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Is this insane, rally-bred pocket rocket the most exhilarating hot hatch in a generation?

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The Toyota GR Yaris is one of those rare cars that seems to be destined for greatness right from the get-go. Of all the high-end automotive exotica that emerged in 2020, none generated quite the same level of collective salivation as this steroidal, and comparatively affordable, Japanese pocket rocket.

In fact, since the first whispers of its existence emerged in 2019, every new glimpse of this compact, four-wheel-drive performance hatch has been shadowed by such fervent anticipation that you’d be excused for mistaking its arrival for the second coming.

This car is all about the driving experience, so get the Circuit Pack. All four colour options look good too, but the optional, £880 Scarlet Flare paint scheme (read red) looks particularly smart.

It’s easy to see why. This is effectively the first ground-up performance car Toyota has developed on its tod for some 20 years, built using know-how distilled from a heavily revitalised interest in motorsport, and from considerable success on the stages of the World Rally Championship in particular. It’s also the car that was developed with the express purpose of homologating the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC team’s 2021 racer. Complications relating to the pandemic eventually led to that competition car being sidelined, but not before the likes of Tommi Mäkinen, Kris Meeke, Ott Tänak and Jari-Matti Latvala had played a key role in the road car’s design and development. Toyota could have mothballed the GR Yaris at this point, but boss Akio Toyoda insisted that it see the light of day even though it looked certain the rally car would not.

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And thank heavens he did, because the GR Yaris has unsurprisingly been riding high on a tsunami of success since its launch late last year. First, it scored top marks in our initial Toyota GR Yaris UK first drive review. Then it won our ‘Junior Handling Day’ competition, before taking on vastly more powerful and vastly more expensive supercars at our annual Britain’s Best Driver’s Car shootout. It secured a podium position there, too.

Now, what is arguably the most exciting hot hatchback in a generation finds itself under the cold, clinical light of the Autocar road test. Expectations are high, but will the GR Yaris be able to add another five stars to its already crowded trophy cabinet? Time to find out.

The GR Yaris line-up at a glance

Just the one engine and gearbox combination is available on the GR Yaris, and the biggest decision you’ll make as far as options are concerned is whether to opt for the Convenience Pack or the Circuit Pack. Cars equipped with the former cost from £32,175 and bring a greater level of creature comforts (think parking sensors, navigation, uprated stereo system). The latter, meanwhile, is for keener drivers. The £33,495 Circuit Pack brings a more aggressive suspension tune, recalibrated EPAS and Torsen limited-slip differentials at the front and rear axle.



2 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review hero side

This car has not been built to please accountants; and unlike the GR Toyota Supra or the GT86, Toyota didn’t have another manufacturer with which it could share the development costs – which must have been phenomenal.

For starters, it’s built at a new Toyota Gazoo Racing production facility in Japan, and is based on a unique, newly designed platform. This is effectively a hybrid of Toyota’s GA-B and GA-C architectures, which was specially constructed to allow for the fitment of a more sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension to complement the front MacPherson struts, and make way for a driven rear axle.

Red brake calipers are also exclusive to the Circuit Pack. Incredibly, the car’s front discs are even bigger in diameter than those fitted to the larger, heavier GR Supra.

Speaking of which, the proprietary GR-Four all-wheel drive system is Toyota’s first in nearly two decades. The lightweight, electronically controlled system can split varying amounts of torque between the axles depending on the drive mode selected. The default front-to-rear split is 60:40, with a 50:50 split in Track mode and a 30:70 split in the Sport setting. And, rather incredibly, if you pull the manual handbrake, the rear half shafts will disconnect automatically.

The turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine is also new, and has been developed to comply with WRC2 regulations – suggesting Toyota might be looking to launch factory-built competition-spec cars to its customers in future. Slightly undersquare, and with 258bhp and 266lb ft on tap (deployed to the road via a six-speed manual gearbox), it is the most powerful three-cylinder motor in production. Toyota also claims that it is the lightest, most compact 1.6-litre turbo unit around.

Toyota’s WRC team had particular input where the GR Yaris’s bodyshell is concerned. Unlike the standard Toyota Yaris, it’s a three-door model, because that shape is better suited to rallying and can more easily accommodate additional aerodynamic equipment. The roofline is up to 95mm lower, to help maximise downforce and aerodynamic efficiency.

A conscious effort has been made to make the GR Yaris as light as possible, too. Aluminium has been used extensively in the construction of the doors, as well as for the redesigned tailgate and rear bumper. The roof is made from a lightweight forged carbon composite, and a good prod will cause the bumpers to flex under pressure. So extensive are the changes to the GR Yaris’s bodyshell that only the headlights, shark-fin antenna, door mirrors and tail-lights have been carried over from the standard car. This is by no means a regular Yaris that’s simply been made a bit sharper and a bit faster.

The optional Circuit Pack, fitted here, brings even more changes. Torsen limited-slip differentials feature at both axles; a more aggressive suspension tune is introduced; the car’s EPAS is sharpened; and 18in forged alloy wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber replace the standard 18s and Dunlop tyres.


12 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review cabin

To look at, the cabin of the GR Yaris doesn’t differ too greatly from that of the regular hybrid model. It continues to exude that slightly austere, monochrome sense of ambience common to most Toyotas, only with a relatively conservative sprinkling of additional performance-car addenda – think GR badging, Alcantara-like upholstery and large bucket seats.

Those chairs are firm but comfortable, and offer impressive amounts of support for your torso, hips and thighs. You sit in a fairly perched position, in relatively close proximity to the pedals, but our testers nonetheless agreed that the driving position was a largely comfortable one. The only real points of contention were the spacing of the brake and throttle pedals, which some argued made heel-and-toe downshifts slightly trickier to execute than was ideal, and the fact that the rear-view mirror is positioned in such a way that it obscures visibility through left-hand turns.

Regular Yaris Hybrid’s digitised instrument pack is replaced by a refreshingly old-school analogue set of dials. Very clear and easy to read at a glance.

The largely sensible approach to ergonomics continues with the positioning of the gearlever, which sits 50mm higher up for easier shifts. Directly in front of that is the large rotary drive mode controller, which allows you to toggle between the three settings with ease. Elsewhere, just three visible, chunky buttons are housed on the centre console. These control the traction control, the stop/ start system and the rev-matching function for the manual transmission.

While the cabin itself feels snug, this only really serves to emphasise just how compact the GR Yaris feels on the road – particularly when you take the driver’s close proximity to the car’s primary controls into account. It might not be overtly sporty to look at, but it certainly feels like a focused and purposeful driving environment.

Practicality is limited. The rear bench is only really suitable for the smallest children, and the boot has just 174 litres of storage capacity – that’s limited even by supermini standards.

Toyota GR Yaris infotainment and sat-nav

All GR Yaris models come equipped with Toyota’s 8.0in Touch 2 infotainment system as standard. It features Bluetooth, DAB radio and USB connectivity, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

Only Convenience Pack cars gain factory satellite navigation, which comes with an uprated eight speaker JBL sound system and additional driver assistance features. However, given that those smartphone mirroring interfaces work so well, and that Toyota’s infotainment systems aren’t the most graphically sophisticated anyway, we’d steer clear of the Convenience Pack altogether.

When your smartphone isn’t connected, the system is easy enough to use. It doesn’t look all that special, but the dedicated shortcut buttons that frame the screen make navigating the system a fairly simple undertaking – even though they are quite small. The physical volume controls on the steering wheel and at the base of the screen are welcome, too.


23 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review engine

While less than 260bhp might seem like a modest power output by today’s standards, to get a handle on how accelerative the GR Yaris is, bear in mind that we record our figures with two occupants and fully fuelled, it has no launch control and it’s equipped with a manual gearbox that needs a shift into second well before 60mph. And yet it still covers the 0-60mph benchmark in 5.2sec.

Thanks, in part, to an as-tested kerb weight of just 1283kg with a full tank. Alter any one of the variables inserted by us or Toyota and we suspect you’re looking at a ‘four-point-something’ car, which goes to show how immune we’ve come to seeing huge modern power figures.

It’s astonishing just how radically Toyota’s brand image has changed in recent years. It feels like only yesterday it was known as a purveyor of bland but sturdy econoboxes. The GR Yaris, GR Supra and GT86 have changed everything.

The Yaris’s little 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo engine develops its power seemingly without great effort, too – 6000-mile service intervals aside. It fails to be overtly boosty, with only a little lag at lower revs and none at all once you get it up past 3000rpm. It revs to 7000rpm in all and makes, as one friend of ours noted not unkindly, a sound “like half a Porsche 911 at low revs and a kazoo at high revs”. That’s a result of Active Noise Cancellation (which plays anti-noise through the speakers to drown out unwanted engine droning) and Engine Sound Enhancement, which plays what Toyota thinks are the right notes through the speakers. We’d be intrigued to sample it without both but, without an unofficial aftermarket dongle, it isn’t switchable. The PlayStation effect is here to stay.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to find whichever spot in the rev range best suits your ears owing to the snickety nature of the six-speed gearbox. You only need actually second and third to operate within the legal limit, but given the engine’s flexibility (peak torque of 266lb ft arrives from 3000rpm) and simplicity of flicking through gear ratios, it’s entertaining to grab one more gear than you need on a straight, just so you can heel and toe one more downshift.

Some of our testers thought the brake and throttle pedals too far apart for easy shifts, but the brake pedal has a firm, even feel, outright stopping power is first class and resistance to fade excellent.


24 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review on road front

There are two elements to this section and it’s not a given that a car that excels at one of these will necessarily excel at the other. In fact, the more agile a car feels, the less stable it can too. However, the GR Yaris is no ordinary car.

Wet or dry (but not really cold), the Yaris’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres offer exceptional grip and, with a short wheelbase, wide track and light kerb weight, the car changes direction superbly. It steering is direct and by many modern standards quite heavy, but really pleasingly responsive and linear. It’s as if Toyota has tried to make it feel like a rather old-fashioned hydraulically assisted rack, with weight and solidity around the straight-ahead to spare. Get into, say, a new Volkswagen Golf GTI and you’ll find it steers much more quickly and lightly than the Yaris in an effort to make the car feel responsive. A Renault Mégane Sport adds rear steering into the mix to try the same. The Yaris just shows you do it instead: rather than feeling agile, just be agile.

The GR Yaris corners imperiously – as sure-footed as it is rapid and agile – and channels the ebb and flow faithfully back to the driver through satisfyingly hefty steering.

What’s impressive, though, is that this doesn’t come at the expense of stability. Hit a patch of standing water, or brake on a bad road in not quite a straight line, and there’s none of the kind of looseness that you would have found in an old Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or a Renaultsport Clio 197. Forgive the older car references, but it’s those cars and their increased interaction over today’s hatches with which the GR Yaris shares more values.

If anything, that level of stability does contribute to one of the few things we would change about the GR Yaris. Its on-throttle stability and grip is tremendous as its differentials hook up and spear it from corners, but even in its Sport mode, which diverts more power to the rear than the front, this isn’t a car that moves around under braking or straightens its line hugely on the throttle. It’s just hugely impressive, all the time, and interactive and engaging enough with it that even though more near- or on-limit adjustability wouldn’t hurt, it’s still a handling hero of our time.

We have yet to try a GR Yaris without the Circuit Pack in the UK, but it will be interesting to see how it copes with British roads on its softer dampers and also how traction is affected.

The stiffer set-up of this Circuit Pack is pretty good on even bad roads, which the Millbrook Hill Route looks to emulate with surface changes and some severe cambers. They don’t manage to unsettle the GR Yaris nor upset its steering, bar the occasional light hint of movement on the wheel as cambers get really big – but it’s feel rather than corruption.

Likewise the steering gains weight pleasingly and linearly as the Yaris builds towards its terrific limits, which edge towards understeer initially, though you can trail-brake to quell this and then, at least with Sport mode engaged, throttle-on corner exits are fearsomely fast with the Yaris edging towards neutrality.

Rather than braking right into an apex and feeling the car unsettle, it feels ready and eager to be driven on the throttle as much as possible.

Comfort and isolation

If we were talking about one of the GR Yaris’s spiritual forebears – something like a Lancer Evo or Subaru Impreza Turbo – you could gloss over much of this section. But despite having as much dynamic interaction and point-to-point pace as anything with a roof and four-wheel drive, the GR Yaris does serve its day-to-day drivers reasonably well.

For one, there is the Active Noise Cancellation, which keeps noise levels to moderate levels. A handsfree phone conversation, or a chat with a passenger, isn’t the breeze it would be in most hatchbacks from a class higher, or a sports saloon, but it’s far from a chore.

Evenly spaced gearing, meanwhile, means that the engine is turning over at a shade under 3000rpm at 70mph, which drivers of old cars will recognise as an entirely standard top gear length on a petrol car – giving easy enough economy yet sufficient urge to retain speed. So there’s no hugely overdriven upper gearset to improve combined cycle fuel economy – probably bad for the bottom CO2 line or the ability to receive a call on the M40, but better for drivers.


1 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review hero front

With hot supermini proportions and a power-to-weight ratio comparable to that of a larger, all-wheel-drive mega-hatch, it’s unsurprising that the GR Yaris is priced somewhere between the two.

In its most basic form it costs from £29,995, with Convenience Pack and Circuit Pack models priced from £32,175 and £33,495 respectively. Those two packs exist independently of each other, and you’ll want the latter, for sure.

GR Yaris is expected to perform well against rivals from Ford and Mini, but the difference isn’t night and day

Past that point, the only real choice you need to make in terms of spec is which colour you’d like. With all-wheel drive and a highly strung engine, it’s thirstier than your average pocket rocket. We saw an average economy of 27mpg during testing, with that figure rising to 39.2mpg under touring conditions.

Unlike the Yaris GRMN that preceded it, this isn’t a strictly limited-run special. Toyota originally would have needed to sell 25,000 units to meet FIA homologation requirements for the canned 2021-season rally car, but it has said that it remains open to building more if the demand is there. We can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.



27 Toyota GR Yaris 2021 UK road test review static

The boss of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, is no stranger to a race suit and will admit in interviews with a smile that he sometimes has a different view to the firm’s accountants when it comes to making driver’s cars.

But his commitment to them is shared by plenty of engineers in the company, and so here we are: with a new hot hatch champion of the kind you just didn’t think people made any more – removed from a standard production line, chopped and changed in what must be hugely expensive fashion and fitted with a high-revving, powerful engine, a passive suspension set-up and a good old manual gearbox. All allowed because Toyota sells enough low-emission vehicles that there’s room for it in the range while still squeezing under corporate emissions limits.

Toyota, on a roll with driver’s cars, provides yet another winner

What would you want to change? It is spookily fast if you’re absolutely on it and so a smidgeon more interaction at lower speeds wouldn’t hurt, but this is a driver’s car hero that’s great fun and approachably priced. And worth savouring because, well, who will ever build something else like it?


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Toyota GR Yaris First drives