What are you driving?
I'm driving a car that could be in danger of drowning in its own hyperbole, a car that has been so hotly anticipated that it's advisable to wear oven gloves while driving. The Toyota GR Yaris was totemic, iconic, even before anyone outside of Toyota got behind the wheel. By slamming a lusty turbocharged petrol engine and four-wheel drive into the diminutive new Yaris, Toyota was both harking back to the classic 1990s days of Subaru Impreza Turbos and Mitsubishi Evos, and was - so went the fervent hopes of every true car nut - going to provide a last-hurrah for noisy petrol hot hatches before batteries take over. The danger, of course, is that like a new Star Wars movie, nothing could possibly live up to the hype. On that note, we shall see in a moment...
In the meantime, the GR Yaris' mechanical spec is enough to have you reaching for a box of tissues to mop up the drool, so mouth-watering is it. Up front, there's a 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo, related to the 1.5-litre engine in the standard Yaris in the same way that I'm related to Usain Bolt. It has been filled with lightweight parts to reduce rotational mass, and the turbo has been tweaked to provide a broad spread of torque, rather than lag-lag-lag-go! Power is sent to all four wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and a four-wheel-drive system controlled by a multi-plate clutch. As much as 60 per cent of the engine's power can be sent to the front wheels, and up to 70 per cent can be sent rearwards.
You'll notice that the GR Yaris is a three-door car, whereas the standard Yaris always has five doors. That's because, like everything else to do with this car, the mechanical spec was laid down by Toyota's World Rally Championship team. A three-door layout means a stiffer bodyshell, you see. That sloping roofline (the GR Yaris is some 91mm shorter than the standard hatch) is there for better aero. Lightweight aluminium is used for much of the body and yes, that's a genuine carbon-fibre roof up top. There are also the requisite bulging wheelarches (a small flavour of the old wide-arches RS Escorts there), a big rear wing and a gaping front air intake.
It's also, structurally, not really a Yaris. Well, the front end is more or less taken from the standard Yaris, but the rear is more closely related to a Corolla, in order to make space for the four-wheel-drive setup.
Our test car came with the €3,710 'Luxury Pack', which means you get navigation, a nice JBL stereo, a head-up display, a blind spot monitor, front and rear parking sensors and rear cross traffic alert. You could instead spec it with the optional €6,675 'Circuit Pack', which adds forged 18-inch alloys, tweaked suspension and a limited slip differential. You'd probably want to be doing a lot of track days to justify that, though, not least because the Circuit Pack also comes with edgier Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, rather than the road-focused Dunlop Sport Maxx boots of our test car.
Inside, you'll notice that, unlike the multi-level digital dash of the Yaris Hybrid, the GR Yaris makes do with simpler, analogue instruments. This fact is actually a rather good indicator of how it drives...
Name its best bits
You sit quite high, in a soft-but-firm hug from the GR-branded high-back bucket seat. Toyota says that in the rally car, the driver sits up high, so that's how it goes for the GR road car too. The steering wheel is small, perfectly round, and fits neatly into your palms. The gear lever looks spectacularly plain, almost as if it came from an early-2000s Avensis diesel, but it's a hand span from the wheel, which is rather more important.
The three-cylinder engine growls eagerly - but not overly loudly - to life when you push the start button. Grab the plain-Jane shifter and you immediately feel the proper, mechanical - again, analogue - feel to the gear change. Even just slotting first, you can practically feel the individual gear teeth slide across one another.
The clutch is surprisingly un-sharp (certainly far lighter and easier than that of those old Imprezas and Evos) and for the first little while, what you notice most about the GR Yaris is that it's surprisingly refined. The ride quality, on fixed-rate dampers, is firm, but not jarring. The engine purrs most of the time, at low efforts, and the steering is light and easy. Fitted with the Luxury Pack, for the most part, the GR Yaris would be surprisingly easy to live with, in a day-to-day driving sense.
Get it onto a proper road, though, and things start to come a little bit more to life. I'm lucky in that the slightly more elastic COVID restrictions in Northern Ireland mean that some truly brilliant roads are within reach of my house, and out here the GR Yaris can truly show off its brilliance.
First, that engine. It's gem, feeling so mechanically perfect that you half expect to see the name 'Seiko' embossed on the cam cover. There is not even a hint of turbo lag, and plentiful torque across a broad range, so there is never a point where you think that it feels slow. Figures of 261hp and 360Nm are just plenty, thanks. No need for any more.
It's the noise that gets you, though. I was expecting the usual three-cylinder off-beat grumble, as per the Ford Fiesta ST. But no - extend the GR Yaris' 1.6 engine and you get a soundtrack that's closer in its tune and timbre to a Porsche flat-six. It's an intoxicating noise, and one you'll want to experience again and again. Toyota includes an 'iMT' function for the gearbox, which automatically blips the throttle on down changes, but it's more fun to switch that off and to try and heel-and-toe yourself. Again, this car is about analogue fun.
This car's handling is close to peerless. Front grip is astonishing - like a MINI Cooper S, you feel that there's no apex you can't hit, but the GR Yaris is doing it at much higher speeds. Composure is absolute, with the four-wheel-drive system keeping you tucked tight to your chosen line. On the public road, you'd never induce tail-happiness, but don't go feeling that the GR Yaris is inert. It's not. You, the driver, are an absolutely critical part of the process, and the little Toyota seeks only to indulge. Make a mistake, as you inevitably will, and it's tolerant and reassuring, but then instantly egging you on to have another go and do better. It is brilliant, invigorating, fun.
Anything that bugs you?
Flaws? Well, the steering is beautifully weighted, but I'd have liked a tiny bit more feel and feedback as the front end can feel a little distant at times. There's lots of tyre roar at motorway speeds, the boot is pointlessly tiny and anyone close to six-foot tall is going to get concussion trying to climb in the back. That's about it, though.
And why have you given it this rating?
You might think it's nuts, spending €50k on a Yaris. In some ways, you'd be right, but then this is not a Yaris - it's a GR Yaris, and those extra letters turn it into a vastly different proposition. Just as the Integrale was not a normal Lancia Delta, and just as the Cosworth was not a sleepy Sierra, so the GR Yaris is not really a Yaris at all. Neither is it a tamed rally car - it's too easy-going and refined for that - but it is a landmark high-performance car, a last frantic burst of burning dinosaurs for fun, a small, nimble, agile hot hatch that will now, surely, be able to take a seat at the top table alongside the likes of the Peugeot 205 GTi, Golf GTI and Focus RS. It's a future classic and an everyday performance car rolled into one. It's brilliant. It escapes the Star Wars movie comparison, by being The Mandalorian.
What do the rest of the team think?
For me, the GR Yaris seals the deal by being special feeling even at sane road speeds. It's a brilliant creation and I want one in my fantasy car collection. Not that it would gather cobwebs in a dusty barn, as I'd want to drive it everywhere. As Neil said, it's perfectly tractable enough and easy to drive to allow that, though the rear seats and boot are tiny. Those things won't bother prospective buyers, but the elevated seating position might. Yes, I know it's how the pros sit in their rally cars, but that doesn't make me want to sit up in the rafters thank you very much. Still, that's all forgotten as soon as the turbo spools up, the rev counter's needle swings past 6,000rpm and your maniacal laugh joins that of the engine's scream toward the red line. Hats off to Toyota for bringing this car to the masses. Well, so long as the masses have the guts of €50k to spend, of course.
Shane O' Donoghue - Editor