2021 Toyota GR Yaris Review: Should you believe the hype?

GR Yaris Review

Toyota doesn’t let its hair down very often but when it does it goes all out…We review the Toyota GR Yaris on bitumen and dirt.

Back in the 1980s, Toyota was big into rally. See, it wasn’t as big or as powerful as a brand as it is now and the World Rally Championship was the place to make your name in front of motoring enthusiasts. Something Toyota was desperate to do.

With the bonkers Group B about to be replaced by the even more mental Group S, Toyota set about building a bespoke, in its words, “rally supercar”. That car was called the 222D.

But Group S was binned because of the tragic amount of deaths that occurred in the last season of Group B. But Toyota kept up with its desire to build an enthusiast oriented hottie, rolling out the Celica GT-FOUR. This thing went on to make Toyota’s name in WRC and pave the way for other Japanese all-paw rally heroes to follow.

Stay with my history jabber. In 1990 Toyota turned the wick right up and got serious about WRC, rolling out a homologation special of the Celica GT-FOUR. This thing was wild. And still is.

Toyota GR Yaris and Celica GT-FOUR

For those who don’t know, a homologation special is a vehicle built and sold in limited numbers in production form so that a brand can go racing with that vehicle. And, like I said, this is only the second time in 20 years we’ve seen a homologation special from Toyota.

So, no pressure.

Start reading through the press guff, other reviews and the technical specifications and it’s plain to see the GR Yaris is not just rare, but also a very special machine. See, it takes the front half of a Yaris and welds it onto the back half of a Corolla and wedges in a new GR-Four all-wheel drive system, or something like that.

The all-wheel drive system can be set into three different drive modes, from Normal through to Track and Sport, allowing you to switch from a front-drive bias, to a 50:50 split through to a rear-drive bias. The three-cylinder turbo petrol engine which makes 200kW and 370Nm is the most powerful production three-pot in the world.

And then there’s the handbrake. A useful tool in the rallyists arsenal, handbrakes on production cars are built to hold the car only. The handbrake on the GR Yaris has been built for handbrake turns. No kidding. It’s a solid-as-a-rock manual unit that will disconnect drive to the rear end when yanked allowing you to just about spin the thing in its own axis.

GR Yaris Review

Then there are other clever engineering bits and bobs like a carbon-fibre roof to lower the centre of gravity and reduce weight. There’s extensive use of aluminium in the panelling and the rear doors have been binned so that winglets can be added to improve air flow and downforce. Being a homologation special the silhouette needs to match the race car. Indeed, there are only one or two bits, like the aerial, and the headlights that are shared with the garden-variety Yaris.

So, to be fair, this is really only a Yaris in name.

Before we get to the fun stuff we’ll quickly touch on the interior because there are a couple of things to unpack. The first one is the bonkers lovefest from other writers about how the interior is all nice and retro. It isn’t. Let’s call it what it is, no frills, or cheap. It feels like the interior of a mid-90s WRX or Evo, and I guess that’s kind of cool.

GR Yaris Review

But the tacked on infotainment system is oriented towards the passenger and the seats while nice and grippy are ergonomically awkward. No matter how low you make the driver’s seat it’s still too high and the seat back, for me at least, couldn’t be made to feel right, I either felt like I was laying back or hunched over.

GR Yaris Review

Beyond those gripes the interior is okay. Although it’s best considered a two seater as climbing into the back over the front seats is a pain and there isn’t a lot of room once you’re back there. And Toyota could have made more effort with the badges because there are really only two that you’ll notice, telling you this is something special.

But I guess, this thing wants to do all its talking out on the road, rather than shouting about what it is on the inside.

So, let’s do just that. Take it for a spin. It’s been interesting reading other reports about this thing both here in Australia and from abroad where it’s possible to buy a more aggressive version of this thing. And while I don’t want this to sound like sour grapes, because it isn’t, it seems that it can be too easy to be sucked in by a car launch. Carefully chosen roads, tracks and events can colour how you report on a car. But there’s nothing like a school run, the supermarket car park and a run along your favourite bitumen and dirt roads to bring you back to earth.

GR Yaris Review

Big things were expected of this GR Yaris when I climbed in behind the wheel. But around town, well, it feels decidedly ordinary. There’s no hint of it being a ratbag, or feeling slightly out of place when constrained to driving at 60km/h and less. And I kind of wanted it to. I wanted it to feel strained, angry, snorty and a little annoyed at having to ferry me around performing mundane chores.

So, it’s easy to drive. There’s no feel from the clutch but it bites immediately and doesn’t feel too heavy, so getting around in traffic is stress free. Acceleration, thanks to the 370Nm of torque, is easy although you can sometimes end up in too high a gear because you’re resting on the torque only for it to start spluttering on a hill requiring a quick shift.

And there’s no real sound either. No one turns their head as it slides by as there’s no pop and crackle, no off-beat burble. It sounds alright on the inside, but most of that is piped in noise. Sigh.

What about away from town? Well, we didn’t take it on a track and I reckon this thing could be a lot of fun when you’ve got a lot of road to play with. But we did take it out onto our test roads and these are the sort of roads that can help to pick a car to pieces. They’re a mixture of smooth and coarse chip bitumen, and undulating roads, flowing corners and tight twisty stuff. The sort of roads that a hot hatch should eat up.

GR Yaris Review

And, on the whole the GR Yaris does eat up tight and twisty roads and can be stretched on longer sections. But there’s a deadness to some of the controls, like the throttle pedal, the clutch, the brakes and the steering that make this thing a little tricky to get into the groove of. You tend to guide and hope it’ll do as expected, and it does, but you never really feel a part of what it’s doing. And this surprised me.

There’s quite a bit of bodyroll as you tip into a corner, too, fortunately it settles and then grips and goes. A lot of people talk about a Civic Type R in regard to the GR Yaris, but for me, a WRX is a more appropriate rival. And in Normal mode, there’s not a lot to separate the two in tight corners; I think the WRX probably gives a little more feedback, even if the GR Yaris is ultimately quicker. And then there’s something like the Ford Fiesta ST which corners much flatter and gives more back to the driver than the GR Yaris. Sure, it’s nowhere near as fast, but it ‘feels’ faster and more raucous, more of a hot hatch, in more situations, if you know what I mean.

Worth mentioning that, like the proper handbrake, the GR Yaris has been built to allow you to left-foot brake. So many ‘performance’ cars will die the moment you touch the brakes while you’re on the throttle but not this GR Yaris. But what there’s no point doing is blipping the throttle on a downshift. Do it and it makes almost no difference. There’s a button that tells the car to do it automatically for you but even pressing that button doesn’t make much of a difference. And because of the different height set of the pedals, I couldn’t heel and toe; that’s not a biggie for about 99.9% of people but I thought I’d mention it.

It can, at times, feel a little under-tyred too. Overseas, a Circuit Pack sees the little rally rocket fitted with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 rubber, replacing the Dunlops. In fact, overseas there are a raft of extras available for the GR Yaris which would help to make it a little more aggressive. 

GR Yaris Review

But then we come to a surface that, at its heart, the little GR Yaris is made for. And that’s dirt. I mean, this thing is a rally car and yet most reviews talk about its performance on a race track…On dirt, the GR Yaris comes to life.

It starts to reveal its true self to you on flowing dirt roads where it allows you to play at being a rally driver with total confidence. Sure, the deadness in the controls is frustrating but the immediacy of their response helps you drive around it. And being able to fiddle with the drive modes means you can set up the GR Yaris to suit your preferred driving style. On dirt, the GR Yaris is a hoot.

Sounds like I’m being a wowser when it comes to the GR Yaris and I’m not trying to be because I like the thing. I love the fact that Toyota has built it for a start, even if the rally car that it was built for will now never compete in WRC; its engine will at least live on, officially approved for use in WRC.

What about the price. When it was introduced, Toyota offered it at a ridiculous entry price and the thing was snapped up almost overnight. And then more stock was found but the price crept up. Still it sold. And now the price is locked at $49,500 plus on-road costs. From an engineering standpoint, it’s a lot of car for the money.

GR Yaris Review

And it’s interesting to see what it’s being cross-shopped with by other outlets, things like the Megane R.S. and Honda Civic Type R, or the Audi S1, and so on. But not a single outlet has considered the WRX STI in entry-spec with a manual transmission. You’re looking at $52,400 plus on-roads. Yes, it’s a bigger machine, but it too has its roots in WRC, is all-wheel drive and it has more power and torque.

Don’t get me wrong. This GR Yaris is an incredibly impressive vehicle, not just because of the ridiculous engineering that’s gone into it but also because of the fact it’s a homologation special, and because it’s a Toyota. And it is a lot of fun to drive. When you’re wringing its neck. But I can’t help but wonder whether in 10 years time, people will be lusting after it the same way they do a late 90s WRX STI or Lancer Evo, or even a Celica GT-Four homologation special.

2021 Toyota GR Yaris Specifications

Price: $49,500+ORC

Warranty: five years, unlimited kilometres

Safety: Untested

Engine: 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine

Power: 200kW at 6500rpm

Torque: 370Nm

Transmission: six-speed manual

Dimensions: 3995mm long; 1805mm wide; 1455mm high; 2650mm wheelbase

Fuel Tank: 50L

Thirst: 7.6L/100km claimed combined

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Isaac Bober has been writing about cars and 4x4s for more than 20 years, has worked on some of the country's biggest motoring magazines (remember what they were?), and launched Practical Motoring. Now he's back, back again... to share dad jokes and much more.