Toyota GR Yaris Review
It’s just a Yaris, right? Not even close! This is what happens when Toyota decides it wants to dominate the World Rally Championship but needs to build a road car to meet the rules of the competition. Think of this less like a sensible city car and more like a road-legal rally car with four seats.
Select's rating score* - 4.7 / 5
This is what happens when a behemoth decides to do something properly. With profits of £17.5 billion, spending some cash on developing a hot hatch just for a giggle can make sense.
Externally, not a single body panel is shared between the regular car and this GR (after Gazoo Racing) model. The main body is cast from steel, but the doors and boot lid are lightweight aluminium, while the roof is made with carbon fibre. Lightweight 18-inch wheels sit under flawed wheel arches, and there are air intakes all over the place.
Underneath there’s a custom-made chassis that shares only the very front portion with the Yaris. It has a 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine bolted onto it, and that engine produces 261hp. All that power is delivered to the road via a permanent four-wheel-drive with, on this Circuit Pack model, not one but two mechanical limited-slip differentials.
The headlights are the same though, so that’s a few quid saved.
The result of that expenditure becomes clear once you fire up the engine.
It’s all about the car and how it drives, but Toyota has pulled off something of a special trick - while it’s a focussed, hard-edged sports car, it’s managed to leave the suspension just compliant enough, and the seats just comfortable enough, to be considered a viable everyday car.
Trundle through town in the GR Yaris and its fine. Not great, but good enough that you won’t be wanting to send it back to Toyota.
The suspension is firm, but there’s a softness to it that just takes the edge off, leaving it feeling solid rather than shaky. The gearbox is slick, and the clutch light, making the urban grind bearable.
And then you find an open road…
With 261hp on tap, you would expect potent performance, and the 5.5 seconds it takes to hit 62mph confirms that. But the GR Yaris is no quarter-mile hero. Instead, there’s a depth to its character that sucks you in, getting you more involved with the car with every passing mile.
Each journey starts with the GR Yaris in its normal mode, sending 60% of its power to the rear wheels, which produces a finely balanced compromise between power delivery and stability. It’s exciting, but not scary.
But there’s a switch ahead of the driver that says ‘Track’ and, while it’s usually not recommended to use a button like that in public roads, it’s just too tempting to ignore. Press it and the power is split 50/50, which only sounds like a minor change, but it transforms the car.
The razor-sharp turn in remains the same, with the car almost telepathically aiming for every apex, but the switch to track mode makes the car work with you rather than trying to protect you. You can be literally millimetre perfect, holding the brakes even through the entry to a corner, waiting for that midpoint before planting your right foot down again. The car sends the power down, the differentials figure out how to spread it around, and the car rockets away, flinging you towards the next curve.
Every corner is greater than the last, with the wide track providing stability that’s confidence building, and the four-wheel-drive system providing immense traction. It’s better than you are but helps you extract the maximum of your abilities without trying to scare you.
It works with you, supplementing the physical sensations with an aural soundtrack made up of the engine note, piped in exhaust rumbles and race-car transmission whine, to create an intoxicating cocktail of chemicals running through your body.
Cars like this attract fans, and they can be tribal; Focus RS fans will gladly point out that it gets to 62mph quicker than the Yaris, while the Civic Type R forums will remind you that the front-wheel-drive hot hatch has set lap records around all sports of race tracks.
But the GR Yaris is so much more than just numbers, and there’s no other car I can think of that engages in quite the same way. Honestly, this isn't transport, it’s entertainment. It’s therapy.
If you got on board right at the beginning, the GR Yaris could be a zero-cost car, as it’s appreciated by more than enough to cover any running costs. If supplies remain limited, that could well continue...
You’ll probably get through tyres more quickly than normal - they’re Michelin Pilot Sport 4s tyres on this Circuit Pack tet model, a tyre known for grip if not longevity - while fuel economy will depend entirely on how you drive.
You sit surprisingly high in the GR Yaris. Certainly, it’s higher than I might like, but the PR-line is that rally drivers like it as they get a better view of the road ahead. You can be the judge of that defence.
Don’t worry, it’s not alarmingly high, and makes getting in and out far easier than it is in some other hot rivals - I’m looking at you, Honda Civic Type R!
The seating position is made more amenable thanks to some heavy engineering on Toyota’s part, again highlighting how much detail it’s gone into for the GR; the gear lever has been moved to be a little higher and closer to the driver, and the car has a unique steering wheel, shaped to help you feel the car beneath you.
The rest of the cabin is, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. If this was an everyday Yaris, you’d be happy, but it's a £30+k limited edition version, and there's little excitement inside to mark the fact you’re driving something special.
There’s plenty of plastic around the cabin, which is fine but feels a little cheaper than you might hope for.
Only the aluminium pedals and stitched-leather steering wheel lift the cabin, as well as the supremely supportive sports seats.
Could we not have a bit of carbon fibre in there? Maybe a red line across the cabin?
Driver and passenger won’t feel hard done by in terms of space and equipment, with plenty of leg, shoulder and, despite the high seats, headroom.
Storage in the front is acceptable, if not class-leading. A sensible glovebox is joined by a cubby hole between the wonderfully accommodating and supportive seats that also has room for a couple of cupholders.
A handy phone-sized shelf sits beneath the infotainment screen but, inexplicably, the USB port is mounted low down by the gear lever.
You wouldn’t want to put your phone there anyway as, thanks to the hard plastic it’s made of, your phone will shoot off to the side at the first sign of a corner!
Still, it’s a comfortable, spacious and usable cabin. At least in the front.
Those in the back will be less pleased, assuming they can even squeeze between the door frame and front seat to get there. A four-seater in name only, the steeply raked roofline robs the back of headroom, while the rising window line adds a sense of darkness and claustrophobia. That’s only exacerbated by the less than generous legroom.
The boot is even worse! Measuring just 174 litres, it’s more than 100 litres smaller than the standard models capacity. A Fiesta ST, as a comparison, can squeeze 292 litres of cargo in the back.
In Toyota’s defence, rally cars don’t need rear passengers or a boot and, should the mood ever take you, you can fit four GR Yaris wheels and tyres in the back once you’ve folded the seats down.
It might be rally-derived, but you won’t find a roll cage or six-point safety harness in the GR Yaris. You will, however, find plenty of essential safety technology, from impressive automatic LED headlights and adaptive cruise control to emergency automatic braking and lane-keeping assist.
All models get a reversing camera, but only cars with the convenience pack include blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Euro NCAP hasn’t tested the GR Yaris yet, but the regular Yaris scored well, maxing out with a full five-star safety rating. Strong scores were recorded in every category, with both child and adult occupants being well protected.
There’s nothing in the way of options, beyond paint colours. Even then, there are only four to choose from and two of them are white.
Instead, you get to pick between a GR Yaris, or a GR Yaris with one of two packs on.
The regular GR Yaris has a perfectly acceptable level of equipment included, from an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen that’s loaded with a DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and, importantly, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Spend a bit more and you can pick the Convenience Pack that adds a degree of luxury, with items such as a head-up display, parking sensors front and rear, navigation and a bombastic JBL sound system.
But it’s the Circuit Pack that you really want.
This skips all of those handy extras and replaces them with a front and rear differentials, aggressive Michelin Pilot tyres and, essentially, bright red brake callipers. And it’s those differentials that make the difference, turning the GR Yaris from a hot hatch to a piece of automotive art.
Who needs parking sensors on a Yaris anyway?
Are there really any rivals for the GR Yaris? The Ford Fiesta ST is a hoot to drive, but you wouldn’t be able to see which direction the Yaris went. It’s got a 60hp or so power deficit and, with just front-wheel drive, can’t get that power down as convincingly. It’s still one of our favourite cars, but it’s not something you’d consider alongside a GR.
Perhaps the Hyundai i30 N would suit? This is a wonderfully balanced hot hatch, with similar power but, again, only front-wheel drive. On a damp road - not something that’s unheard of in the UK - there’s no doubt which car would be more engaging and entertaining. In the dry, the Hyundai is good though, and there’s more space inside.
A Honda Civic Type R is a divisive car, with a love it or loathe it style, but there’s no doubting its power and speed - there’s little faster this side of £50,000. Still, it’s heavier and less weirdly than the GR Yaris and, again, can’t get close to the levels of traction the Toyota produces.
Mini’s John Cooper Works model brings 306hp to the surprisingly large hatchback and has everything it needs to match the Toyota - apart from four-wheel-drive. It’s slightly lighter, more powerful, and feels a little higher quality, but the suspension is rock hard and makes it a handful to drive. Frustratingly, it’s not even that entertaining with it.
If you’ve read anything above, you’ll know what the verdict is. Yes, there are undoubtedly faster cars available - even at around the same monthly payments - but there’s so much more to the Toyota GR Yaris than simply going fast.
It’s about the way you cover each journey, and not how quickly you cover it. A McLaren or Ferrari might smash 200mph, but give them a narrow country lane on a damp January morning and you’d be lucky to make it out alive. The Yaris would eat it for breakfast.
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Toyota GR Yaris
**Correct as of 15/03/2021. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 48 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £3343.90 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.