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First Drive: Toyota GR Yaris is a new breed of performance hatchery

Toyota has completely rewritten the brief with its speedy Yaris that punches well above its weight

TopGear Reporter
September 2, 2021
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It’s a reasonably common debate around any South African braai setting: “What is the best hot-hatch”? It’s also quite a loaded dispute since a hatchback, at its core, represents many different things to many different people. Are we, in this instance, referring to sure-footed handling, or a more playful approach? The most power… A best-in-class luggage and family-carry ability? It’s all relative.

Volkswagen recently launched its newest GTI. A hatch that happens to tick a lot of boxes. It’s known and well-respected for its unflappable handling characteristics. Also, it’s what you can call the benchmark against which every hatchback is judged.

So, when Toyota launched its GR Yaris, it naturally got the critical yard-stick once-over. It’s not so much that anyone doubts Toyota’s know-how but, and this is a big but, the Japanese marque is not really known for its pedigree in all things hot hatchery. It has always been about value, fuel economy, approachability and quality – for everything else thrill- and luxury-related there’s Lexus, its sister brand.

Then, in 2018, Toyota brought three Yaris GRMNs into SA and we got to drive it around some streets and racetracks. It impressed. Correction: I raged on and on about what Toyota managed to achieve given an inherently conservative package and in the back of my mind relegated it to a marketing experiment the likes of which we probably won’t see again. It wasn’t like Toyota had eight generations of hot-hatch pedigree to draw its expertise from.

No, it had something else entirely at its disposal; racing under the GRMN banner and not just in one discipline, there’s the World Endurance Championship, the notoriously tough Dakar Rally and of course, leading into the subject of this article, the World Rally Championship.

Yes, the latter, that’s where this hatchback was conceived; on the demanding gravel and tight twisties of the world’s toughest rally stages. Toyota wasn’t subtle about it either. Heck, they shouldn’t be since this really is a “rally car for the road” as they so eloquently put it.

Subtle interior

So, you noticed there are no sequential cog shifters, as you'd find on a rally car… Rally car for the road it may be, and yet Toyota has done a great job of tastefully executing the cabin space without feeling the need to plaster performance promising addenda on every which surface. Translation: bar the GR badging on the steering wheel, the comfortable racing seats and the start-stop button, you’d never know what this Yaris is capable of – except perhaps for the understated 4WD mode dial with its Normal, Sport and Track settings.

Then there’s the overall interior finish that leans towards hard-wearing with perhaps the only luxury-adjacent component in the standard non-Rally variant I drove on the roads being the dual-zone air-con. No cruise control (active cruise control is available on the Rally), not entirely useable rear legroom, no reverse camera. Park-Distance Control? No. Then again, weight is the number one cause of unexceptional performance.

On track

You won’t find mediocre performance here, though. For the purposes of this comparison, let’s look at the weight of the GR Yaris. Thanks to its diet, it weighs 1,280 kg compared to the benchmarking Golf 8 GTI that tips the scales at 1,463 kg. Yes, I know, the Golf represents something entirely different with all its inherent niceties. Add to that 198 kW and 360 Nm that materialises from the GR’s 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine and the result is a white-knuckle wide-eyed acceleration to 100 km/h in just 5.5 seconds. Yes, that’s quicker even than a Honda Civic Type-R.

But, it’s not just acceleration that makes for a competent rally car, it’s also about cornering prowess. This, I reckon, is the GR’s trump card. While we didn’t do gravel driving, we did have a fair share of laps ‘round the track and it proved mighty impressive.

This is, in large parts, thanks to the 4WD system that when engaged in its track setting splits the torque evenly between the front and rear wheels while normal splits drive 60% front and 40% at the rear while sport takes care of a 30:70 split.

Add to that the Rally derivative’s Torsen limited-slip differential on both the front and rear axle to ensure both wheels spin at different speeds through the corners, and this GR Yaris clings to a line like a cemented Velcro-superglue mix.

Owning a GR Yaris

The Toyota GR Yaris 1.6T GR-Four costs a reasonable R606,600 while the Rally will set you back R715,600. The question then, which to choose? If driving is your superpower and you plan on spending your free time chasing telemetric data around the track, the Rally might be the way to go. The standard spec, though, is more than up to the task of still doing blisteringly quick laps around any circuit even in the hands of a mere mortal.


Most makers of hot-hatchbacks had generations to perfect every minute detail of what its customer base demands. VW carved itself a role in the market as the easiest-on-the-daily performance hatch with the Golf GTI. Honda, well, Honda has been known to go off the rails a bit. Renault? It’s all about style as you look to clip the apex.

And along comes Toyota that hasn't had a whole lot in the name of hot-hatch pedigree. Yet, it created a B-segment hatch that, on performance merits, eclipses competition one segment over. The best part? The GR Yaris doesn't even pretend to be a family carrier.

Toyota has taken its values and redrafted the chapter on all things sensibility with this one – it goes against the grain of nearly every and any traditional perception of Toyota. And I adore the GR Yaris for that! One problem exists, though: how is Toyota going to better this…

Words: Deon van der Walt

Images: Toyota SA


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