First Drive: Toyota GR Yaris

You won’t ever see another car like the Toyota GR Yaris. I don’t mean for a few years or even a generation. Never. This is it. This is the peak of petrol-powered progress.

Hyperbole? We’ll undoubtedly see faster, more powerful cars, we’ll see more frugal models, and we’ll see cars that can take a corner quicker. We’ll certainly see more luxurious, premium-feeling models coming through.

But we won’t see another car purpose-built just so that its parent company can go rallying every other Sunday. The numbers already don’t add up, which is why it’s 20 years since the last homologation special, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI, and the changes wreaked by coronavirus and the approaching inevitable ban on the internal combustion engine means there’s zero business case now.

Toyota GR Yaris front

But that’s not stopped Toyota. It races in the World Rally Championship, but you need to make 25,000 of whatever model you want to race before you’re allowed in. That’s fine for Ford and its Fiesta, or the Hyundai i20. It wasn’t even a problem for Toyota, who raced the Yaris.

But, for 2021, Toyota wanted to do better. It wanted a car designed for rallying, so set about developing a new custom Yaris rather than modifying what already existed. It took the existing car and, frankly, threw away most of it. The front of the chassis is much the same, and then it’s all different. There’s not a single body panel shared between this GR Yaris and the regular hatchback, with three (aluminium) doors, a low (carbon fibre) roof, huge wheel arches, air intakes everywhere, and enormous, wide wheels.

Toyota GR Yaris rear

Under the skin, there’s the world’s most powerful production three-cylinder engine, its 1.6-litres boosted by a turbocharger so big it can produce a zesty 261hp, all going through a six-speed manual gearbox to all four wheels. Opt for the Circuit Pack, as we did here, and there are also mechanical limited-slip differentials at both ends of the car.

So no, it’s not just a trim level. Only the headlights, taillights and wing mirrors are shared. It’s an investment that Toyota has made to win the World Rally Championship, and the making of 25,000 road-going versions of the car is just another step on that path. It’ll lose money on every single car, but that probably comes off a marketing budget somewhere so nobody cares.

What might Toyota be losing on every car? £5,000? Possibly. Maybe less, but even just £3,000 means that adds up to a £75m loss on top of the development budget.

And it’s worth every penny.

Toyota GR Yaris

Crawling out of Crawley to find some decent roads, the GR Yaris feels good. The seating position is a little too high for my liking, but it’s a minor quibble. The pedals (aluminium, of course, with a heavier clutch pedal) are spaced well, the gear lever (six-speed manual, no automatic option thank you very much) is mounted 50mm nearer to the steering wheel for quicker shifts, and the steering wheel (reshaped and leather-covered) adjusts to ensure you’re sat in a near-perfect position.

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Hugged by supportive but not restrictive sports seats, you can feel the road surface below. The incredibly stiff body means there’s no creaks and cracks as you hit each bump, and the suspension is compliant enough to take the edge off things, but you know what you’ve hit and when. It’s easier on your back than a Civic Type R, but less comfortable than a Golf GTI.

Easing out of town, onto the low-speed dual carriageway and you hear a growl from the exhaust. It’s piped in using a surprisingly sophisticated system involving the amplifier and microphones but, despite being a little underhand, it makes a near-perfect noise.

Finally, open roads. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first; the tyres (high-performance Michelin Pilot 4S) are a little bit noisy. And that’s it.

There are three driving modes to choose from. By default, the GR Yaris sends 60% of the power to the rear, while Sport mode shifts it to 70%. Spending half the day in this mode, it’s good, with a balance and drive out of corners that’s both exciting and predictable. But there’s also a Track mode, a mode that you probably wouldn’t want to switch on while driving on public roads – unless you were driving a GR Yaris.

Pressing that button balances the power 50:50 front to rear, and transforms the car. It was alive initially, but it develops an entirely new character. Turn into a tight corner, plant the throttle, and the front end works the differential and flings you out of the apex, finding grip where you were sure there wasn’t any. The wide track makes it stable on the way in, but you can hold the brakes right through a corner entry and all the way to the apex without the car baulking, the four-wheel-drive system just balancing the car and waiting for you to unleash it once more.

The stopwatch says the car accelerates to 62mph in 5.5 seconds, and I’m not going to dispute that, but focussing on a simple linear measure doesn’t serve to explain the performance of the GR Yaris. There are plenty of quicker cars to 62mph, and a handful that’ll be quicker around corners, but I can’t think of any current car that comes close to engaging in the same way the Toyota does, and making a journey – every journey – an experience to savour.

Let the engine spin up beyond 4,000rpm, and even 5,000rpm and beyond, and there’s a surfeit of power and torque, the GR rocketing along, blasting its exhaust noise into the cabin and ensuring that plenty of endorphins are released. This is your happy place.

It does beg you to give more of yourself, and rewards you every time you do. You might not be Tommi Mäkinen – who helped develop the car – but it makes you feel like you are. It’s addictive. Yes, there are electronic aids to help out if things go awry but, frankly, the car works better with them off. It also works better without the input of ‘Intelligent Manual Transmission’, an electronic aid that blips the throttle to rev match during gear shifts – you can change gear quicker than the system and catch it out, and it’s such a delight to be so mechanically involved that it just feels better without it.

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Toyota GR Yaris interior

Is it still a sensible hatchback? Well, the front of the cabin is much the same as the Yaris ever was, so it’s spacious, well equipped, a little cheap to the touch, and built well. The tray for your phone is a nice touch, but pointless when it’s not got any kind of grippy surface to it; the first corner will see your new iPhone disappear under a seat somewhere.

The rear? Forget it. Two tiny seats surrounded by a high waistline means it’s dark and cramped. The boot, at 147 litres, is a token gesture. You’re not looking at this road-legal rally car if you’re after sensible motoring, though.

You’re after the most enjoyable way of getting from A to B, and the Toyota GR Yaris delivers that. Forget your 600hp supercars, as wide as a bus and as temperamental as a 1980s Fiat. You can’t use them to even 10% of their capability on a public road, especially a narrow country lane in Sussex, covered in wet leaves and potholes.

Designed to hurtle along forest roads sideways, the GR Yaris laughs at such obstacles. It’s been created purely to entertain and reward, giving you all the equipment you need to make the most efficient progress.

Toyota GR Yaris smiles

When you get it right – and you will, over and over again – it’s an almost transcendent experience. You stop consciously driving the car and instead feel it. The outside world slows down, the car reacting to your inputs immediately, understanding what you’re asking of it and just letting it happen.

The GR Yaris is, undoubtedly, the best Toyota I’ve ever driven. It’s certainly the best car I’ve driven this year. It might just be the best car of the millennium.

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Phil Huff

Phil Huff has been writing for national newspapers, magazines, regional titles and countless websites since 2003. Specialising in travel and the automotive world, Phil is happiest when exploring foreign lands in foreign cars.