Five things I learnt from a sneaky first drive in the Toyota GR Yaris
Last week while working from Cape Town I got a call from the Toyota SA PR department. “Fancy a quick drive in the new GR Yaris?” they asked. Stupid question. So two days later I steered my long-term Prius towards Killarney Raceway where none other than Dakar Rally racing legend Giniel de Villiers was putting said Yaris through its paces around the gnarly World RX portion of this famed Western Cape circuit. For what purpose?
Well, for content, of course: every kink, corner, yump and straight was being filmed and photographed by Toyota's in-house media team. The final footage is forming part of the brand's Five Drives campaign that combines five iconic SA locations with five TGRSA ambassadors all putting this hatch to the test. While they were at it, the PR department decided to invite a few journalists so that they too could briefly sample the GR Yaris ahead of the media launch. So after four quick laps, here are five things I can tell you about it.
1: An interior tailored for the business of driving
Toyota has done an excellent job with the cabin. Yes, there may be some cheap plastics present and the rear seat might seem like something of an afterthought, but the real bones, the bits and pieces built to engage with the driver, are spot on. Like the driver's seat, which is not only comfortable but also incredibly supportive. Even at speed in and around a twisty RX track your frame remains perfectly held in place, lap after lap.
This seat of the gods is complemented by an adjustable (rake and reach) steering wheel, plus a set of aluminium pedals that are optimally placed for the art of heel 'n' toe (if you aren't schooled in the latter don't worry – there's switchable electric rev-matching to flatter you). Special mention must also go to the gear lever, which is pleasingly close to the steering wheel – a lovely small diameter leather-wrapped example – and endowed with a deliciously slick, short-throw action only the Japanese can get right. It's a real joy in 2021.
2: Power meets personality
Under the stubby bonnet of the GR Yaris lurks a 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine delivering 200kW and 370Nm worth of torque. That's a decent amount of muscle for such a compact hatchback. Indeed, enough to propel this 1,280kg Yaris to 100km/h in a claimed 5.5 seconds and onwards to a maximum top speed of 230km/h.
Now though I didn't get to put these claims to the test, I did get a good feel for what this engine is capable of when driven in anger. And it's immensely impressive. For not only does this teeny three-pot like to rev – that tachometer needle races towards the indicated 7,000rpm redline with fervour – it also emits a lovely, hard-edged induction growl. There's some noticeable lag below 3,000rpm, which means that you need to work that six-speed gearbox to keep it in the sweet spot. However this just adds to the fun of driving the Yaris GR. It's a car that likes to be taken by the scruff of the neck and given a good old shake.
Keep the engine speed between 3,500 and 6,000rpm and you will find that progress is satisfyingly brisk. The Killarney RX track doesn't have any particularly long straights but where the corners do relent and I was able to keep the throttle pinned, the GR Yaris piled on speed at a rate of knots. You'll easily keep up with more expensive sporting machinery.
3: There's a proper playful streak
The party piece of the GR Yaris is its GR-FOUR all-wheel-drive system that features three driver-selectable modes: Normal (directing 40% of available torque to the rear wheels), Track (50% to the rear wheels) and Sport (70% to the rear wheels). This system also adjusts torque split automatically based on driver inputs, vehicle behaviour and road or track conditions. My brief tenure behind the wheel was spent in Sport mode and I found that it gave the GR Yaris just enough rear axle push to make things properly entertaining. Particularly in the dirt, where a well-executed Scandinavian Flick and some abrupt throttle input would send the little Toyota into a dirt-slinging slide à la Sébastien Ogier.
Keep things tidy on the black stuff and the GR Yaris massages your confidence with masses of mechanical grip. Even when firing through the RX track's high-speed left-hand sweeper, you can keep the pedal buried as the all-wheel drive system starts digging its invisible claws deeper into the bitumen. Turn-in is always crisp and immediate with hardly any body roll to speak of, while a high level of throttle adjustability means you can get the GR Yaris to pivot through tighter kinks and curves. It's a real peach of a chassis: one that feels taught, nimble and playful in a way that its German rivals do not.
Braking is taken care of by 356mm two-piece ventilated discs with four-piston calipers up front and 297mm ventilated rotors and two-piston calipers at the rear. While they do an excellent job at slowing this hot-hatch down, there's not much feel from the middle pedal.
4: It'll jump the yump
Yump. It's a word used in rally racing to describe a small high-speed ridge that will almost certainly send your car airborne. The Killarney RX track has one and the Yaris GR shook it off with as much ease as Taylor Swift. You'd expect a road car to bottom out under such loads but this Toyota time after time landed without even once scraping the bottom of its front bumper. This really raised my eyebrows. For the record, the Yaris GR sports passive high-response shock absorbers, extra-rigid front MacPherson struts as well as newly developed knuckles and stiffer bushes. Meanwhile, the basic rear torsion beam layout has been ditched and replaced by a stiffer and far more sophisticated multi-link system.
5: It's launching soon
The GR Yaris will be officially unveiled to Mzansi's motoring media at the end of June, after which it'll be available to order from all Toyota dealerships. Two derivatives will be on offer: the entry-level GR Yaris and the more hard-core GR Yaris Rallye that comes fitted with the “Circuit Pack” that bolts on proper mechanical front and rear Torsen diffs.
Numbers will be limited, so if you want one, you'd better act fast. Pricing is still under wraps (if I tell you I'd have to kill you) but for what the GR Yaris is and offers, well, I've got to say it's fairly competitive. Especially when you compare it to a certain two-door coupé that recently disappeared off the Toyota SA website (there's a little clue for you all).