What is it?
A Toyota hot hatch, if you want to hugely downplay it. Because it’s actually far more significant and exciting than that. And very much not a Yaris as you know it.
Here’s the score: the regulations that govern top line rallying dictate that your car has to be based on an existing road car.
This is called homologation and although your rally car can deviate from the road formula in many areas, in some key ones it can’t.
In the past, firms have been able to get round this because the regs didn’t insist on too many road-going versions. Sometimes a few hundred, sometimes less.
Firms could handle that, find an audience for a limited number of specials. But the latest regs say you have to build 25,000 road cars. Ouch. So everyone sends out their standard supermini, crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.
Because you can’t compromise the rear headroom in Aunt Mabel’s happy shopper because some fast Finn wants a better aero package. The two are just too far apart. So build something from scratch?
Not only have you got to find homes for 25,000 of them, but just think of the investment required. So no-one ever does this.
Look at all the years Peugeot, VW and Citroen dominated WRC and the best we got was a C4 ‘By Loeb’ edition.
Until now. Because what Toyota has done is design a rally car from the ground up. OK, it’s still a compromise, but the compromise here isn’t happy shopper meets WRC, it’s hot hatch meets WRC.
And when your starting point is hot hatch, you’re already pitching the car at an audience that is willing to accept compromise.
Let’s use the roofline as an example. It’s high in the standard Yaris so people can sit in the back, but the rally car wants it as low as possible so it doesn’t block air from the rear wing.
Tommi Makinen, Toyota’s WRC boss, apparently wanted it even lower, but Toyota insisted the rear seats stayed.
Similarly WRC regs say you can’t fit aero devices to the rear doors. So the GR Yaris simply does away with the rear doors.
The roof is carbonfibre saving 3.5kg, the door skins, bonnet and tailgate are aluminium, removing another 24kg. It’s not even a Yaris chassis underneath.
The front half is, but the rear is adapted from the Corolla and CH-R. There are 4,175 weld points, 259 more than a Yaris, plus 35.4 metres of ‘structural adhesive’. The rigidity of a safe, in other words.
It has the Yaris’ 2,560mm wheelbase, its light clusters, door mirrors and roof fin. But that’s it. It’s 55mm longer, 60mm wider and 45mm lower (actually closer to 100mm lower at the rear).
Under the bonnet is the world’s most powerful production three cylinder, a 1.6-litre with 260hp and 360Nm. Its single turbo spins on ball bearings, while the engine itself is hydraulically mounted on one side to reduce vibration and unwanted movement. The sort of tech that front line supercar firms like to bang on about.
No paddleshifts here. The only choice is a 6spd manual, and the 4WD system is claimed to be the lightest on the market.
Lightest, but not most basic. There’s an aluminium central transfer case and in Normal mode the torque is split 40:60 front to rear. That alters depending on the mode you choose. Sport is 30:70 and Track 50:50.
Skids or grip, you decide. At the rear there’s an electronically controlled clutch pack to divide torque between the wheels.
Alternatively you can tick the Circuit Pack box. As well as lightweight 18in BBS forged alloys, retuned suspension, Michelin Pilot 4S tyres and red brake calipers, you get mechanical front and rear Torsen diffs. Same torque split control, but more grit and guts in the system. More rally.
Too much? Have the standard one and add the Convenience Pack (JBL premium audio system, ambient lighting, head-up display and more). It’s an either/or thing, you can’t have both packs.
The whole thing weighs 1,280kg, is good for 0-100km/h in 5.5secs and a 230km/h top end. In other words, it’s small, light and fast, eschewing the typical trend of gaining size and weight. Good.
It’s a genuinely exciting car this, a hot hatch with a real purpose in life. After all, when was the last time we had a proper rally homologation special, something we can all aspire to?
Not since the Imprezas and Evos of the 90s. This, then, is a once in a generation special.
And the best news of all is that Toyota has smashed it out of the park.
What is it like on the road?
It drives like you hoped it would. Like you dreamed it would. In Top Gear’s collective head we wanted it to feel like a boisterous little charger, and it does. And that means there’s nothing else out there quite like it.
It’s the size of a Ford Fiesta ST, but has the attitude of something far more aggressive. But it’s not as tightly-focused and serious-minded as a Civic Type R. It has the mindset of a rally car, not a steely-eyed track weapon. It just wants to have fun.
You get in and it feels right: good seats, nice control weights, no slack in the steering, brakes or gearlever.
Before you’ve got out of the car park you feel well disposed to the GR Yaris. And it makes a good, growly noise. Little bit of an edge to it. Not many hot hatches – not many sportscars full stop – get these basics right.
Stay with the low speeds and there’s a bit of tussle in the ride. It’s a short, broad, stiff car, so a bit of twitch is to be expected.
There’s noise from the tyres when you go quicker, but the heavily strengthened bodyshell means zero creaks and rattles and gives the suspension a rigid central core to work from.
Not once did I find myself looking for the non-existent adaptive damper button. The GR Yaris proves that if you get a single set-up right, you don’t need more options.
No, it’s not as relaxing as a Golf GTI on a schlep. It pulls 2,800rpm at 110km/h and isn’t the sort of car you can steer with one finger.
Sport mode is the one everyone talks about, because it sends 70 per cent of torque to the rear wheels. On a track this is a hoot.
You can fling the Yaris into a corner, maybe even give it a Scandi flick to set it up, then bury the throttle and ride a slide.
On road, because the set-up gives you some initial understeer, it’s Track mode you want.
Here, provided your car has the Circuit Pack, you can get on the power early and with 50 per cent of drive going through the front wheels, the Torsen diff can get to work and pull you out of corners. Hard, with zero understeer.
It’s an addictive experience, especially if you want to teach yourself left foot braking, building up power against the brakes mid-corner, and then release the brakes for a maximum attack exit.
Not many cars let you use throttle and brakes together. This Toyota does. It’s a small thing, irrelevant to most people, but it’s there and it works well.
Here’s something else in the same vein. Most cars have now replaced the manual handbrake with an electric parking brake. Not Toyota.
And not only that, but if you do give it a yank while you’re moving, it disconnects drive to the rear wheels. It’s the best handbrake I’ve used outside an actual rally car.
It’s a proper rufty, tufty little car, this. It goads you to give it some, and if you do, it’s with you every step of the way.
There are small issues: the brakes, although powerful, are slightly dead to use and there’s not much natural steering feel, but because they respond immediately and proportionately, you have massive confidence in it.
The gearshift is tight and together, there’s not a surfeit of modes or tech – the opposite in fact. It feels mechanical and you feel intrinsically connected to it.
And it’s got a belter of an engine. We were sceptical that 260hp was enough when most rivals have 300hp. But most rivals also weigh around 150kg more.
This little 1.6 triple hits surprisingly hard. 4,000-6,000rpm is the sweet spot, the GR thumping through that band in third and fourth with real determination.
Lower down it’s a bit lumpy and the turbo doesn’t get going until 3,000rpm, but at the top end it keeps its composure all the way to the red line.
And it sounds great. Artificially augmented, yes, but enticing and a bigger noise than you expect. The kind that makes you want to keep your foot in.
The short throw manual is a great partner, although we’d encourage you not to press the iMT rev blip button on the centre console – you can shift fast enough to beat the system. Do it yourself instead. You’ll get more out of it.
On the inside
Layout, finish and space
You sit high, but that’s a rally car thing – helps visibility. You soon get used to it, and if you sat lower the steering wheel would only be at a funny angle, tipped away at the top.
As it is, the driving position is bang on, and the controls all operate with more precision than any other hot hatch bar the Honda Civic Type R. And the seats, soft, yet well padded, are great. Not harshly aggressive, just comfortably bolstered.
The gearlever has been raised 50mm, but could have been raised further to place it even closer to the steering wheel. Too much rally maybe. The important thing is that the GR Yaris doesn’t feel anything like a standard Yaris when you get in.
Sure, it has the same door cards and heating controls, but the dashboard (two analogue dials with a small LCD screen between) is simpler and clearer, there’s a simple rotary controller for the modes in front of the lever and a little plaque that says ‘developed for the FIA World Rally Championship’. You don’t get that on Aunt Mabel’s motor.
Better still, it feels robust. The stiff chassis means there’s no squeaks or rattles and although material quality is no better than average, it’s lifted by having metal pedals, and alcantara steering inserts.
There’s also a useful phone tray below the centre screen. But the overall impression is that this is a well engineered and built car that feels like it’ll stay the course.
It’s worth knowing Toyota says it takes ten times longer to build than a standard Yaris, constructed not on the normal line, but GR’s new facility within the Motomachi factory.
It’s cramped and dark in the back. You know Toyota didn’t really plan on you using the rear seats because not only is head and legroom very limited, but the front seat doesn’t tilt and slide nicely.
Nor is the 174-litre boot exactly big. Who cares. If you want the car, you’ll make this work for you. And you do want the car. You really do.
Final thoughts and pick of the range
Two things stand out. That Toyota has created this car at all, and that it’s done an outstanding job of it.
Cars like the GR Yaris simply don’t happen these days when everyone spins countless bodystyles, often across several brands, off one platform. Toyota has been as guilty of that as anyone – look at the BMW-based Supra.
This is Toyota’s riposte. And it’s superb. It proves what we’ve long suspected – that a pukka road-going rally car is the best thing for tackling a modern B-road: small and light, with punchy dynamics and a gutsy motor, it’s a deeply compelling machine.
And if the WRC version of this is as well engineered and executed, Toyota’s rivals should be downright terrified.
It hasn’t got the Civic Type R’s pedigree, but its more rugged approach is arguably better at delivering driver entertainment on any road, in any weather.
It’s a hoot to drive from start to finish, the playfulness of the Ford Fiesta ST combined with the sort of composure and eagerness that Subaru Imprezas used to do so well. And for the performance and experience, it’s not over-priced at all.
The best Toyota we’ve ever driven.
STORY Ollie Marriage