost a steep $49,500 before on-road costs. Fancy a Rallye version and that will run you for $54,500 although the first 200 offered Down Under were sold for $56,200 drive-away.
If you were one of the lucky ones who took a punt and cashed in quick on the $39k drive-away deal, I think you got your money’s worth and a cracker of a bargain. At just under $50k for this standard model, however, I can’t help but feel that it’s a little on the pricey side for what is a far less versatile hot hatch than any of its competitors at that price.
But then, there’s nothing else out there really like the GR Yaris, and when you’ve got a product as unique as what could well be one of the last rally homologation specials we’ll ever see, Toyota quite frankly can charge whatever they want, and in that regard, $50k still seems like a bit of a bargain. Just how well it drives and how well-equipped it is, too, only justifies that price further.
Plus, given the Mäkinen touch, I don’t doubt for a second this car will become another future classic as the Evo 6 TME did. Normally, I’d never want to make such an unsubstantiated claim as to call a brand new car a future classic, but in this case, the writing is on the wall, no?
This is one very, very special car, and if you have the means, you should absolutely buy one while you can.
2021 Toyota GR Yaris List Price: $49,500
Pros: Utterly incredible amount of power from a three-cylinder engine, unique and aggressive widebody looks, Toyota hasn’t skimped on equipment, you won’t find anything else like it out there
Cons: Understeers when pushed hard, compromised as a daily driver, was much better value at $39k drive-away
In a nutshell: The GR Yaris is a truly special car, and one everyone should be glad to have given the WRC car it was intended to homologate never even entered the competition. A few minor niggles aside with this normal (non-Rallye) version, and with its compromised diminutive size, this is the most thrilling hot hatch you’ll come across right now, and I’d suspect for quite some time, too.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Toyota Australia for three days who also covered all fuel and toll expenses.