Toyota: The last bastion of enthusiasts?

If you were to tell me 10 years ago that Toyota would become a beacon for those who love driving (without the deep pockets kind), I would have laughed out loud. Today, Toyota offers two rear-wheel drive coupes (the GR Supra and GR 86), a rally-bred all-wheel drive hatch (the GR Yaris, though you can’t buy a new one anymore) and soon to join the line-up, another hot hatch in the guise of the GR Corolla. That the GR Yaris and GR Corolla only come with manual transmissions is all the more remarkable, given that it rules out the majority of people who drive.

It’s no coincidence that as Toyota basks in rally sport dominance; three consecutive WRC drivers’ crown and two manufacturers’ titles in the last four years, the once-again best-selling automaker in the world also saw its 2021 market share in Europe hit an all-time high. In a continent where consumers are supposedly more appreciative of the driving aspects of a car, Toyota took second spot behind perennial leaders Volkswagen, with the humble Yaris being a key sales contributor. When Akio Toyoda promised to make ‘fun to drive’ cars back in 2011, it was a strategic plan to win over hearts and minds, and it has paid off.

The transformation from the standard Euro-spec Yaris (left) to the GR Yaris (right) is startling.
Perfectly formed pocket rocket

There’s nothing much left unsaid about the performance of the GR Yaris, but before we dive into that, it’s worth pointing out what a tidy job Toyota did in transforming the vanilla Yaris (European variant) into something as cool-looking as the GR Yaris. The Lancia Delta Integrale is often cited as its spiritual soulmate of an era gone by, but the GR Yaris – with its distinctive swept back roofline that tapers to a neatly tucked rear end – occupies its own space in this exclusive membership of homologation specials.

The GR Yaris is all about the drive, but it looks really cool too.

Even at standstill, the GR Yaris’ wide haunches and wheels-at-each-corner stance means business, every kink on its bodywork seems to have a purpose to make it go faster and corner harder. Not that it needed any visual embellishments, but with the optional GR front spoiler, side skirts, rear bumper spoiler and sport muffler fitted to the test unit from UMW Toyota, this Yaris is everything an enthusiast would hope a road-legal rally car to resemble.

Toyota shoehorned a rear double-wishbone suspension into the GR Yaris, takes muscular haunches to a new level.
Extra spicy hot hatch

With due respect to all the hot hatches out there, the GR Yaris is a different level of spiciness altogether; a model developed to support a motorsport effort and limited to 25,000 units. Those who follow rally sport in the 80s and 90s know that Toyota isn’t new to homologation specials, but for the world’s biggest mass producer of automobiles to loosen its purse strings and install a dedicated production line with ‘sports car-grade’ processes, manned by takumis, well, that’s commitment for you.

The carbon composite roof on the GR Yaris saves 3.5kg.

‘Yaris’ and ‘bespokeness’ aren’t normally spoken in the same breath, but in the GR Yaris, the bodyshell, underpinnings and powertrain are entirely unique (this was before the GR Corolla was announced). To pare down weight and to lower its centre of gravity, the GR Yaris deploys a carbon composite roof and aluminium body panels, the rear torsion beam was also ditched in favour of double-wishbone suspension adapted from Toyota’s C-segment platform.

Turbocharged 1.6-litre three-cylinder punches well above its weight and is surprisingly smooth too.

The mention of a 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine won’t get pulse racing but it has the distinction of being the smallest, lightest and most powerful in production, with a rated output of 261hp and 360Nm (that’s 163hp per litre!), mated to a six-speed manual which sends power to all four wheels via the GR-Four all-wheel drive system – another piece of kit developed for the GR Yaris, tuned by the works rally team, no less.

All the GR Yaris-es sold by UMW Toyota in Malaysia came with Performance Pack as standard, it adds on Torsen limited-slip differentials on both axles (on top of the ‘centre’ electronic clutch pack), BBS lightweight forged alloys with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber and firmer suspension, a simple giveaway would be the red brake calipers with GR branding on them.

The front disc rotor of the GR Yaris measures 356mm in diameter; brake system offers superb retardation and feel.
Glued to the road

What the GR Yaris brings to the table mirrors what a WRC car does on a rally stage, which is to circumnavigate corners in the fastest, most effective manner possible, where precious seconds are gained or lost. Thus, chassis dynamics rather than straight line speed takes priority here, particularly in the areas of traction and grip where the GR Yaris naturally excels in.

The party trick of the GR Yaris is carrying speed into corners and utilising its all-wheel drive traction to haul itself out of them. No matter which drive mode is chosen – Normal with 60:40 torque split fore and aft, Sport at 30:70 and Track at 50:50 – the purchase that a GR Yaris has on a piece of dry tarmac is tenacious, even in rear-bias Sport mode. If getting sideways is your thing, get a GR Hachi-Roku instead.

No matter which drive mode, it’s virtually impossible to unglue the GR Yaris on dry tarmac, unless provoked.

For entertainment purposes, Toyota has given the GR Yaris an easter egg of sorts so you can pull off those cool handbrake turns seen on a WRC rally stage. All that’s required is a hard yank on the handbrake and the drive to the rear axle would then be decoupled (no need to clutch in), this in turn ‘locks’ the rear wheels and allows the GR Yaris to rotate that much easier.

Braking matters

It can’t be overstated just how vital the GR Yaris’ brakes are when prepping it for corner entry. The slotted disc rotors anchored by four-pot calipers up front, two-pot at the back offer immense retardation, accompanied by granular levels of modulation from the middle pedal. Since body motion is already so well contained, you can leave braking late without unsettling the poise of the GR Yaris.

Three-pedal hot hatches are becoming endangered, Toyota is doing their bit to preserve that.

Electric assistance notwithstanding, Toyota has dialled in a fair amount of stiction into Yaris’ steering response, the heft is definitely noticeable at low speeds, with an almost old-school ‘hydraulic’ beefiness to it, but once it gets going, the rack is delightfully precise and progressive. Like most AWD front engine hot hatches, the GR Yaris is susceptible to understeer if you overcook the entry, but it’s entirely benign and backing off the throttle would easily solve that.

Efficiency over emotion

Make no mistake, many aspects of the GR Yaris are emotionally-enriching – the turbo three-cylinder is punchy and surprisingly smooth, the resulting pace is properly quick for hot hatch standards (0-100km/h in 5.5 secs, 230km/h limited), there’s even a throaty exhaust note courtesy of the optional GR sports muffler fitted on our test car.

Gear shift action is clean and precise, but nothing to write home about.

The same can be said about the six-speed manual transmission; the clutch travel and bite point are easy to suss out while the gear action is precise enough so you’ll never fluff any shifts, and there’s even on-demand rev-matching to help smooth the things out. Everything works like a Toyota should.

But in a daily use case scenario, the GR Yaris isn’t quite as endearing. Nothing wrong with its practical aspects; it has usable boot space, can carry four adults and isn’t found wanting in terms of cabin quality, amenities or safety features. Okay, the firm ride expectedly fidgets over every road imperfection but there’s more than enough ground clearance to clear speed bumps and parking ramps with ease. With its compact dimensions, this super hatch that should be as pleasurable on weekday school runs as it is on weekend touge blasts, but it isn’t.

The issue arises when the owner isn’t in the mood to dial the GR Yaris up seven- or eight-tens; the three-cylinder would feel pedestrian off boost, the bumpy low speed ride becomes tiresome and the novelty of rowing your own gears wears off quickly. There’s no doubting the special technical abilities of the GR Yaris, but they only come to the fore when it’s driven with aggression.

You can’t buy a new GR Yaris anymore, but…

For the 130-odd individuals who scored a new GR Yaris imported by UMW Toyota, maybe it’s a blessing that the car isn’t daily driven given the fact that it’s already a collectors’ item that will hold its value for years to come because Toyota simply isn’t making more than the 25,000 units. If you missed the boat, there are a few pre-owned units fetching a pretty penny in the classifieds.

Or…you could wait a tad longer for the GR Corolla which is set to arrive in Malaysia next year. It’ll be powered by the same engine and all-wheel-drive system found in the GR Yaris, presented in a C-segment five-door hatchback body which should yield superior refinement and usability – a less extreme but more grown-up offering that’s probably easier to live with, provided you have no qualms operating three pedals. Unlike the GR Yaris, the production of the GR Corolla won’t be limited. Either way, Toyota has got the backs of enthusiasts well covered. Thank you for keeping your promise, Akio-san.

Likes: Cool looks, amazing grip and traction, mega brakes
Dislikes: Not that engaging as a daily driver

Toyota GR Yaris
: RM286,896 (last published price with 50% SST exemption)  Engine: 1.6-litre petrol turbo 3-cyl inline, FWD  Output: 261hp and 360Nm  Transmission: 6-speed manual Performance: 0-100km/h in 5.5 seconds; top speed 230km/h (limited)  Wheels/tyres: 225/40 R18  Safety: 6 airbags, Toyota Safety Sense  Warranty: 5-year/Unlimited mileage