Toyota GR Yaris 2021 gr, Toyota echo 2003 sportivo, Toyota starlet 1990 gt

Toyota city car performance comparison

We line up three Toyota performance car anomalies.

The gamut of Toyota’s fast car alumni is wide. It has placed a sports variant, or even dedicated option, in nearly every segment.

Let's talk about sports cars first. If you're into grand touring, there were options like the Supra, and Soarer. Both late-model versions were powered by the brand's legendary JZ family of engines – straight-six brutes with either single- or twin-turbos.

Keen for something more focused? Look no further than the Celica and MR-2 ranges. Both of these products were sold new in Australia, which removes a huge barrier to entry. While the Celica offered turbocharged, all-wheel drive thrills at the top of its range, the MR-2 was a sharp, mid-engine performer, which gave you an exotic layout for bugger all expense.

Finally, how about sedans? Toyota performance is rife in this segment. Cars like the Chaser, Mark 2, and later Mark X cars provided some sizzle, exclusively to Japan, for decades. The Mark X GRMN editions are already becoming a cult-classics.

Toyota took their large sedan and added a manual transmission, rear LSD, additional spot welds, a carbon-fibre roof, and BBS forged alloy wheels. Production was limited – 100 examples were first offered 2015, and then another 350 later in 2019. As a side note, the recipe feels a bit GR Yaris, don't you think?

The Toyota performance sedan range is likely the most unknown of the three examples above, but the rest are common vernacular. I'm sure most of the general Australian public has been exposed to either a Celica, MR-2 and Supra, given they have long-standing legacies in our market.

Where Toyota doesn't have a well-known performance history is with pint-sized sports cars. I covered the brand's historical efforts in my initial GR Yaris story, which you can find here.

What we’ve done today is round-up the two niche, barely-known, performance city cars mentioned in my GR Yaris review, to discover what made them special in the hearts of Toyota anoraks around the world.

1990 Toyota Starlet GT2003 Toyota Echo Sportivo2021 Toyota Yaris GR
Engine1.3-litre turbocharged four cylinder '4E-FTE'1.5-litre naturally-aspirated four cylinder '1NZ-FE'1.6-litre turbocharged three cylinder 'G16E-GTS'
Torque157Nm @ 4800rpm145Nm @ 4200rpm370Nm @ 3000-4600rpm
TransmissionFive-speed manualFive-speed manualSix-speed manual
Drive typeFront-wheel driveFront-wheel driveAll-wheel drive
Power to weight ratio110kW/t88.9kW/t155kW/t
List price at launchApprox $16,000 (JP¥1,240,000)$19,990$39,990
Price now?$7500+$3500+$49,500

We open with the Toyota Starlet GT 'EP82'. This generation of Starlet was produced from 1989-1995, and was never offered in Australia in any guise. That makes our test car a Japanese import. Back in the mid-90s, cars were cheap in Japan, import laws slightly more loose, which saw a bunch arrive on our shores.

As for how many came here, no one truly knows. At a pure guess, having owned one myself, and shopped them for many years, I'd say much less than 500, confidently. The Australian Starlet range began with the later ‘EP91’ generation in 1996, which was the successor to the car we're testing today, arriving with no sign a performance hero in its range.

Whilst lauded in city car markets like the UK and Ireland, Australia didn't truly embrace privately imported examples of its teeny-weeny performance car. When you think back to the era, it's not hard to see why.

In the mid-to-late 90s, the nation was still obsessed with big displacement, rear-wheel drive cars. If it wasn’t that formula, it was either Mazda rotaries, or Japanese big-six turbos. Nissan Skylines and Toyota Supras were just cutting the mustard, given their displacement and capability.

Anything with less capacity was met with "Milk and juice only come in two litres, mate". Imagine the faces of rusted-on small-block dads that found out their son bought a 1.3-litre Toyota Starlet, claiming it was cool and fast.

They'd have lost the plot.

Our Starlet GT is indeed powered by a 1.3-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder – engine code '4E-FTE'. It's an interesting engine, as it lacks the prized 'G' letter in its code. Toyota's 4A-GE, 2JZ-GTE and even much older 2T-G engines all have the magic letter, which means the engine is topped with a true twin-cam, Yamaha-fettled engine head.

'F', as our car's 4E-FTE engine denotes, means the car has a humdrum, Toyota-designed engine head. It also means there's twin-camshafts, but a single camshaft gear. Tech jargon aside, the letter F translates to the engine's topper being an economy focused one, not a performance one.

Toyota F engine heads were designed to favour low-end torque delivery, instead of high-end flow, RPMs and output. Given the Starlet GT is a thereabouts 900kg turbocharged warrior, low-end torque is probably a good thing.

Jumping inside, you realise both how hilarious, yet dangerous its frame is. The A-pillars are as thin as Kit-Kat wrappers, its doors equally so, and you're continuously rubbing shoulders with your passenger. Once you're over the fact it's about as sketchy as a motorbike, you can begin to fathom what it has to offer – flyweight performance.

It has a heap of heart. Out of the box in 1990, the Starlet GT made a staggering 99kW/157Nm. Given its weight, that's a power-to-weight ratio of 110kW/tonne. A modern-day turbocharged Suzuki Swift Sport makes do with a ratio of 109kW/tonne, some 31 years later.

Our car had a few cheeky modifications to its air cleaner system, which I'm sure unlocked more potency. The first thing that grabs you is the sound, as everything else, including the insanely loud cabin, is overruled by huge amounts of turbo spool. It's downright offensive, yet quintessential to this era of Japanese metal.

We were driving all three on quality roads, north of Sydney, in an area known for its roadside pie shop. Setting off from here, four corners into downhill, The Starlet's age became apparent. Having an open differential meant one wheel took the lion's share of torque. Its crude chassis creaked and groaned, the suspension rattles under travel, and the steering wheel kicked-back and wiggled on full-song.

Untamed is a phrase that suits.You feel this way because of the amount of feedback being passed back. It's an involving experience, as a simple platform – featuring MacPherson struts up front, and a beam axle out back – that isn't clogged up with electronic this and damped that.

It's brilliantly fun, yet still contemporary fast. Compared to the largely pedestrian compact cars Australians got in the same era, Japanese-exclusive metal was ahead of its time, and the pace and speed of the humble Starlet GT is testament to their historical engineering capabilities.

As for other reasons to love it – all were factory-fitted with an LED boost gauge in the gauge cluster, and some were even lucky enough to feature a rear GT badge that illuminates with blue-ish tinge!

Next up on the chopping block is a little-known Aussie treat – the Toyota Echo Sportivo. This cheeky bantamweight was actually officially imported, and sold new in showrooms, by Toyota Australia.

Usually, these sorts of cars are watered down for export markets. In the case of the Echo Sportivo, it remained relatively unchanged from its Japanese counterpart, called the Vitz RS. Over in the motherland, It even had its own one-make race series.

How's that for pedigree?

Despite being left-field in terms of city car performance, they've amassed a cult following. There's a highly engaged, entertaining Australian Facebook group dedicated to the model line, which has 650+ members. There, they discuss motorsport, modifications, and how to get the best from the platform.

In Japan, the 'Vitz RS' was offered with either a 63kW 1.3-litre '2NZ-FE' engine, or a larger, more powerful 80kW 1.5-litre '1NZ-FE'. Toyota Australia's product planner of the era ticked the box for the proverbial big block, which means all Aussie Echo Sportivos featured the 1.5-litre. Good on you, whoever you are.

The Sportivo's 1.5-litre engine was an Echo hatch exclusive, with the rest of the range relegated to the smaller 1.3-litre engine. Though, dulling its performance image slightly, the dowdy Echo sedan also arrived locally with the same 1NZ-FE engine.

Its 80kW is realised at 6000rpm, and 145Nm produced at 4200rpm. It's naturally-aspirated too, meaning it revs cleaner than the turbocharged motor found in the Starlet GT. The owner of our test car is well known amongst the Toyota enthusiast fraternity, and has procured only the finest of fine genuine Toyota, TRD, and aftermarket parts from boutique Japanese manufactures.

One of which is this car's upgraded 'C-One' brand exhaust system. The little 1.5-litre is given some bark as a result, which compliments its owner’s successful efforts to improve its styling. As you can see, suspension has been swapped out for fully-adjustable units to improve handling, and its wheels have also scored an upgrade.

It now wears a set of lightweight Toyota Racing Development-branded forged-aluminium wheels, made by specialty Japanese brand, Rays.

He's even gone to the lengths of installing genuine Vitz RS side decals, and a Japanese domestic market front badge, all for good measure. Attention to detail here is high, and only the biggest nerds will notice.

Which is exactly what happened.

Whilst procrastinating at said pie retailer, a pair of younger enthusiasts bee-lined straight to the Echo, ignoring both the GR, and the Starlet GT. After a quick discussion, one was the owner of track-orientated Toyota AE86 Corolla, and was infatuated with the quality and presentation of the Echo Sportivo. Toyota aficionados are strange people, and I know this, being one myself.

In terms of size, there’s continuity between the Starlet and successor, the Echo. Amazingly, the later car is shorter, at 3.63m long, by 1.66m wide. The Starlet GT comes in at 3.80m by 1.62m. There's been improvements to the chassis with the Echo, as its wheels have been pushed out farther into each corner, and its passenger cell area extended, offering greater occupant space, and safety.

1990 Toyota Starlet GT2003 Toyota Echo Sportivo2021 Toyota Yaris GR

Even with structural changes, it was far from a shining beacon of safety. ANCAP tested the Echo in 2004, where it scored 23.64 out of 37, or three stars out of five with its standard single airbag. In the past, compact models were cheap, cheerful, yet couldn't stack up to the safety of larger vehicles. Thankfully, times have since changed, with the latest 2021 Yaris scoring a top five-star rating under the strictest ANCAP testing protocol ever seen, packed with advanced collision avoidance tech and seven airbags across the range.

As the Echo Sportivo appears to also be devoid of structural mass, like the Starlet GT is, weight is affected positively. It tips the scales at 900kg, and feels equally as nimble as the earlier car. The way both cars manage switchbacks is wonderful, and a stark reminder of how mass-laden almost every new car is.

With the extra modifications, and in third gear on the downhill, you can drive the thing one-footed. This example is over-tyred, so it's a matter of pointing and shooting. On the uphill sections of road, you have to knock it back a few gears, but that’s part of the charm.

Whilst not a slice of tiny car lunacy like the Starlet GT is, the Echo Sportivo is still a bloody good hoot. You gauge the feeling of more rigidity and strength when compared to the earlier car, and its steering feels more accurate. Everything is buttoned down more, in terms of controls, and their weighting.

The interior is a real snapshot of its early 2000s era too, with a large, central LCD speedo feeling reminiscent of what was found in the long-gone Toyota Tarago. Our test car was fitted with Recaro seats, and a shortened gear-shift mechanism, which made it feel more race car than it ever should.

As a homologation-derived car, talk of race cars leads nicely into the GR Yaris. If you want a full review, read my road, track and motorkhana launch review here.

To keep it short, the GR Yaris is unlike either of Toyota's best efforts in this segment. They've instead turned it up to 11, and delivered a giant slayer. Bespoke bodywork, unique all-wheel drive system and a muscular power to weight ratio of 155kW/tonne all signal its intent.

Performance on offer from the showroom floor trumps the other two entirely. It's Tottenham Hotspur versus Sunderland. Tier one versus relegated performers of yesterday. In order to manage, the GR's weight has grown up to 1280kg neat. So have its dimensions, now 3.9m long, and 1.8m wide.

I can't help but feel that dimensions are the only comparison point between the three, drawing a long bow. A modern-day Suzuki Swift Sport feels more in-line with the Toyota Starlet and Echo, than the GR Yaris does. The Swift has received the city car performance baton then, and runs for that cause all by itself.

But, the GR still has a place. For all of those battlers, like you and I, that drove these kinds of fun and everyday budget heroes as kids, the GR swoops in to captivate. Back then, we were endlessly modifying our old crappy cars to fight the powers that be.

Now, Toyota sells it new, with a warranty, ready to go. They've also done a better job than you, Trent, and I would've done in our mate's garage – with more beers than tools to play with.

I'm amazed to say this, but we have to acknowledge that the GR Yaris has lost something after its transfiguration. Its subjective, un-scorable drivel, but it's is no longer as endearing. The other two older cars, and the Suzuki Swift Sport for that matter, are still charming.

The GR Yaris has grown up and gone all serious, and genuine, with its sporting efforts. I respect it, but don't drive one seeking a trip down memory lane. Instead, compliment a GR with something old, if you wish to remain humble.

- shares