The Yaris is a much loved, city-dwelling compact car that’s very much at home in a shopping mall or inner suburban backdrop, well it is until Toyota’s President (and Petrolhead) Akio Toyoda got his hands on it and with the help of Tommi Mäkinen and the GR (Gazoo Racing) team turned it into a fire-breathing AWD, road-going Trackmonster. It’s called the GR Yaris and Toyota New Zealand gave me the keys.
On paper, the GR Yaris makes very little sense. It’s a manual, three-door hatchback launched into a world that loves SUVs with automatic gearboxes. It comes off of a different production line and only shares three body parts with its mall-trawling sibling. In true ‘race-going’ fashion, it has a carbon fibre roof and aluminium bonnet to lighten its weight and yet comes heavy laden with Toyota’s Safety Sense, their suite of road-going safety and driving aids. It has a costly hybrid (Yaris/Corolla) chassis, a 1.6L engine where most ‘compacts’ are heading closer to 1L, it has an AWD system – seriously, I could go on and on and on. But my friends ‘not making sense’ is EXACTLY why you should have buy this car.
Toyota New Zealand launched the GR Yaris to the press late last year in the pouring rain and on a racetrack, and they couldn’t have been happier. For even on sodden tarmac, it’s a car that just loves to drive. With its AWD system that can be configured to FWD or RWD bias or 50/50 balance, an off-note 3 cylinder engine that produces 200kW/370Nm (+130% more than the regular Yaris) and race brakes that stop on a dime, it’s a grippy, gritty little tyke that wants to pick a fight with everyone and what’s more, will probably come out on top. It’s a car that eggs you on and urges you to push it into corners, it rewards you when you do well and yet doesn’t punish you when you run out of talent – brilliant.
Having the GR Yaris for a few laps of Hampton Downs with a racing driver beside me to help instruct is one thing, but having it for a week to play with at home is an entirely different kettle of fish (don’t ask me why I have fish in my kettle).
With its wide rear end, flared arches and GR badging all over the place, the GR Yaris is a bit of a looker. It has a substantial footprint for such a compact vehicle and enough cosmetic drama to turn heads or have people ask questions. The interior is the equally different, sports bucket seats (required for cornering), JBL stereo, leather finishing, more GR badging, oh and an extra pedal (called a clutch) that’s linked to the 6-speed manual box.
The aforementioned clutch is rather special, it’s an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch that (I’m told) keeps the biting point at the same level throughout its lifespan – whatever that may be. The gearbox has an ultra tight gait making changes slick and an IMT (enabled via a button beside the gearstick). IMT stands for Intelligent Manual Transmission, a system that will downshift blip for you (again making gearchanges slicker) and also encourages you to rev the three-cylinder engine right out to its red line before upshifting – music to your ears.
So the GR Yaris is different from the ground up (and actually has a roofline 10mm lower than a regular Yaris), it’s produced on a different production line and limited to just 25,000 ever to be made. It’s been built with the track in mind but does that mean it’s horrid on the road or day to day living? Well no.
In fairness, the purchase of the GR may take a little thought. For example, the rear space and two door entry is not for those that can’t touch their toes. The sports car’s grippy Michelin Pilot rubber feet does mean that there’s more road noise in the cabin than its mild mannered sister, but your squeals of delight will quickly drown that out. Around town and in heavy traffic the manual gearbox can be a pain (even though it has a light clutch) but in my opinion, that’s a small price to pay for the joy it delivers once free and clear of the noise.
Pocket rocket is a term that’s regularly used for hot hatches and it certainly suits this car. However, you do need to add in things like angry and enthralling too. The GR’s drive modes alter the power delivery bias – ‘normal’, more to the front wheels, ‘sport’ – rear and ‘track’ is more neutral and quite frankly, where I spent most of my time – wouldn’t you? It’s fast enough on the straights and a ton of fun in the turns, I swear it goaded me from time to time too.
With the launch of their newly revised Yaris Toyota NZ has broadened the options to suit virtually everyone. The Cross is a compact SUV that fulfills most needs (even the environmentalists) and the regular Yaris is perfect for those in the city BUT, if you want a Yaris that enlivens the spirit, is inspired by those within the WRC and has been limited for extra exclusivity – seriously just say GRrrrr.