The 2021 Toyota GR Yaris Can Do No Wrong
The GR Yaris can count its sacred contemporaries among the 911 GT3, E39 M5, and 205 GTI.
Once in a while a car comes along that can do no wrong. Any criticism levied against it is swiftly washed away as a non-issue; if someone dislikes it they’re clearly wrong and need to have a word with themselves. The sacred list is long and varied—911 GT3, Peugeot 205 GTI, the E39 M5, and others—meaning there’s no set route to greatness. How on earth has a Toyota Yaris ended up on there, then?
Admittedly it’s not the kind of Yaris a European grandparent would buy as their likely last car, but a real-deal homologation special devised by rally legend Tommi Makinen to be the basis for a WRC competitor. The rally car it was supposed to underpin was killed off, but the hot hatch that legitimized its existence wasn’t. Enter stage right, almost devastatingly late in Act III of the ICE age: the 2021 Toyota GR Yaris.
It’s a mean-looking thing. From a distance, especially from the rear, the GR and vanilla Yarises (Yarii?) look similar, but on closer inspection, the GR’s more aggressive haunches, twin pipes, and general… rally carness give it away as something more. It’s squared-off, covered in vents, has massive wheels, and is clearly designed to be driven quickly all the time.
Its motor, a 1.6-liter turbo triple that kicks out north of 250 horses, is buzzy low down, and when you step on it you’re treated to induction noise associated with far more senior metal. With all the power on board, you’ll get from zero to 62 in 5.5 seconds, which always feels pretty special, if surprising in such a small package. It feels planted in its myriad modes but never feels too serious. The raised suspension lets it move around like a junior rally car. A car built purely to go fast and embarrass others wouldn’t do that—it’d be rock solid and uncomfortable anywhere outside a track. The GR Yaris isn’t all about that. It wants to play. You can also put a useful amount of stuff in it, which is odd for a rally car. There’s usually a roll cage in place of the rear seats.
Perhaps it’s the six-speed stick shift that makes it so appealing? Pleasingly chunky, yet not too heavy with a clutch to match. You can’t spec an auto, which will be pleasing for the "save the manuals" crowd who might buy one when used values briefly drop in ten years. There’s an honesty to it that you don’t really get elsewhere. It feels as though it was signed off by someone who actively enjoys shifting gears.
So far, so objectively A Good Car. There are lots of those around though. It's here we need a grown-up to explain things further.
Matt Prior, Autocar Magazine's Editor-at-Large, is one such person. He’s driven… everything (probably sideways), and recently ran a GR Yaris on a long-term test.
“What I like is how easily it can fit into your life, yet still just be really engaging and entertaining," he said. "It's small and the ride height is generous, so you never nose it into a driveway ramp. It's easy in town because it's so compact. And, as Autocar banged on about as long ago as the 1970s, a narrow car is great because you don't have to worry about twatting walls or mirrors, and you can use the lane of a road properly. Plus it's effing fast. I swear on that hallowed day when all roads are one way and laws are suspended, that it'd be arguably the quickest way to go from one point to another.”
Another grown-up, freelance automotive journalist Tristan Young, has put his money where his mouth is and bought one. His family fleet always has a "fun car" and the time is coming for a change: “Ever since driving the revised MX-5 I’ve been thinking about changing to one. Last year the finances got to the right point to make the change, but that was the same point at which the world’s motoring media went mad for the GR Yaris. Having owned several Subaru Impreza WRXs the idea of owning and driving another rally-bred car seriously appealed. A quick check of both the Mazda website and Toyota website sealed the deal; Mazda’s online ordering system was complicated and confusing, Toyota’s made buying the car easy.”
Young took the plunge before he'd even driven one. “The press car I borrowed also showed me why everyone loves the GR Yaris. It’s almost too good. Every so often a car comes along that is not only brilliant to drive but fits with everyday life.”
Word is that waiting lists stretch into years. Buying used sees prices soar way over sticker.
It’s not a golden goose—there are flaws. Its interior, bar a few GR badges, is pretty unremarkable. It doesn’t feel special at all. It comes with decent infotainment and big, supportive seats. The rear window is there purely for ornamental purposes—too small to be much use. The first time you refuel it you’ll spend a decent slug of time impotently poking the filler flap hoping it’ll open, then more time trying to find a hidden switch in the car to open it (it’s under the driver’s seat, FYI). The biggest of the lot is its highway ride. The springs cope admirably, but its stiff body—and the fact it’s based on a tiny hatchback designed to be as light as possible—means it’s noisy in there. Over a couple of hours, it can wear you down.
But they say context is king, and the special aura that surrounds a GR Yaris means it gets judged on a different scale than mortal cars. Here, the thing our grown-ups said that stuck most wasn’t about the performance, but how it can fit everyday life. It’s a fun car without compromise. One that you can take friends out in and have a ball, or fill with gear (it’s a hatchback after all). And while you’ve got them on board you can all hoon around in a tiny rally car. So many hot hatches and performance cars try to be all things to all people, the GR Yaris doesn’t. It’s a car designed to be enjoyed by car people and their mates. It has one face and doesn’t ever pretend to be something it’s not.
Because of that you can’t help but love it, and it’ll surely be on people’s top X lists until the end of time. It’ll just be another 25 years until anyone in the U.S. finds out.
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