Toyota GR Yaris 2020 gr
Owner Review

2020 Toyota GR Yaris review

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There have been many truly outstanding car names over the years. Who can forget the Mighty Boy from Suzuki, the Lettuce from Mitsubishi and Great Wall's Wingle, whatever that means. My personal favourite is the Ford Probe. You just know that the car was named after whoever Ford's “Vice President in Charge Of Car Names” was at the time returned from his annual medical, saw the long nose on that Ford/ Mazda creation and immediately knew it had to be called the Probe.

Toyota has been a little more conservative with its' naming regime. There was a theme in the sixties and seventies of names starting with C, and I personally enjoyed the qualities of quite a few examples of these vehicles as a child and teenager. There was the Toyota Crown that I remember being comfortably transported around in on some absolutely horrendous roads in central Queensland, roads that would quickly destroy a modern SUV, but that the Crown would take in its' stride. Then there was my mothers' Celica that I would quietly push down the driveway late at night and go exploring the wonderfully smooth roads around Canberra.

My mother also owned an early Cressida which is probably most closely related to a modern Lexus in terms of its refinement and quality. Except that you can longer enjoy the luxury of the stunning brown velour upholstery that was a hallmark of high end Japanese cars of that era. The other very memorable feature of that particular Cressida was its unbelievable ability to understeer at anything faster than walking pace. Sadly this handling characteristic led to the car's early demise when a family member attempted some spirited driving and speared straight through a fairly benign corner into a concrete culvert. Fortunately the car also provided relatively good secondary safety and no-one was hurt, even if that lovely, quiet, comfortable, semi-luxury conveyance was suddenly 30% shorter than it originally was.

Speaking of Toyota car names, the Yaris brand is definitely not one that you would normally associate with fun or performance. On the contrary in fact. As dull uninspiring appliances go, the standard Yaris is right up there with dishwashers and microwaves. Passion free and completely beige in every way. That is until you add the prefix "GR" and suddenly you create a whole different animal. The GR part of the title of this limited edition car stands for "Gazoo Racing" and apparently Gazoo means Garage, even if it sounds like something much less appropriate than that, with Gazoo Racing of course being Toyota's high performance division responsible for creating rally winning vehicles as well as instilling real focus and energy into select production cars like this Yaris and the Supra.

As it turns out we are very lucky to have the GR Yaris at all. The car was designed and created as a necessary part of Toyota's homologation of its entry to the World Rally Championship for 2021. Thanks to a little thing called COVID, Toyota have now decided to continue racing their current rally car, as new rules requiring the use of hybrid technology mean that the GR Yaris in its present configuration won't qualify leaving, which leaves us with a road car that was designed to be the basis of a race winning platform but that may never compete. Fortunately it sounds like creating the GR was fairly simple – take the front of a standard Yaris, graft on the rear of a Corolla, add hundreds more welds for significantly enhanced stiffness, magically decrease the weight, throw in all-wheel drive, lower the roof line and add carbon fibre, fit some truly excellent suspension, bolt in a pair of supportive and comfortable sports seats and then squeeze 200 kilowatts from 1.6 litres and three cylinders. How hard can all of that be to do? Especially in a low volume model that probably makes very little economic sense. Petrol heads everywhere should rejoice and be eternally grateful that a mainstream manufacturer have brought a vehicle to the market at a relatively affordable price that is brimming with genuine ability and overflowing with passion. Thank you, Toyota.

The subject of this particular review isn’t my car and I don’t own it, however I did have the pleasure of its company for a couple of very enjoyable days. My Wagon Queen Family Truckster….err Prado… needed a service and a tow bar fitted so my friendly local Toyota dealer were kind enough to loan me the GR whilst that was happening. Thank you to them as well. So an in-depth, insightful long term review this isn’t, rather an extended test drive over a few days and several hundred kilometres in the real world including some of Australia’s best driving roads.

The initial impression of the exterior view of the GR is that it is low and little. In an era of ever increasing car sizes the Yaris is refreshingly lithe, and the over all feeling is that it has been designed and built for a purpose, which of course it has been. The roof line is squat with carbon look applique (hiding the real carbon fibre), the side window design elliptical and interesting and the rear end is fat and purposeful. I personally love the way it looks. Sort of a cross between something cheap and cheerful and a hot hatch, with a slightly cartoonish vibe. It looks like it isn’t taking itself too seriously. The downside of the diminutive exterior is that the boot and back seat are very small.

I am a cyclist and the interior proportions would rule the car out as a daily for me because a bike would not easily fit within it, even with wheels removed. Fortunately the driver and front passenger are comfortably catered for with outstanding sports seats and adequate head, feet and shoulder room. The rest of the interior is a mixed bag. The steering wheel is an excellent size and perfectly fits in your hands, there is a centre screen that works with the wired Apple CarPlay, and the fit and build quality is everything you would expect from a company like Toyota. It’s just that the interior just doesn’t feel at all special with very uninspiring plastics dominating your view. The interior blandness is not a major criticism in the context of the overall attributes of the GR’s performance and exterior demeanour. The car would be even better with a slightly upgraded interior, that’s all.

There is one thing that is very attractive about the interior of the Yaris, however. When you had an extra pedal and a gear stick to any car interior you can absolutely forgive any of its less than perfect aesthetics. Yes indeed – the GR is one of those incredibly rare cars that comes as a manual only. Praise be to the gods of automobiles (and Toyota) that we, as proper car enthusiasts, have the privilege of enjoying the added layer of enjoyment that comes from being more directly involved in the joy of driving. I know that dual clutches are more efficient and quite possibly quicker, and I get that most people treat cars as transport and not things of passion making the installation of auto boxes almost de rigueur. I am also absolutely aware that quite soon we will be moving around the surface of our planet lemming like in soulless electric appliances, but the joy of rowing your own cogs is not something that can be easily replicated in a more efficient or popular transmission.

If you haven’t driven a manual for a while, and you can, I recommend you get out and drive one whilst the option is still available. And the gearbox in the Yaris is a good one. Not the very best in feel, and second to third sometimes is a little vague until you learn the correct motion, but still an excellent box and a great experience. The ratios are shortish and very appropriate for the car's intended purpose too. The initial acceleration is brisk with 100km/h being reached in the low 5’s officially and quicker than that unofficially. In the real world it works beautifully except on a lot of the typical Aussie mountain roads where second is too low and third just ever so slightly too high and you are left wishing for slightly higher ratios or a slightly higher redline.

Speaking of redlines, the amazing little three-pot under the bonnet is limited to 7000rpm. This is not a problem at in the wild because the GR is much torquier than any 1.6-litre has any right to be and you are never really wishing for more revs. Except mid-corner on the Oxley Highway when the almost unlimited grip means you are travelling quicker than you thought you would be and you realise that third gear really would have been the better option as it turns out. In any case the engine is destined to become a classic, in my opinion. Strong, smooth but with a hint of off-beat character and it just feels willing and wanting to please at all times.

It is a little let down by the lack of genuine aural appeal. Apparently artificial engine noise is piped into the cabin which seems to me to be missing the point of the car. The performance is real, the handling sublime and the gearbox so very analogue, making a real and appealing soundtrack to accompany the other excellent features of the driving experience would have made the car even better. Speaking of sound quality, the Yaris isn’t a particularly quiet conveyance. This is hardly surprising given the focus that Toyota has given to weight reduction, and a little road noise is more than forgivable in the context of the performance and fun factor that comes in spades when you are travelling in this car. You certainly won't notice it when using the car as its maker intended on quiet and winding back roads but you probably will on a long haul down a freeway.

If the decibels are a slight detraction from driving comfort, the suspension certainly isn’t. I’m not sure what kind of magic fairy dust Toyota have sprinkled on the underpinnings of the GR but it would have to boast one of the best compromises between brilliant handling and absolute comfort I personally have experienced. Actually compromise is not the right word when describing the Yaris’s ride and handling. It handles very, very well and it is very, very comfortable without any discernible compromise in either department. And this outstanding result has been achieved without resorting to different modes or settings or other electronic wizardry. There is just one suspension tune and it just works. Brilliant!

The handling is definitely let down by the standard fit Dunlops, however. My time in the GR coincided with a rain event and making the very best use of the all-wheel drive grip and outstanding suspension was not always as intuitive as it should have been because the tyres just weren’t confidence inspiring. Ultimate grip in the Yaris is very high and the steering feel is fundamentally excellent, it's just that the messages sent from the road to the steering wheel can be less than clear because the rubber used wasn’t consistent in the translation. Better tyres would be a must.

Speaking of handling, the Yaris is simply outstanding. Low weight, all-wheel drive grip and a punchy drivetrain are ingredients for fantastic fun in the twisties. Compliant suspension also means that mid-corner pot holes and road imperfections are a non-issue. Finding the limits of cornering speed in such a capable car is beyond the abilities of a mere mortal like myself however the enjoyment you have as a normal driver at eight-tenths is so much better because you just know that the safety margins available to you are so high.

There are transmission settings to play with if you wish. Normal mode gives a 60/40 front to rear split, Sport gives 50/50 and Track does 70/30, but to honest the car is so capable in Normal mode the difference isn’t that great in the lesser of the two settings. I didn’t try Track mode but no doubt it would make a difference on a closed road. Interestingly enough I personally found that the car was more subject to understeer on tight wet roads using Sport mode than Normal mode, however that characteristic may well have more to do with the standard fit tyres than anything else.

I was originally going to comment that my opinion on the original pricing of the GR at circa $40k was a bargain and that the value equation wasn’t as strong at the current $50k level, however I see that second hand prices are actually increasing and this is a limited edition car. I guess in the context of a mainstream manufacturer normally associated with less expensive vehicles the Yaris GR pricing is above what you would expect, but the reality of the car's performance, handling, sheer unadulterated fun factor and the quality of the experiences it provides it is an absolute steal.