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All-paw Yaris might be the most exciting addition to the hot hatchback market in a decade. Wickedly purposeful, and wonderfully evocative of fast 4x4s of old.

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.

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What's it like?

The very idea of this car promises big. It is a compact, supermini-sized package with an engine and drivetrain that lifts it way out of the hot supermini niche, and actually place it on a par with an Audi S3 or VW Golf R for power-to-weight ratio. It has a unique chassis that’s a hybrid of Toyota’s GA-B and –C platforms, and that’s been strengthened and reinforced all over the place. It has lightweight aluminium and carbonfibre-composite panels, and all-independent suspension and aerodynamics that have been developed with the help of designers and engineers from Toyota’s WRC team.

It also has a manual gearbox; nothing less than the most powerful three-cylinder engine in any production vehicle in the world; and the first proprietary four-wheel drive system that Toyota has developed for a road car in two decades, which can be set for a rear-biased torque distribution and augmented with proper ‘Torsen’ limited-slip differentials for both axles as you prefer. If that doesn’t excite you, folks? Well, I’m not sure any modern hot hatchback will.

Then again, even if it doesn’t, I’m pretty sure the driving experience would. The GR Yaris is of a performance breed that you might have unconsciously consigned to history. It’s redolent of a time before seeking a thrill out on the public road became so socially toxic. When our roads were quieter, and the affordable performance cars we had to enjoy on them – from Delta Integrales to fast Imprezas and Lancer Evos – wore dynamic qualities like hard-hitting mid-range performance, any-weather traction and unconditional handling stability as badges of honour, and their affordable pricetags just as proudly.

That doesn’t make the GR Yaris the most modern-feeling of vehicle concepts, granted – but boy, is it ever good. Improbably fast and composed over the ground, with a stability and simple drivability that make it indecently easy to carry speed in. And yet it’s also characterful, involving and mechanically tactile, with a chassis ready to liven up underneath you just enough when the opportunity presents. It’s a car that just begs to be driven quickly, in other words – and the more you’re prepared to explore how quickly it’ll go, the better it gets.

And what makes all of the above seem to deliciously improbable is the fact that its a Toyota Yaris; although not much of one. The only body components that it shares with a regular Yaris are its lights, door mirrors and roof aerial. The car’s roofline has its own profile and sits some 45mm lower to the ground, so you duck your head ever so slightly on the way in. The driving position isn’t so different from that of the regular supermini, though: you sit high at the controls but really well supported in a good-sized sports seat, with decent passenger space and adjustment range for the controls even for taller drivers.

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The car’s instruments have a few new digital modes, but down on the transmission tunnel is where the chief differences are. In place of the regular Yaris’ electronic handbrake you’ll find a manual one with an old-fashioned lever; if you pull it on while the car’s moving, the four-wheel drive system automatically disconnects the rear halfshafts (which might be my favourite technical feature about the whole car). Meanwhile, Toyota has also moved the gearshift console upwards and forwards for more intuitive access, and next to it you’ll find the GR’s rotary drive mode selector. It defaults to ‘normal’ mode, in which the clutch-based driveline gives you a 60:40 front-to-rear torque split. Tweak it to the right and you get ‘track’ mode, which moves the default torque bias to 50:50. But rotate it to the left and, in ‘sport’ mode, you get a 30:70 split. It’s not a lockable torque split, so that lion’s share of torque only stays at the rear contact patches until the front ones begin to spin up; but it does have an influence over the way the GR Yaris handles.

The car’s performance level is quite a lot more serious than you might imagine any supermini – those ‘80s homologation legends notwithstanding – could ever be. The three-cylinder engine sounds vocally meek-and-mild at first; a bit like an angry Daihatsu Charade with a loud-hailer. You warm to its charms, though – particularly once you’ve discovered how keenly it responds to throttle inputs, how indefatigably boosty it feels through the mid-range, and how freely it revs beyond 5000rpm. And the resulting potential for roll-on acceleration? I’d swear it feels every bit as potent as early Subaru Impreza Turbos did, only without the laggy pause for intake of breath of the old Scoob. It’s a giggle to say the very least.

The medium-heavy, alluringly tactile shift quality is surprisingly ‘Scoobyish’ too; likewise the progressive, composed-yet-supple way it rides and handles at pace. There was just a little bit of bite about our test car’s low-speed ride (Toyota’s optional Circuit Pack, as fitted, adds stiffer springs, dampers and roll bars, as well as lightweight forged 18in alloy wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres and the aforementioned Torsen slippy diffs front and rear), but it becomes pleasingly fluent at cross-country speeds. Most importantly, there isn’t a hint of the occasionally hyperactive vertical jiggle over testing roads that you can find in an equivalent fast Ford, say. You just get really authoritative underlying body control blanketed by an initial absorbency that’s as reassuring as it is pleasingly pragmatic to unearth.

With steering that’s only medium-paced and a hint of moderation about the suspension tuning, the car doesn’t pivot and swivel on turn-in quite like some hot hatchbacks. It might give back just a little bit more reassuring weight and feel through its slightly muted steering, too. It has really striking mid-corner agility, however, changing direction energetically once it’s committed to a bend, and rolling only enough to communicate lateral load clearly.

The four-wheel drive system isn’t there to allow the car to do an impression of a rear-driven two-seater, clearly; even in sport mode, it only gently straightens the car’s cornering attitude with power rather than rotating it towards the inner verge. Even so, it allows you to pour on power before you pass an apex - waiting just an instant as the boost builds, the diffs bite in, and the car catapults itself viscerally inwards and onwards like a fast 4x4 of old. And the way it does so is as compelling a phenomenon as any driver’s car at this price level or below it can supply.

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Should I buy one?

Here is a Toyota quite clearly ready to hold your imagination captive like very few performance cars of the price. Even at this early stage, I wouldn't be afraid to call it a landmark car - and if there are more GR-branded models like it in the pipeline, it could well be the start of an era every bit as transformative for Toyota's reputation among car enthusiasts as Akio Toyoda intended.

It's not cheap; UK prices start at a whisker under £30,000, rising to £33,500 for a 'Circuit Pack' car, and so a fully loaded one might cost you 50 per cent more than you expect to pay for a hot supermini. But the GR Yaris so plainly isn't just another go-faster shopping car. Whatever the badge on its rump may suggest, it's actually the kind of extra-special, rare-groove performance machine that comes along very rarely indeed. The commitment, effort, skill and focus it represents simply demands the attention of proper petrolheads.

We'll be giving it plenty more attention yet, by the way; reporting in greater detail on the car and its driving experience, and directly comparing it with rivals. But we needn’t wait a moment longer to declare that the GR Yaris a new pint-sized champion among affordable, road-going, any-weather drivers’ cars. It's every bit as good to drive as you might have been hoping it would be. Honestly, it’s that good and then some.

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DS240 11 November 2020

Very nice that Toyota have

Very nice that Toyota have bothered to develop this type of car and sounds like it is interesting to drive.

But..

Surely they could have made the interior just a bit more interesting. Bland, bland, bland. This is meant to be the top Yaris, a homologation special, an image changer. Could the wheel, gear knob and maybe door panels not be alcantara, the seats lowered and a bit racier with a bit of colour (similar to the lighter Megane options you used to get). Or at least have an option for it.If you just saw the interior, you'd think what a load of rubbish. Where is the desirability in wanting to own one and have that cabin, it is not aimed at normal Toyota customers. The cabin alone, does not alter the Toyota image. Just being a good drive, is not enough these days.

mullogutherum 15 November 2020

A more complete review, please...?

I get that this is seen as an enthusiast's special, so things like back seat comfort, ISOFIX child seat mount points, and the like, may not seem to matter to its market acceptance.  But I need to know before plunking down my hard-earned.

To some of us, garage space is fixed, so a potential sizzling pocket-rocket upgrade to a 6-year-old warm hatch as "my" car is a truly tantalizing possibility, but it has to seat the family when called upon to do so, maybe 10 - 15% of the time.

And for that matter, do the rear seats fold down, to accommodate 4 non-road-legal tires for track days?

david RS 10 November 2020

Interesting car but here in

Interesting car but here in France this kind of cars has become almost forbidden with the new taxes.

Sad days...

 

NoPasaran 10 November 2020

Is it exclusively UK car?

anyone knows?

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