What is it?
The new Toyota GR Yaris has actually been coming for even longer than most of us may realise.
While this car’s had an extensively previewed gestation, it’s the first ground-up performance car that Toyota has developed ‘all on its own’ in some twenty years. By which is meant ‘without the help of another dedicated car-maker,’ of course. Because believe me, to have made a hot hatchback this good, Toyota must have had quite a lot of help from some very clever people who been spending a lot of weekends with messrs Makinen, Meeke, Tanak and Latvala.
So, now that we’ve driven it – extensively, on a mix of UK roads and on track, and in its most alluringly specialized mechanical specification, we should add – we can at last confirm what matters most: that the hubbub of anticipation might actually have undersold the GR Yaris. This is a wonderfully exciting, amazingly capable and strangely evocative drivers’car, and a very rare and special hot hatchback indeed.
First, we’d better define precisely why it exists. If the prospect of this 257bhp, four-wheel drive supermini takes you back, it’s not by accident. The GR Yaris is undoubtedly the closest thing we’ve seen in some thirty years to a downsized rally homologation special; a modern MG Metro 6R4 or Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, it may seem. It certainly has much of the unmistakable visual presence of those cars, with its dramatically swollen wheelarches and air intakes – and the association will do the Toyota no harm whatsoever.
But that’s not actually what it is at all. Rather than commissioning a very limited production run of road cars, built out-of-house, in order to legitimize a World Rally Championship campaign, Toyota did the reverse when it sewed the seed for this car back in 2015. It invested in a new motorsport division (Gazoo Racing) and a top-level rallying program with the specific intention of applying what it might learn into better series-production performance cars that it would make itself – and which might therefore be able to influence production Toyotas more widely for years afterwards.
In an attempt to radically shift the market perception of the Toyota brand, then, boss Akio Toyoda would accept nothing less than such a bold, radical – and undoubtedly expensive – strategy; which actually makes this car a fascinating anti-homologation car - of a sort. If you disqualify the GR Supra produced two years ago as many do because of its shared BMW underpinnings and the last-gen Yaris GRMN as the appetite-testing exercise it so clearly was, the GR Yaris is the first opportunity that Toyota has had to show the world how seriously it intends to take its mission. It is not an opportunity squandered.