10 minutes in a GR Yaris - is this the ultimate hot hatch?

I recount and review my time test driving a GR Yaris and try to work out why everybody finds this car so supremely good.

18w ago

Unless you've been completely detached from reality over the last year, you've probably heard that Toyota have built a new car. It's called the GR Yaris and it can only be described as brilliant.

I haven't encountered a journalist or driver who hasn't touted its praises. Evo magazine and Top Gear alike have all developed a fondness for the little hot hatch, giving the pocket rocket a bit of a cult following. I've already addressed this car in the best cars on sale article I wrote a few months ago, but I thought that to do it more justice, I would go more in-depth and talk about my personal experience with this car. We recently spent just 10 minutes test driving it and it didn't take long for it to grow on us.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda test drives the GR Yaris

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda test drives the GR Yaris

The story

This car was created by Gazoo Racing (Toyota's racing division) as a homologation special for the 2021 WRC season; this was the intention, anyway. It was not used this year due to testing cancellation during the Coronavirus pandemic and the current car took it's place. Toyota's 2022 entry will not be the GR Yaris mentioned in this article due to regulation changes and hybridisation. Toyota's car has not yet been fully revealed but seems to carry over a lot of the parts from the Yaris we see today.

2022 Hybrid GR Yaris Prototype testing.

2022 Hybrid GR Yaris Prototype testing.

We were lucky enough to get 25,000 of these road going cars worldwide. The amount of work put into its development is mightily impressive - rally legend Tommi Makkinen and Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda were a driving force for development and testing. It's the boss' personal project which is incredibly close to his heart and he seems to be very proud of. It reminds me of a story about former Ferrari boss Luca Di Montezemolo when he drove the not so popular Ferrari 348; he found it not to be to his standards and came back screaming 'is this really what we're selling to people? I think we'll have to start again with this.' - the same can not be said with Toyoda and his Yaris. Everybody at Toyota takes immense pride in their work as they spend up to ten times more time building the GR Yaris than the standard car, and they commissioned the former Lexus LFA production line to build it on. Those are not small shoes to fill. The individual nature of the build is leading to variations in power output by up to 20 more horsepower - it just shows how independent each car is and how much effort is put into each vehicle.

"The best new car I’ve driven this year is a Toyota and costs under £35k. Little slice of genius."

Chris Harris via Twitter

The Specs

Well, it's rather surprising actually. This car doesn't sport a big, burly 6-cylinder taking up the rear seats. No, it's a 3-cylinder with just one turbo. It is a pocket size motor for an age where we're downsizing our engines and switching to economical performance. I think it's a positive thing to see such a small engine put into one of the flagship cars of 2020 - it shows that even if we lose our Naturally Aspirated V10s, we can still have some fun. Especially when you incorporate the sporty 6-speed manual gearbox.

Excluding the sound, this engine does everything it should. It is the most powerful 3-cylinder ever created, which puts it up there in my view already. The 257BHP it produces is manageable yet enjoyable to harness at the same time and the 360NM of torque it generates is insane for a car this small and this light.

Speaking of weight, it uses lightweight materials to bring the dry weight down to just 1280kg which complements the power and makes the car accelerate and manoeuvre in the top of its class. The GR-Four All-Wheel-Drive system is what finishes off this magnificent vehicle; the short wheelbase and four wheel capability provides immense amounts of grip and aids with power delivery and acceleration. Oh, you can always have a go at a rally stage as well - it is built for it after all.

the test drive

So, why did I feel it was necessary to write about this car? There is plenty of content on it elsewhere but I thought I could provide a more unique perspective. A little while ago me and my parents took a GR Yaris for a test drive when looking for another car to act as more of a daily driver. We were only given 10 minutes to drive and cement our impressions on the car. We'd already engaged in some thorough research before arrival so we weren't blind to the warm reception that this car had received. Of the cars that we were looking at (e.g. the Hyundai i20N, Ford Fiesta ST) this was the first car we tested and the one we we're the most enthusiastic to do so.

We knew it was going to be good because it was improbable that the greatest automotive minds in the world were all collectively wrong. But, we were genuinely shocked at how superb it actually was. We didn't need the full 10 minutes to be absolutely bewitched by every detail of this car - it took about 30 seconds and a couple of bends to fall in love with it. We started off on the motorway and we could feel how it accelerated and maintained its speed. After reaching a roundabout we decided to try out the different driving modes, there is the normal mode which we had been in so far, sport which has a 30% front and 70% rear weight distribution ideal for on-road driving and track which is a 50-50 split to make the car as torte and planted as possible.

As soon as the car was in track mode I could feel the chassis become more rigid and it instantly became more connected to the road. It made you more confident to push the car round the corner as it felt balanced and manoeuvrable. It even felt as though it could be drifted in the track setting, but we obviously didn't try that on public roads. The car we drove was equipped with the circuit pack with its Limited-Slip Differential and sportier suspension so was the most performing model you could get. I'd be interested to try a non-circuit pack car to see the difference.

Overall, we didn't spend long driving it but we did get a good impression for it and dispelled some of its quirks. Certain issues are blown out of proportion, but I'll return to that in a bit. For now, the only word that can be used to describe this car is brilliant. Even my dad, who daily drives an RS5, said that it was the most exciting and enjoyable drive of the last 10 years. We all relished it even if we weren't driving. I learnt to appreciate the feeling of grip; it was so planted with minimal understeer. I understood why it's so exciting for people to see a car so perfect in a time so uncertain for petrolheads.

Looks and exterior

I must confess that I wasn't entirely convinced of the looks of this car from the early press photos and online material but as soon as I saw it in person my concerns were quelled. It just has such a dramatic presence for such a small car - I'm not sure whether it's the reputation of the car or its physical appearance but it has a commanding way with it when just sitting.

Starting at the front, there is a large muscular grille and beefy front haunches with venting, carbon black covers and fog lights reminiscent to a retro rally car. The front detail connecting the lights and badge make it look like a predatory animal, angrily going in for the kill. The GR badging adorning the front, sides and rear of the car denote it's sporting prowess and the flared bonnet finishes off the look.

The 18 inch multi-spoke BBS rims can be black cast alloys or forged depending on the specification you order but they fulfil their purpose of being light and stylish either way. They are covered with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres if you get the Circuit Pack which help with handling and grip. The red or black performance brake calipers emblazoned with the GR logo complement the look very well.

The side profile shows off the rallying intentions with a sloping roofline to make room for a huge rally wing and large front and rear arches. The 3-door layout is sporty and shorter but leads to smaller rear windows and cramped rear seats. There is black trim lining the exterior with frameless windows for the doors. The carbon fibre roof for weight saving is forged with a twill wrap.

But it's the rear that is the best part of this car. The behind makes or breaks a car for me (read into that however you like, but it's true) and this Yaris does not disappoint. The huge rear arches make for a dangerous looking appearance and the bumper made from lightweight plastic material blends into them very well. The rear hatch boot lid is made from aluminium (as are the bonnet and doors) and is designed to fit the large rear light bar which, along with the mirrors, the shark fin antenna and front lights, are the only thing taken from the standard car - the rest is completely bespoke and each piece has been tested and created with pinpoint Japanese precision. I just love the detail with this machine.

Interior, usability and comfort

One of my greatest concerns with this car was interior quality but during our test drive I was pleasantly surprised; for a £30,000 car, the quality is superb. The front seats are leather and alcantara lined with GR logos and red stitching; they are well bolstered and bucket-like. The centre console is firm with cupholders and storage space, the manual handbrake and 6-speed manual gearbox. There is a small plaque denoting it's WRC homologation background and buttons for rev matching, traction control etc.

The layout is fairly simple compared to some of today's cars with the assortment of buttons and switches for the driving modes and climate controls. The 8 inch touchscreen carries all of the usual functionality with phone connectivity and there is shortcut buttons to get to different sections. One issue I have is that certain options such as the satnav are unavailable unless you buy the Convenience pack which cannot be specified with the Circuit pack, making it a choice between them.

There is a storage area for your phone (which requires a wired connection for phone connectivity) and plenty of venting. The dashboard has a flushed design and, though lots of the cabin is plastic, it doesn't feel cheap or poor quality. No, you won't find carbon fibre inserts but it is still a very comfortable place to sit.

That is unless you're sitting in the back of the car. It is rather cramped due to the sloping roofline and all 5'11" of me scrapes the roof with my head. The back seats are functional if you're not nearing 6ft but I wouldn't recommend long journeys. It is not as decorative as the front seats with no lavish stitching in sight. They are, however, bearable enough for use with sufficient leg and head room for a drive to the shops and back. The rear windows are pitifully small but do provide light to the cabin and rear visibility leaves a lot to be desired especially with rear passengers.

The best thing I've found is the driver's seat. The steering wheel is very well positioned and small in diameter for easy movement and use, coming comfortably to hand. There is more metal inserts and GR badging on the wheel but the pedals are not placed for heel-and-toe shifting with too much distance between them; though for day-to-day driving they are fine. There is a start/stop button and analogue dials. The red dials on a black background with a digital relay in the middle are tasteful and reminiscent of retro cars which is a nice touch.

The flaws

I've tried not to sound like a Toyota propaganda machine set to just babble on but I fear I'm failing miserably so I thought I'd just go over a few of the Yaris' negative sides. I've already talked about the back seats, practicality and rear visibility but there are a few other issues that have been discovered.

Beginning in the front, the passenger seat is very high and difficult to adjust making for an uncomfortable seating position; It is substantially higher than the driver's seat which will be congenial for some drivers but makes it a matter of personal preference. As I stated earlier the pedals are too far apart with a rubber guard which prevents sporty heel and toe downshifts so the iMT rev matching button will need to be used.

Due to the fact that parts are carried over from the standard car, the large wing mirrors create an air gap between the mirror and the car so there is quite a lot of wind noise. The rear view mirror is quite large and there is only a small gap between it and the touchscreen which reduce visibility in the front. Though, we still found it to be easy to see out of and it was not as big of an issue as some reviewers have made it out to be.

I think the biggest issue is the sound; I like the resonance of an uneven engine such as Audi's inline-5 cylinder but this car leaves a lot to be desired on the acoustic front. The cold start sound of the car is wonderful to listen to being reminiscent of a classic carburetted engine. But, when on the move there is not much sound being emitted from the twin exhaust pipes. It is very quiet and discreet which is just not what you want when driving sportily; it slightly ruins the mood. There is audio taken from the exhaust which is pumped in through the speakers to give you the best sounds inside the cabin which is a nice touch but is not the same as hearing it naturally. It isn't a huge issue but could have been better. I think some people will be left at an impasse where they are undecided as to whether or not to install a louder aftermarket exhaust or keep the car stock as it increases in value which I believe it inevitably will.


The hot hatchback group has been trumped in almost ever sense by this brilliant piece of automotive design. Every piece of this car has been thought out to the most miniscule detail. This car had big shoes to fill being likened to the homologation cars of old such as the Lancia Delta Integrale but I think it's done well to keep its image and appease the critics.

The general feeling of love for this car can be seen in very few other vehicles. Even with the mass of YouTube reviews and articles I've read I didn't fully appreciate the interest in this car until I went to Brands Hatch a few days after our test drive. It was the British GT championship race and it enticed some eclectic and wealthy spectators. The South Bank car park was laden with wealth - there was the new BMW M4, an assortment of Porsches and even an Aston Martin DBS but nobody seemed to care. What car was everybody corralled around taking pictures? Yes, it was a little white GR Yaris and everybody was positively giddy with excitement.

The sheer level of engineering and thought that has gone into this car is incredible. Just sitting in it made me grin as I assessed every detail from the air vents to the door handles. The amount of care and thought for this car can be seen and I can't help but respect the devotion to their craft that the Toyota engineers have, not to mention Akio Toyoda himself. For a multi-billion dollar corporation to just step back and say 'let's have a little side project' is impressive and shows that even in these strange times where our petrol powered futures are uncertain, it is good to see this little 3-cylinder hatchback whip everybody up into a frenzy.

That's what sealed the deal for us; not the reviews or statistics but the love and devotion to it from its creators and its supporters. So we ordered one. A GR Yaris in Precious Black with the Circuit Pack will sit on our driveway someday soon and I couldn't be more elated (despite the 8 months left to wait for it). We are all in agreement that even our RS5 which we are lucky enough to have did not engage us as much as this plucky Yaris .

This car is all you will ever need - it is practical, useable and of relatively high quality. It's powerful and manoeuvrable enough to enjoy driving anywhere; there is the right amount of power to manage on the road and it can be daily driven with an obligatory back roads blast after every shopping trip. It is, after all, a Toyota so will be ludicrously reliable with a 5 year warranty as well. You should consider yourself lucky if you are on a waiting list and if you do get the opportunity to order one, I strongly encourage signing on that dotted line and getting your name down. This thing is special for so many reasons and I can't wait to keep writing about it when ours finally arrives.

I hope you enjoyed this article and it would be wonderful if you liked it and followed me here on Drivetribe. Please feel free to comment any thoughts or about your own experience with a GR Yaris. Thank you for reading.

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