Toyota GR Yaris 2020 gr
launch-review

2020 Toyota GR Yaris review

Australian first drive

Rating: 9.0
$43,010 $51,150 Dealer
  • Fuel Economy
    7.6L
  • Engine Power
    200kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    172g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars
Is the hype real?
- shares

It's amusing to think one of the most hotly anticipated sports cars of 2020 is the Toyota GR Yaris.

Not only is the Yaris badge synonymous with entry-level motoring, but the GR version also represents Toyota's first real crack at a worldly, sub-compact performance car.

So, a budget badge, with no pedigree. Toyota couldn't be anymore backfooted.

Before the comments section lights up with rage, let's clarify things. Toyota did have a crack in the 1980s and 1990s with its Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Toyota Starlet.

It shoved a turbocharged 1.3-litre engine in, stuck on a bonnet scoop, and called it the Starlet GT. Despite its efforts, it was far from a performance car.

Consider it a compact hot-rod. Out of the box, they were sort of quick. Dynamics were rather mediocre, however. A classic case of big motor, plebeian chassis syndrome. Only when modified did they become fun.

The other was the 2019 Yaris GRMN. This European market specialty was more a cute skunkworks project, than a real-deal crack at sub-compact fast.

Its crack team of engineers modified a third-generation Yaris like you or I would, albeit with the backing of Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe.

Like the Starlet GT, it was also force-fed. This time, its engine was gutted and shoehorned in was a 1.8-litre Toyota Corolla motor, before being supercharged. The result was again hot-rod-esque – a car feeling compromised when viewed through a performance car lens.

Both were international numbers that Aussies had no real chance of experiencing. The only slightly spicy tiny Toyota we ever received in an official capacity was the 2001–2005 Toyota Echo Sportivo. A fun, entertaining car, but still miles away from offering serious performance.

And that concludes today's history lesson. Congratulations, you're now up to speed with Toyota's sub-compact performance car past.

I'm sure before this lesson, you were far from enthused – at most, slightly curious – about a Yaris performance car. Now? Maybe no more, or no less, than before.

You're not alone. Some 'enthusiasts' are claiming the GR Yaris is a non-event. "An overpriced Toyota Yaris," to quote one CarAdvice commenter.

I understand. Armchair assumptions stemming from the badge on the back. One with zero performance car substance. In fact, more associated with cheap motoring, Domino's Pizza delivery, rental fleets, and security firm 'rapid response' units that would be anything but rapid.

It's beautifully ironic how this car undermines itself with the badge it wears. Because this isn't a Toyota Yaris, is it?

The only common exterior parts between the two are headlights, tail-lights, wing mirrors, and shark-fin antenna. Once you understand, it becomes ever so intriguing. Let's discuss the hard points before getting stuck into the experience.

The chassis is special. It exploits Toyota's New Global Architecture platforms (TNGA) by combining an existing Yaris 'GA-B' platform up front, with Corolla's 'GA-C' underpinnings towards the rear. Frankenstein or bespoke, however you view it, we're now cooking with gas.

This was not engineering for engineering's sake, either. The pre-existing Yaris front-half is claimed to be lightweight and well-equipped for the task already.

The rear half was chosen for two reasons: it fits the all-wheel-drive system (which a regular JDM Yaris can, too, by the way), and more importantly it introduces a superior double-wishbone suspension set-up.

Sitting underneath its shiny new chassis is an equally new driveline. Dubbed 'G16E-GTS', it's the world's most powerful three-cylinder engine, or at least it will be until the Koenigsegg Gemera reaches production. It's also Toyota's most powerful road car engine in terms of power efficiency or power-per-litre (of displacement).

Interestingly, it steals the internal power-per-litre title from the motor used in the Celica GT-Four – Toyota's last all-wheel-drive performance car, and grandfather of the GR Yaris.

How fitting.

2020 Toyota GR Yaris
Engine1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder
Power and torque200kW at 6500rpm, 370Nm at 3000-4600rpm
TransmissionSix-speed manual transmission
Drive typeAll-wheel drive
Kerb weight1280kg
Fuel claim, combined7.6L/100km
Boot volume141L
Turning circle10.8m
ANCAP safety ratingUntested
Warranty (years / km)5 years / unlimited km
Main competitorsHonda Civic Type R, Volkswagen Golf R, Subaru WRX STI
Price as tested (excl. on-road costs)$49,500

This new motor produces 200kW of power at 6500rpm, and 370Nm between 3000–4600rpm. Interestingly, it doesn't debut any miraculous technology in order to claim a world performance title.

Toyota states its single-scroll turbocharger uses a ball-bearing system to aid response. That technology can be found in mainstream turbo cars of the ’90s.

It also claims to use oil sprayers in its cylinders to cool pistons. Must've dug into its own history books for that one, as another legendary Toyota four-cylinder motor from the late 1980s, called the '4A-GE', also used the same tech.

Instead, the brand has spent money developing processes. For example, each bottom-end engine component, be it pistons, connecting rods and the like, is individually weighed, then paired with others with similar values. This ensures balance and reliability.

The engine assembly environment resembles a laboratory, being debris-free, as this greatly improves dependability also. As a side note, the GR Yaris is built on the same production line as the old $700,000 Lexus LF-A, if that's a sign of the stringent protocol employed here.

It strikes me as a high-performance power plant that's more the product of strict quality control. An engine assembled with existing, proven know-how in an environment where accuracy can be applied. Toyota is making power the old-fashioned way – through technique, not technology.

Performance is harnessed by a new 'GR-four' all-wheel-drive system. The main proponent of this set-up is a multi-plate clutch coupling unit located in the back of the car, in front of its rear differential.

Further tricks have been applied, including differing final-drive ratios front to rear, in order to assist in torque manipulation. The system has a theoretical torque-split range, front to rear, from 100 to 0:100, but this is not possible in reality.

What is possible is 60:40 in Regular mode, 50:50 in Track mode, or 30:70 in Sport mode. The only transmission offered is a six-speed manual, and there are no plans for an automatic version.

Covering up all of this exclusivity is a unique body shell. The regular Yaris is now only offered as a five-door globally, whereas the GR comes only as a three-door. It also wears an aerodynamically proficient widebody treatment, which makes the GR appear abnormally wider than it is tall.

These are just two of the many requests made during development by Tommi Mäkinen, who at the time was head of the Toyota Gazoo Racing rally team. Mäkinen has since moved into an internal role at Toyota, becoming its global motorsport advisor.

Digression aside, another request made was to both lighten and lower the roof. The first was managed by implementing a carbon-fibre composite roof skin. Usually, you need to shop in the realms of BMW M Motorsport, Porsche or McLaren in order to get such exotic structural components.

The second was achieved by reducing the height of its side pillars by up to 95mm. Unbelievably, this drop was still seen as a compromise against Mäkinen's expectations.

Both the widebody and carbon roof stink of motorsport. Despite being pungent, like a set of brakes after a good run, it's oddly attractive and certainly intoxicating.

It also goes to show you how serious the stakes were here. If they'd taken him more seriously, the second row would've been useless. Which dovetails nicely into cabin experience. The ambiance felt inside isn't immediately as special as its bones suggest.

The dashboard is soft but simple in terms of design. A dorky-looking infotainment system sits proud of this area, complete with crummy silver buttons and tiny 7.0-inch screen. Despite looking mediocre, it does feature Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, native navigation, and a JBL-branded stereo system.

Thankfully, time and money have been spent in favour of the enthusiast.

The Alcantara and faux-leather sports seats are great. Well bolstered, comfortable and looking expensive, they do all except go low. It's just something you'll either have to accept or naively write off against its rally car DNA.

I found my 183cm frame fitting in the driver's seat with a helmet on, so top marks there. As a side quibble, the passenger side is not height-adjustable.

The steering wheel is spot on – thinly rimmed and GR-branded. It features an array of logically formatted buttons, including dedicated switches for driver-assist systems. Another nice touch for a driver's car.

Speaking of safety systems, the GR Yaris features it all. Adaptive cruise control, full-speed autonomous emergency braking with cyclist detection, lane-tracing assist, road sign assist and auto high beams are just some.

What it doesn't feature is an ANCAP safety rating given its niche status. Regardless, it proves performance cars need not be agnostic of safety tech regardless of their price. Hopefully others learn from this.

Back to the cabin. Behind the aptly sized steering wheel sit simple dials offering clean and uncluttered visuals. No digital instrument cluster here. Quite the opposite, which supports its case.

No ornate housing or fancy surface treatment to the dial faces – just a set of red needles, which Toyota claims were specifically used to promote legibility. A head-up display also features; however, polarised sunglasses do hinder its visibility.

As for performance points, enthusiasts will be the ones who detect such sparks of joy. This cabin is more a sound selection of driver-centric ergonomics and design touches rather than gimmicky drive-mode buttons.

The gear shifter's position in relation to the steering wheel is one such ace, as it's nigh on perfection. Its shift-action is wonderful, too. Positive, consistent, and never met with any odd resistance from the linkage.

Further joys are the pedal spacing and placement. It feels entirely designed around heel-toe footwork, even though the GR Yaris features auto-blipping. With this set-up, you'd rather learn to do it yourself, anyway.

One final magical touch is a silver plaque near the handbrake that whispers 'developed for FIA World Rally Championship'. It's not shouty, instead gently reminding you of its only reason for being – homologation.

The second row feels 100 per cent developed for FIA world rally. Firstly, the GR Yaris is a four-seater. Secondly, the 95mm shaved off its roof manifests most rearward, which impedes greatly on rear occupant head room.

It's best you request passengers to not use product in their hairdos. Knee room is fair and tolerable for adults. Don't expect a fold-down ski-flap or much else.

Its boot is equal parts compromised, this time because of the all-wheel-drive system. This is why performance cars are hard to make nowadays, as go-fast stuff tends to ruin key areas of importance.

However, as a homologation special, convenience factors play second fiddle here. In turn, the GR Yaris offers a woeful 141L of cargo space. A large suitcase would fit at most, or a pair of overnight bags.

Under the boot floor you'll find a rather large battery, tyre repair kit, and a jack. No spare wheel, sadly.

We now understand its history, and its motorsport-derived shortcomings, too.

So, the drive? Short answer. Astonishing.

At the Australian launch event, we were treated to a road drive and three forms of motorsport: a track session, two motorkhana courses, and a wet skidpan.

The only configurable part of the GR Yaris is its torque-split function, which we spoke about above. Each of the three modes feels different, but Sport, which sees the GR become predominantly rear-wheel drive, is the most noticeably so.

In this mode, you can feel the rear axle dig into the ground under load and to push the car around. While it may not be the fastest way to cover ground, it certainly engages the senses most.

Don't think for a second its only piece of adjustability is a faux-pas. Excuse others, and look at this system with new light. It really does give the car three different driving personas.

Competitors in this space dabble in the pseudoscience of making the ride stiffer, steering heavier, and the soundtrack louder. What the GR Yaris does instead is totally recalibrate the power distribution to provide three new soundtracks to adjust its groove to. Again, it feels aimed squarely at the driver.

As a result, the steering and suspension settings remain unconfigurable. The ride has a remarkable ability to fight against poor terrain and bumps, but does so with a sense of busyness.

It doesn't have the kind of duality you might commonly find with Volkswagen Group products. Then again, such simplicity pays dividends to its kerb weight. At 1280kg, it feels every part as light as the scales suggest, and part of this result is due to decisions like employing lightweight, single-setting dampers.

We all know you can't remove the sensation of mass via electronics engineering, regardless of how hard you try. Discerning folk would much prefer a 1280kg car with 200kW versus a 1500kg+ car with 213kW.

Consider this cosseting its ride quality with a blanket of acceptability. What's more profound than chit-chat about dampers is this car's lightweight nature coupled with its short wheelbase.

The resulting feel is unlike anything else at this pricepoint. It moves around a lot as a result, and is highly sensitive to mass management. It's easy to detect when sloppy braking techniques (applied by yours truly) ruin the flow of momentum, especially at pace.

It rewards a driver who's actively aware of their inputs, and willing to be open in dialogue with a communicative chassis. You don't find cars of this quality at this pricepoint anymore.

Others may have more power, or make more noise, but none are as driver-focused as this. It's been created for those who enjoy the craft of driving, not those caught up in red pinstriping or obnoxious-sounding exhausts.

Given its petite frame and all-wheel-drive nature, it changes direction fiercely, turns in sharply, and puts its power down properly. Torque-limited front-drivers have wet dreams about such abilities. To be fair, all bar the Honda Civic Type R.

I found myself happily conducting lift-off oversteer moments without much effort, much to my surprise. Even with all driving aids on, there was enough movement occurring to apply a healthy amount of counter-steer.

Out on the wet skidpan, we were encouraged to lock the rear wheels to initiate big slides. Tugging on the handbrake signals the car to disconnect drive to the rear wheels, which is a darn cool party trick.

Sliding an all-wheel-drive car takes some practice, but some faith, alongside recalibration of how to apply input, saw the GR Yaris being flicked around in no time.

The best piece of advice I have for those who want to skid a GR Yaris (in a controlled environment) is to focus on keeping steering in check, as throttle input quickly masks the amount of lock you've dialled in.

The three-pot engine is a winner, too. With max torque piling on in the midrange, it feels like a JDM hero of old. Its power curve is muscular despite only having three cylinders.

Spinning it to redline isn't met with breathlessness, and gearing is right on for being a back-road pest. You'll find rowing between second, third, and fourth the most fun, flexing 100 per cent throttle in its bubbly midrange whenever you get the chance.

It is quiet, though. There are two predominant noises heard from inside a GR Yaris. The first is an augmented sound, which despite being fake isn't overly toxic.

The second is a genuine mechanical noise. Whizz and fizz from the turbocharger system's recirculation valve is loud, which again harks back to funky, tuned Japanese cars.

If you're after pops and crackles, look elsewhere. There are none to be found here.

The package's weakest link has to be its tyres. Even on the road, the factory-fit Dunlop SP Sport Maxx items begun to depict signs of strain prematurely.

It's a catch-22, however, as its playfulness is likely exacerbated by these tyres. It feels like the Toyota 86 conundrum all over again. Basic tyres do let it down in terms of ability, but will equipping it with better tyres make it less fun?

Another big question. Are you missing much without limited-slip differentials? I'll try to answer both, having spoken with my colleague who's driven an LSD-equipped GR Yaris.

The amount of potential grip here is extreme. I believe, during hours of motorsport, that I felt one brief moment of an unloaded wheel breaking traction.

I have a theory.

If you plan to compete in amateur motorsport in your GR Yaris, then a set of mega-grippy tyres will likely drive this point into extinction. If you're using it primarily as a fun road car, I'm confident in saying that you'll never notice the difference, even with the Dunlop tyres.

I'm not all talk. I'll put this theory into practical tests with my own GR Yaris, which is arriving soon. Watch this space.

If you were one of those who got in early at $39,950 drive-away, well done. This car is an absolute treasure. I believe it will ascend into cult-classic territory faster than Toyota Australia can supply them.

Remember, the first 1000 cars sold out in a week. The following 100 cars sold out swiftly, too, despite special-offer pricing being raised by $5000.

The next batch of regular GR Yaris is set to arrive in the second half of 2021, priced from the original quoted figure of $49,500 before on-roads. I have a feeling these will move swiftly, too, given the reception this car is receiving.

Is it worth over $50,000 drive-away? I assessed it as a performance road car that'll maybe see some basic forms of motorsport. In this case, absolutely.

If you're after a sporty mum-and-dad hatchback, then look elsewhere. The GR Yaris is likely too compromised, particularly in terms of second row and boot space. Excellent alternatives such as the Hyundai i30 N and Ford Focus ST will be more fitting, and are also ripe for the picking.

Ironically, maybe calling it a Yaris was a good move. Driving enthusiasts, who look past the five-letter swear word on the back, will be supremely rewarded as a result.

The GR Yaris gives such keen steerers the chance to own something chock-full of feel. No other car at this pricepoint offers such an experience.

Performance aside, no other car currently on sale in Australia can also lay claim to being a homologation special. Homologation means to modify a car to meet a strict code in order to go racing, and then sell it as a limited-production showroom offering.

Toyota didn't just modify the Yaris. It went so far as to make a whole new one instead. The GR Yaris is proper road-car royalty. It's a product of motorsport, sold in a showroom, with a warranty, which can be driven around with numberplates.

No shared platform, no common engine. Just a whole heap of racing purity instead. If that gets you off, then I sincerely hope you've bought one.

These opportunities are way too rare in a car enthusiast's lifespan, let alone for $50K.

MORE: GR Yaris Rallye pricing and specs
MORE: GR Yaris news stories
MORE: Everything Toyota