New car review: Toyota GR Yaris

GR tweaks add some serious growl to Toyota’s diminutive Yaris hatch.

It’s not often that a car company kicks such a goal with a new vehicle that it needs to stop taking orders because it can’t keep up with demand. 

But this is precisely what’s happened with Toyota and its breakout star of 2020-21, the GR Yaris hatch. 

For motoring enthusiasts in the know, the letters GR when affixed to the rump of a Toyota signify something decidedly spicier than the brand’s mainstream fare. 

The initials are a nod to Toyota’s highly regarded motorsport division, known since 2015 as Gazoo Racing.

The resulting transfer of engineering skills forged in competition such as the World Rally Championship give Toyota a sports-focused road car division to rival Nissan’s Nismo and Hyundai’s N division. 

Here in Australia the GR family of sports models currently has but two members – the GR Supra and the GR Yaris – with a third sibling, the GR 86, having made its global debut in Japan earlier this year.

Toyota Australia has since said that launch timing for the GR 86 will be announced in the fourth quarter of 2021, meaning it's unlikely the sports coupe will hit Australian showrooms before 2022.

That’s not great news for fans of GR-enhanced Toyota’s, given that the company also recently announced a temporary pause (from July 1) on taking orders for the GR Yaris.

The extraordinary popularity of the pint-sized pocket rocket has seen the Japanese giant struggle to keep pace with demand.

The company said that, to date, approximately 1700 GR Yaris vehicles have been delivered to customers in Australia and that it will continue to negotiate to secure more supply and announce further details, including a hoped-for reopening of the order book.

"The GR Yaris is a fan favourite with enthusiasts, and we are pleased that we have been able to ignite the performance-car market. This vehicle continues to exceed expectations and we look forward to continuing our momentum with the GR brand in Australia," said Toyota Australia's Vice-President Sales, Marketing and Franchise Operations Sean Hanley.

With the initial batch of 1000 Australia-delivered GR Yaris snapped up late last year by canny buyers at what now looks like a bargain $39,950 drive-away price, enthusiasts were still seemingly happy to part with the revised list price of $49,500 plus on roads, before Toyota hit pause on taking orders. 

Toyota Yaris GR.

That’s around $54k on the road, or serious quids for a compact hatch no matter how much the sizzle. But it speaks to the unbridled popularity of the diminutive performance model that the steep price point couldn’t halt its popularity. 

If you wanted to open the wallet wider still, speaking retrospectively given all the above, you could go the whole hog and order the special-edition Rallye version, featuring circuit-tuned suspension, front and rear Torsen LSDs, higher performance wheels and tyres, and a range of other lightweight, go-fast components, all for $54,500 plus on roads.

At such prices, the GR Yaris twins are keeping company with some notable hot hatch rivals, including the Hyundai i30 N Performance, VW Golf GTI, Ford Focus ST, Renault Megane RS, Subaru WRX and STi, and the Honda Civic Type R.

While the GR is clearly part of the Yaris family, it’s underpinned by a dedicated platform that’s able to accommodate a new suspension design and Toyota’s compact and light GR-Four permanent all-wheel-drive system. 

The new platform is something of a Frankenstein of engineering, marrying together the front end of the Yaris GA-B platform and the rear of the GA-C platform from Corolla.

It comes sheathed in a bespoke three-door hatch body that shares just three items – headlights, taillights, and mirrors – with its run-of-the-mill namesake.

The GR is also lower, wider and sits on a wider track than the standard Yaris.

Other nods to its performance focus include a lightweight carbon-fibre polymer roof, designed to keep its centre of gravity low, and lightweight aluminium bonnet, tailgate, and frameless doors.

These and other weight reduction techniques keep kerb mass to a decently svelte 1280kg. 

With its low, squat stance, flared fenders, black 18-inch Enkei cast-alloy wheels, dual exhaust outlets, and sporty body enhancements, the GR Yaris looks like a hatch that’s been hitting the weights room at every chance, and possibly swinging via the medicine cabinet enroute. 

The muscle-bound hatch is no stripper inside, however, and its standard equipment list includes dual climate control, reversing camera, keyless entry and start, LED headlights, head-up display, rear privacy glass, six airbags and a suite of Toyota Safety Sense driver assistance features. 

The latter comprises pre-collision safety system and AEB with pedestrian (day/night) and cyclist detection (day), daytime intersection assist, emergency steering assist, adaptive cruise control, lane trace assist, speed-sign recognition, auto high beam, and blind-spot monitor.

Toyota Yaris GR.

Despite all of this, the GR does not boast the same five-star ANCAP safety rating as the rest of the Yaris range, due to its significant structural changes requiring it to be individually tested, which has not happened at this stage. 

On the infotainment/multimedia front, the GR boasts a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen, sat nav, and an eight-speaker JBL audio system incorporating DAB+ radio, Bluetooth, voice recognition, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and myToyota apps such as Waze, Stitcher and WebEx.

The driver-focused interior features leather- and suede-accented sports seats, that are well bolstered and comfortable. 

The seats are heated and offer height adjustment for the driver, which along with steering tilt and reach adjustability help ensure a good driving position. 

The performance theme also extends to aluminium sports pedals, a stubby leather-wrapped manual shift lever for the slick six-speed manual ‘box, and small-diameter sports steering wheel.

Space-wise, there’s seating for four occupants, although taller rear seat passengers will be challenged for headroom. 

The small and shallow boot musters just 141 litres (VDA) of cargo volume, which is only marginally better than a Mazda MX5 (130 litres) and well below a Mazda 2 or even the diminutive Kia Picanto (both around 250 litres). 

A 60:40 split fold rear seat does, at least, allow for expansion for slightly larger items. 
Given the focus on weight reduction, there’s no full size or even a space saver spare, but instead drivers must make do with a mobility kit comprising a compressor and canister of tyre sealing goop.

If such practical considerations can be overlooked, and we tend to agree they can in such a sports-focused machine, then the GR Yaris barely puts a wheel wrong. 

Indeed, it wholeheartedly delivers on the driving fun factor, starting with its ripping three-cylinder turbo engine that spurs the Yaris from stationary to 100km/h in a properly impressive 5.2 seconds. 

Mustering 200kW and 370Nm, Toyota claims the feisty triple is currently the world’s most powerful mass-produced three-cylinder engine, and we’re not about to argue. 

On the road, it feels torquey and enthusiastic and there’s some character to the distinctive three-cylinder bass note when asked to sing for its supper. 

Pleasingly, the engine feels equally at home noodling around the ‘burbs, as it does when firing out of corners at full revs on a favourite piece of tarmac, the transmission neatly rev-matching for you on up or down shifts. 

Toyota Yaris GR.

The latter is, of course, where this focused sports hatch feels most at home, thanks to the sympatico combination of its nimble, communicative chassis, and meaty responsive steering. 

Playing its part, too, is the AWD system which optimises drive to each wheel via a full-time active torque-split system with three driver-selectable modes. The default “Normal” mode delivers 60 percent of drive to the front and 40 percent to the rear wheels.

Flicking into “Sport” enhances agility and turn-in with a rear biased 30:70 front-rear torque split. 

Finally, the 50:50 split in “Track” mode provides greater stability for circuit driving.

The system’s electronic brain can also adjust torque split automatically, accounting for driver inputs, road conditions and vehicle behaviour, irrespective of mode. 

Reassuringly solid and progressive stopping power is provided by four-piston brake calipers, clamping 356mm two-piece vented front discs, while at the stern, there are two piston calipers and 297mm vented discs.

Make no mistake, the GR Yaris is the real deal, not some mildly warmed-over Yaris with a stripe pack and a set of alloys. With its impressive armoury of performance bits and a bristling 200kW three-cylinder engine, the “flying flea” is a bona fide challenger to any hot hatch crown, and bound to put a smile on the face of the 1700 lucky souls who have snared one, whatever the price. 

For the rest of us, we can hope that Toyota gets on top of the supply issues and soon reopens the order books for what seems certain to be regarded as a modern classic. 

Key stats

MLP: $49,500

ENGINE: 1.6-litre turbo petrol 3 cylinder

ANCAP CRASH RATING: Not rated.

FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined cycle, litres/100km):  7.6 (172g/km CO₂)

FOR: Bespoke body looks the part, ripping three-cylinder turbo engine, great chassis dynamics and brakes.

AGAINST: Pricey, space limitations, mobility kit – no spare wheel, tyre/road noise intrusive, requires minimum 98 RON fuel.