The 2020 Toyota GR Yaris is unlike any other hot hatch on sale today – and not just because of the peculiar camouflage it’s draped in for this preview drive.
The Toyota GR Yaris is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine matched to a six-speed manual and all-wheel drive. It’s Toyota’s first turbo all-wheel-drive performance car in 20 years, since the iconic Celica GT Four.
When it arrives in local showrooms in late 2020, the Yaris GR will be the first Toyota hot hatch of any kind sold in Australia since the high-revving Celica-powered Corolla Sportivo bowed out in 2006.
This car might wear the Yaris badge, but it has nothing in common with Toyota’s new-generation four-door city hatchback due mid 2020. The only common part is the dashboard. The Yaris GR shares its DNA with Toyota rally cars past and present, and is the basis of its next challenger in the global motorsports arena.
Its two-door body has an aluminium bonnet, doors and rear hatch, and a carbon-fibre roof straight out of the BMW and Porsche playbook – all of which are key to the car’s feather weight, about 1300kg ready to roll.
For improved roadholding, it also has a much larger footprint than the standard next-generation Toyota Yaris, with all four wheels pushed out to the corners of the car.
It is available with limited-slip front and rear differentials, and what are possibly the biggest brakes on such a small, light car.
Toyota was able to blend these unique ingredients, because the GR Yaris is the first performance car it has done on its own in more than two decades.The Toyota Supra was a joint venture with BMW and the Toyota 86 was a partnership with Subaru.
Creating a performance car from a clean sheet of paper may not sound like a big deal to outsiders, but during the media preview drive in Europe it literally brought tears to the eyes of the Japanese engineers who developed the GR Yaris. Some of them have been waiting decades for this opportunity.
Without anyone else to hold them back, the GR Yaris product team was able to create from scratch the car they wanted to build, down to every last detail. Such freedoms are rare in the automotive world – most performance cars are derivatives of other models.
The GR Yaris platform shares nothing with the city hatch of the same name, from the engine to the all-wheel-drive system, and the sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension that replaces the standard car’s rudimentary torsion beam.
Introducing a carbon-fibre roof to Toyota’s mass-production system was a feat in itself. Persuading the bean counters to budget for aluminium panels to save 38kg from the car’s overall weight was another significant achievement.
Although Toyota has other three-cylinder engines, the GR Yaris's powertrain is not shared with any other model, and is believed to be the most powerful of its type in the world.
I can’t think of the last time an all-new engine arrived at the same time as an all-new performance car. Such luxuries come at a hefty cost in the automotive world.
In an era of joint ventures to cut costs – such as the aforementioned Toyota Supra/BMW Z4 and Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins – the investment to create the Toyota GR Yaris must have been profoundly expensive.
Which is perhaps why Toyota is being unusually coy about price until closer to the car’s Australian on-sale date in late 2020, about six months after the next generation Yaris four-door hatchback. Reading between the lines, chances are the Toyota GR Yaris could blow the Richter scale on price.
But at the preview drive, Toyota executives repeatedly said the company benchmarked more expensive machinery such as the Renault Megane RS, Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI and Hyundai i30N – cars that cost between $40,000 and $60,000.
Given the GR Yaris is a two-door, four-seater city car, we reckon it needs to be priced closer to $30,000 than $50,000. For all its engineering achievements, it will be price that determines if it’s a winner in showrooms. There are no plans for an automatic, which could also limit its appeal.
Further details such as cargo space, service intervals and routine maintenance costs will be available closer to the car’s on-sale date, but it’s likely to come with Toyota’s five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty.
On the road
According to preliminary figures, the Toyota GR Yaris's turbocharged 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine – breathing through twin exhausts – has approximately 185kW of power and 350Nm of torque.
This makes it the most powerful three-cylinder in the world by a significant margin, although as this article was published, exact power and torque figures were yet to be released. It’s an impressive output not only for a three-cylinder, but also for a vehicle that weighs about 1300kg.
This gives the Toyota GR Yaris a similar power-to-weight ratio to the much larger and four-door-bodied Hyundai i30N, Renault Megane RS, Subaru WRX STI and VW Golf R, all of which are in the 141kW to 145kW per-tonne bracket.
Similarly sized four-door hatchback rivals such as the 2020 Ford Fiesta ST and VW Polo GTI are in the 114kW to 116kW per-tonne bracket. The Renault Clio RS pumps out 121kW per tonne.
In the sub-$60,000 hot-hatch segment, the only vehicles to top the Toyota GR Yaris are the Honda Civic Type R (163kW per tonne) and Ford Focus RS (169kW per tonne).
You can see Toyota paving the way for a high price given the use of aluminium and carbon fibre, and a healthy power-to-weight ratio.
The only problem is that the GR Yaris is a two-door city hatch – and Australian buyers have difficulty justifying big bucks on small cars. For its part, Toyota Australia says the GR Yaris will be “attainable”. Note that it didn’t say “affordable”.
The curiosity about price is quickly forgotten once behind the wheel. Our entree to the GR Yaris started on the Estoril racetrack near Lisbon, Portugal. The 4.1km circuit hasn’t been used for Formula One since 1996 and is the sacred place Ayrton Senna scored his first F1 win, in 1985. I’m certainly not Ayrton Senna, but the GR Yaris does a good job of making up for any driver shortcomings.
Two model grades of the GR Yaris are available, both on 18-inch wheels. The standard car comes with Dunlop tyres and open front and rear differentials, whereas the Performance Pack comes with stickier Michelin tyres, mechanical limited-slip diffs front and rear, and even lighter alloy wheels.
The all-wheel-drive system on both grades has three modes that split front and rear power distribution from 50:50, 60:40 to 30:70, the latter providing some rear-drive bias.
The suspension on both models has fixed-rate springs and shocks, but tuned for performance driving.
I started in the Performance Pack version. The grip from the Michelin tyres is profound and the responsiveness out of corners is remarkable, due in no small part to the all-wheel-drive system and limited-slip diffs.
The braking power is seemingly endless thanks to four-piston calipers clamping massive discs up front (Toyota will not share the disc diameter until a later date) and two-piston calipers clamping vented discs at the rear.
Most impressive of all, however, is the engine. It has strong pulling power from as little as 2000rpm and broad delivery right through the rev range. I’m not sure how, but the engine seems to have another burst of energy from about 1000rpm before the 7000rpm redline.
It has a typical three-cylinder thrum, but it’s not particularly raucous at the intake or exhaust end. There’s probably an opportunity for some snap, crackle and pop, but it’s otherwise a muted screamer, if that makes sense. You can hear it revving its little heart out, but it’s not deafening.
The clutch and gearshift have nice, light actions and are not notchy (the gearbox is from the Toyota Avensis, but with unique ratios). The steering wheel is quite large, but this enables better accuracy in high-speed turns. For those who are interested, the steering wheel has about 2.4 turns lock-to-lock.
Second gear runs out at 96km/h (based on satellite timing, not the speedo), which means two gear changes are required for the 0–100km/h dash, costing valuable tenths of a second. That said, Toyota claims the GR Yaris can still do 0–100km/h in close to or less than 6.0 seconds.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to put a V-Box timer on the car. It feels perky, but I’m just not sure if it’s sub-6.0 seconds perky.
Next up, we sampled the base-model GR Yaris on Dunlop tyres, no limited-slip diffs and a slightly different suspension tune. The difference in grip is immediately apparent. It also doesn’t climb out of corners with quite the same precision or gusto as the Performance Pack model.
The stability control kicks in more readily on Dunlops, and there’s only an ‘on’ or ‘off’ button for the electronic safety aid.
There’s no partial stability control as per other hot hatches such as the Ford Fiesta ST. There’s no ‘drift mode’, and there’s no launch control, although that tends to be not much help on manual cars in any case.
That said, the standard GR Yaris is still a hoot to drive, and the differences are likely only obvious on a racetrack.
We then did about 50km on public roads, on the worst pavement Portugal could throw at us, in the base model.
It was an honest test route. Perhaps too honest. There is plenty of tyre noise on coarse surfaces, but the suspension does a fair job of dispatching with nasty lumps and bumps. The suspension is busy rather than firm, but definitely liveable. It’s not as much of a punish, for example, as the recently discontinued Ford Fiesta ST.
From what we could see of the cabin, the only clues this was a hot hatch from the inside are the digital gauges that show turbo boost and AWD performance in the instrument cluster. It seems most of the visual drama is on the outside.
Overall, the Toyota GR Yaris is a little firecracker. Unfortunately, however, Australia will only get the base model and there are no plans to introduce the fully fledged Performance Pack edition.
Toyota says it made this call because it wants the GR Yaris to appeal to as many buyers as possible. We suspect the cost of the Performance Pack might catapult it into another league.
For what it’s worth, we reckon if there is only one roll of the dice, Toyota should opt for the GR Yaris with the works, not the watered-down version. Hyundai gave us the best i30N it could get its hands on, and Ford did the same with the Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS.
Enthusiast hot-hatch buyers know their stuff, and there’s no way Toyota will be able to hide the GR Yaris Performance Pack from view. It’s not as if they don’t have the internet.
My fear is that, as good as the GR Yaris is in standard form, hot-hatch buyers are likely to sit back and wait knowing there might be a better one around the corner.
Given that Toyota hasn’t had a hot hatch in its line-up for the better part of two decades, there’s a fair chance it may have lost touch with what enthusiast customers want. Here’s hoping there’s time to reconsider the Performance Pack option.
The Toyota GR Yaris has all the ingredients to become a new cult hero and a future hot-hatch classic, but a large part of that hinges on price.
At $30,000 to $35,000 it’s an absolute gem, but at $40,000 to $50,000 it will be a car few will get to experience, and could quickly become the first and last of its type.
How the Toyota GR Yaris stacks up in a power-to-weight battle:
- Toyota GR Yaris 185kW/350Nm/1300kg/6.0s 142kW/tonne
Front-drive class rivals:
- VW Polo GTI 147kW/320Nm/1285kg/6.4s 114kW/tonne
- Ford Fiesta ST 147kW/290Nm/1262kg/7.1s 116kW/tonne
- Renault Clio RS 147kW/240Nm/1218kg/6.7s 121kW/tonne
Front-drive rivals in the next class up:
- VW Golf GTI 180kW/370Nm/1326kg/5.7s 136kW/tonne
- Ford Focus ST 206kW/420Nm/1508kg/5.7s 137kW/tonne
- Hyundai i30N 202kW/353Nm/1429kg/6.4s 141kW/tonne
- Renault Megane RS 205kW/390Nm/1450kg/6.2s 141kW/tonne
- Honda Civic Type R 228kW/400Nm/1396kg/6.0s 163kW/tonne
All-wheel-drive rivals in the next class up:
- Subaru WRX 197kW/350Nm/1469kg/6.2s 134kW/tonne
- VW Golf R 213kW/380Nm/1495kg/5.0s 142kW/tonne
- Subaru WRX STI 221kW/407Nm/1525kg/5.2s 145kW/tonne
- Ford Focus RS 257kW/440Nm/1524kg/5.3s 169kW/tonne
Sources: Power and weight figures supplied by manufacturers, 0–100km/h times based on our testing using precision timing equipment, and based on an average of runs in two directions. At time of publication, the Toyota GR Yaris stats were preliminary and subject to change.