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2021 Toyota GR Yaris first drive review: Little hottie packs a punch

Toyota's little GR Yaris has chuckable hot hatch fervor, but not at the expense of daily livability.

Let's start with something that I don't really talk about in the video that accompanies these words: The everyday. The humdrum. The travel to and from the nine-to-five. I actually did quite a large number of boring miles in the little Toyota GR Yaris over the week that it was in my care. No, the miles weren't boring because the car itself is a yawn, it's just difficult to make motorways particularly enjoyable.

But what was impressive is that something which seems to have been so clearly designed to provide fast fun down twisty pieces of tarmac, actually deals with the rest of life very well, too. When you're merely puttering about, you aren't drowned out by excessive road noise and the engine is almost disappointingly quiet. (I actually had a few times when I found I was cruising in fifth rather than sixth gear but simply hadn't noticed the sound of the higher revs.) You don't feel like you're constantly dealing with heavy controls, either, so the GR Yaris doesn't leave you feeling tired at the end of a journey. The ride doesn't crash or jolt; it's firm, don't get me wrong, but it isn't harsh. The seat is comfy, too, although I wish it was set lower.

The Yaris' big screen in the middle of the dash may cause some problems in terms of blind spots, but it is nice and easy to glance at or touch when you're driving. Radar cruise control and lane-keeping assistance seem anathema to a car of this sort, but some people will probably put them into significantly more regular use than the GR's Track Mode.

Then there are the stalks (I promise I'll talk about some flat-out-over-a-crest-into-a-90-degree-left stuff in a minute), which are about as basic as it's possible to be. Solid 1990s tech. To go between high-beam and low-beam lights, the left-hand stalk acts like a simple toggle switch. Flick away, pull back. Instant response. No matrix stuff to get caught up in, no delay in the system, no fiddly buttons on the steering wheel. Perfect. The dials on the dash have a similar old-school simplicity to them and, in a world where screens are the norm, they seem remarkably easy to understand.

What's not so practical is that the 13-gallon fuel tank drains quickly. The onboard computer suggests that 40 miles per gallon is possible on the highway, but that drops as soon as you come off onto anything even mildly interesting, simply because the car encourages you to use the revs so much. The hatchback is also small and the rear headroom (not to mention the ease of access to the back seats) was certainly designed for the World Rally Team's aerodynamics department, not actual adults. Not that I'm suggesting the rally team is childish. You know what I mean.

In short, for the fact that this car essentially was made so its rally counterpart can exist, the GR Yaris would be an easy car to live with on a day-to-day basis.

The Yaris has a clean, purposeful interior.


But what about the times when you find yourself on a really good bit of road? Well, the GR Yaris is a car that needs no encouragement. It feels eager and ready to entertain the moment you want to drop a gear and hurl it into a corner. The gearshift is a corker, with a snappily short throw and a lovely, burly sense of mechanical connection. You find yourself using it a lot, too, because the 1.6-liter, three-cylinder turbo engine scampers through the revs. In fact it's so enthusiastic in the way it accelerates that you would swear it was putting out more than the quoted 257 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque.

Through a set of corners the Yaris feels short of wheelbase, almost to the extent of seeming wider than it is long. It has that lovely small car feeling of being wonderfully wieldy and quick to react. It has the sort of tiny hot-hatch fervor that makes you want to pull the handbrake in every vaguely empty parking lot.

The overall handling balance with the GR-Four all-wheel-drive system is interesting, because even in its rear-biased setting (Sport), it feels tuned for traction rather than throttle adjustability. If you get the front hooked up early and pile on the torque at the exit of a corner, it feels nicely rear-driven in the way it loads up the back axle and slingshots you out of a bend. It always feels like it's snapping the car straight rather than wanting to oversteer. You can get a few degrees of slip, but it's not really ever enough to require correction. It's more efficient than entertaining (although on a track it may prove to be a different story).

This car exists so its racing counterpart can exist.


The one dynamic area where I would definitely like to see a bit of improvement though is the feel from the front end. I find it hard to really judge through the steering wheel how much grip is available at the front tires. In a car this agile, that can make it difficult to really push on with confidence and composure. I'd actually be intrigued to try a version without my tester's Circuit Pack to see if a little more compliance in the suspension and the lack of a torsen limited-slip differential makes the front end slightly easier to read on the road. It might even make the rear feel a little more mobile on turn-in.

Overall, though, the GR Yaris is a great deal of fun, particularly at the price it's been pitched at: a whisker under £30,000 in the UK. (No, the US won't get this one, though a different, Corolla-based GR hatch is in the works.) It will be fascinating to pitch the Yaris against some of its extreme hot hatch rivals and see how it stacks up dynamically, but one thing none of them will have is the feel-good factor of being designed with race homologation in mind. And I do think that counts for something.