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Hype Machine - Toyota GR Yaris Long Term Review

Updated: Mar 24

Scarlet Flare GR Yaris

Will the real Toyota GR Yaris please stand up? In this long-term review and high-performance assessment, Kristian Spreckley delves into the dynamic attributes and assesses the long term ownership experience of the homologation hatch. With photography by Ben Midlane.

HYPE – in the age of the ‘Attention Economy’ we’re surrounded by it, bombarded by every social media platform or marketing department we engage with. If there’s one word that sums up the GR Yaris, hype is it. I don’t think any car has ever been the subject of as much fanfare as this little rally special, yet it’s possible the hype train might’ve been more of a burden than a good thing.

Born in a time when the car community was whipping itself into a frenzy over the impending doom of the internal combustion engine, nevermind one that was starved of affordable, driver-focused cars (let alone bonafide homologation specials!), the expectation and goodwill towards the Yaris was off the charts. Throw in the interruption of COVID lockdown keeping us all off the roads and Toyota stringing us along with a drawn-out teaser campaign, the excitement reached fever pitch. Then, finally, the reviews came in and the car delivered. Big time.

It was a perfect storm moment for the GR Yaris. This little car has probably had more positive reviews than any other in recent times, whether it be from both longstanding, respected members of the motoring press to YouTube influencers. Like the talking up of the England football team's chances whenever an international tournament comes around, could such exposure have been more of a curse than a blessing? In true build-them-up, knock-them-down fashion, it’s now becoming trendy to call the car overrated in certain circles. Is it a case of, as Public Enemy said, “don’t believe the hype”?

So, what we have here is a review of the car's performance over the roads of Lancashire, sprinkled with feedback from a long-term ownership perspective. The aim is to cut through all that hype of three years ago and give an honest, objective appraisal over two-and-a-half years living with the car, not a few hours, or even a week that form your average road test verdict.

GR Yaris review

A lot of dust has settled since the GR Yaris was first launched and most reviews have tailed away, so now seems like the perfect time to revisit the car with the revised 2024 model on the horizon. I’m going to assume that reading this magazine, you’re already well versed in the arts of the homologation special, thus the mouthwatering specification of the GR Yaris; the bespoke, strengthened body shell, the most powerful turbocharged three-cylinder engine in production, the lightweight construction (1,280 kg kerb weight) and an all-wheel-drive system with a differential at each axle (assuming you’ve specified the Circuit Pack). Famously, so much was changed on this car, the only elements carried over from the Yaris Harold and Doris drive to Morrisons are the light units, the mirrors and the shark fin antenna - literally everything else is changed.

This morning’s rendezvous point with Craig and photographer Ben Midlane is Jubilee Tower near Lancaster before we head into the Trough of Bowland. I set off late having had messages from the dynamic duo informing me they’re en route - and they’re starting point is already nearer than me. Great! Need to make time then. As I peel off the M6 and head towards Jubilee Tower, the road rears up and, as you’d expect at 5:30 am, it’s blissfully quiet.

There’s plenty of visibility but the roads are damp, so I tread carefully to start with. Going uphill helps, you bleed off speed relatively easily and the natural gravitational forces mean you can push the car and lose momentum fairly quickly. There are short straight stretches punctuated by sharp, almost hairpin-like corners with dry stone walls on each side, GR Yaris territory doesn’t get much better! The torque and powerful brakes work in real harmony here, allowing the Yaris to haul you out of corners with immense traction and the brakes have plenty of power to lose speed rapidly.

In these conditions, the Yaris excels. As I head up towards the top of the moor, the road opens up and I can see Jubilee Tower, the road straightening as I approach the summit. There's good visibility only broken by a series of rhythmic undulations which the Yaris deals with nonchalantly, so I’m able to press on. In the distance, I can see two motorcyclists who have also caught the early worm and their stare is fixated on me. The Yaris isn't a noisy car, it doesn't make a racket but it has captured their attention and I'm fully aware of the speed I’m carrying. Conscious not to look like a hooligan, I back off as I approach the tower.

GR Yaris review

Despite playing catch-up, I’ve blatantly been having fun because I’m on site before Craig and Ben, so park up and take in the waking plain of Lancashire and the Lancaster coastline. It’s a wonderful view and I take the opportunity to have a stroll and take in the Yaris silhouette against this stunning backdrop.

It’s a purposeful-looking thing, not beautiful but deeply effective. There’s something about this time in the morning, the quietness, the lighting, the hyper-sensitivity to the sounds and sights around you and twinned with this view I feel privileged to be witness to the unfolding day. I’m drawn away by the distant shrill of what I initially think is a bike engine, only to realise that it has to be the noise of an F4R reaching towards that 7,400 rpm limiter! Sure enough, moments later a red Clio appears over the horizon, lights ablaze and sounding glorious!

After grabbing some shots from the tower and the surrounding area, we head into the heart of the Trough of Bowland which is a staggering place to drive this type of car. The roads are tight, twisty and narrow which means there’s not lots of opportunity to drive a car flat out but it’s the tapestry of winding roads and spectacular scenery that makes it all-encompassing when it comes to engaged driving. Where the road opens up and visibility is good, I’m able to exercise the Yaris and it truly is an exceptional device when presented with these kinds of roads and in these conditions. You do need to drive it quite hard to revel in its chassis and although those opportunities aren’t constantly available, when they are you’re occasionally presented with ‘wow’ moments.

It’s reminding me of the first time I experienced one, which became a defining moment in my relationship with the car. Truth be told when I got my car, I spent the first 3 months wondering what all the ‘hype’ was about, with only the odd “blimey that was special” moment to back up the hysteria. I heard of people selling quickly because it “wasn’t for them”, “too fast” or it didn’t suit their daily lifestyle and wondered whether I was in the same boat. Craig bought and sold his example in a similar timeframe. I had been going through a similar ‘lull’ with the car, driving mundane roads, taking the children to school and using the car like a typical humdrum daily commuter. I considered selling myself.

GR Yaris interior mk1

Then, out of the blue, on a local motorway slip road that has a long left-hander followed by a sharp right-hander, it happened, one of those genuine ‘wow’ moments. This isn’t your average long fast motorway slip road but one with two fantastically technical bends and rippled, undulating tarmac. It’s only about 600-800m in total but the way the Yaris tackled the challenge has etched itself onto my mind.

From that moment I accepted that as special as the car is and feels, you’ve got to search for the right playground to really bring the car to life, and to explore those opportunities at the right time of day. Only then can you revel in the car's dynamic abilities and truly understand the purpose it was built for – to dismantle difficult terrain and do so whilst at the same time providing tremendous driver satisfaction and feedback, making that experience easy to access. Or in the case of a pure competition car, help the driver get through the stage as fast as feasibly possible!

Bowland is one of those playgrounds, and as we head further into the countryside the roads just keep giving, mile after mile. The car does have quite a dynamic handling repertoire and to get the most out of it you have to understand its general behaviour. Although hugely grippy, the chassis does tend to lean towards understeer at the limit and this is particularly noticeable on track if you try to simply bludgeon corners. Most of the time on the public road you don’t overcome the large reserves of grip the car has to offer but occasionally you can find plough on understeer, sometimes when you’re simply not expecting it. There’s a certain way to drive a Yaris to get the most out of it and it's important to understand this.

Drive it like other performance hatches and it won’t necessarily make sense. If you get on the power too early in a corner the car will push straight on quite dramatically, a mix of understeer through the front-driven wheels with the addition of the pushing force from the rear which tends to exacerbate the understeer and push it further into understeer, quickly! The best way to drive the car is with a good dose of trail braking which allows the car to have a much more neutral to rear bias to its handling.

Scarlet flare GR Yaris

When driven like this, the car comes alive, dancing and reacting to the throttle whilst remaining resolutely grippy in its general attitude. In terms of grip, I’m not sure there are many other chassis out there that can generate so much adhesion on average UK roads in all conditions. In the wet, if you’ve never driven any other 4WD performance car, the grip is simply astounding. You can genuinely use pretty much the same throttle opening as in the dry on most wet corners and the Yaris just fires you out onto the next straight.

If you tried to follow a Yaris in the rain in a conventional RWD performance car, you would without doubt end up in a hedge very quickly or at the very least lose sight of the Yaris within a few hundred metres. The difference really is that big. It’s the liberties you can take with the car that you can’t with others that allow you to cover ground so effortlessly and securely. On a track, a RWD car might be able to keep pace but on a bumpy unsighted b-road, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Is there too much grip? It’s a view I’ve heard a lot and a reason that many people have moved on from the Yaris or tend to favour it as a winter car, tucking it away during the summer months for something a bit more playful in the dry. Where roads allow it, and on track, you can get the car into very neutral power oversteer moments. These aren’t like in say a BMW M car where there's long progressive slides but much more fleeting, pull-you-straight moments before the car latches onto its chosen line and fires you at the next horizon.

There are elements of the cars' make-up and design that are intrinsically important to how it drives and handles. You’ve doubtless read about the yards and yards of extra adhesive and the umpteen extra spot welds. I won’t bore you with the details but what I can say is this has an absolute, tangible impact on how the car feels. I’ve not driven many - or any - cars that feel so structurally strong over bumps and broken tarmac as this. Body stiffness is unlike any car I’ve driven before, it feels like it is honed from granite. Hit bumps and the body remains resolute and it has a significant impact on how the suspension is able to interact with the road as the whole platform is so stiff, only the suspension is allowed to move and breathe with the road. There are not many surfaces that upset the Yaris and the quicker you go, the better it gets. Honestly, there are very few cars at any price that can get down a British country road like this thing can.

Be careful though, it is so quick and so composed that you can find yourself travelling at genuinely crazy speeds on the public road. I don’t believe there’s any standard road car that can get down a typical twisty B road any quicker than the Yaris. Of course, in today’s performance car world, you can say this of almost anything since cars are so well developed that you have to push well beyond sane speeds and behaviours to pull a meaningful gap over any other performance car on the public road. Although it’s quite stiff, mid-corner bumps don’t phase it. You put it on a line and it sticks to it, resolutely. The sense of traction, even at low speeds is genuinely staggering, you know that even at considerably higher speeds it wouldn’t feel much different, it would grip and go, naturally.

GR Yaris engne bay

Of the three distribution modes available - Normal (60:40), Sport (30:70) and Track (50:50) - Track tends to be the mode of choice for maximum attack driving whether on the road or the track. Normal mode works very well for everyday driving and is the least easy to ‘upset’ if driving hard, in other words, the most forgiving and the mode I tend to prefer unless deliberately driving the car for pure enjoyment. Sport can provide a more RWD feel but the car can suffer from understeer in this mode unless you really try to provoke the car, not really delivering the feel you’d expect given 70% of the power is fed to the rear. I suspect this is because, despite the modes, the ECU still tracks the car’s behaviour and can juggle torque as required to keep everything on the black stuff.

Track however tends to provide the most thrills and allows the car to grip prodigiously whilst also introducing much more bias towards slight oversteer which transitions into neutral power oversteer when judged perfectly. Balance braking with acceleration in this mode and the car becomes a monster at covering ground, literally firing you out of each turn with a slight slide before you’re hurled down the next straight and ready to do the same at the next corner.

The brakes can feel a bit wooden but certainly don’t lack power and fade is non-existent on the road and unless you do long stints on the track, you won’t see any fade there either. The pedal is also extremely firm, much like a competition car but the setup allows for wonderful brake modulation when you’re in full attack mode and using the brakes to link a series of bends. I’m not sure many production cars have better factory brakes at any price point.

Pedal positioning is generally good although I’d say that the gap between the brake and accelerator is slightly wider than ideal, and the height difference between the brake and accelerator is also bigger than you’d like. This means you need to properly ‘heel and toe’ rather than using just the width of the ball of your foot like you can in very well-set-up cars. Assuming you have turned off the auto rev match function that is.

The gear change is slightly agricultural but in a good way, it almost feels like you’ve got to grab it by the scruff of the neck to get it to work but when you do, it works very effectively. There’s a nice weight to the shift mechanism, almost like it’s counterweighted as you move it through the gate. The shift lever is 50mm higher than in a standard Yaris so that it falls nicely to hand and the shift is wonderfully positive and requires just the right level of engagement from the driver. For a small car, it feels like an incredibly strong gearbox, much like the rest of the car then, a big car feel and engineering in a compact package.

GR Yaris gearbox

The steering wheel is a fantastic piece of design from a pure touch point perspective, a perfect diameter, avoiding the lean towards thick-rimmed steering wheels that adorn most performance cars of the last ten years. I’m convinced this allows a much more delicate steer and promotes steering with the fingers and a light touch rather than clenched fists on a thick-rimmed wheel. Turn-in is not quite as sharp as I’d like and if there was one thing on this car I think could be improved, it’s this.

Subtle tweaks to the geometry, say adding a degree or so of negative camber, would, I suspect, improve this and make the car feel more alive and give it some bite when making that initial movement of the steering wheel. It’s hardly slow to respond and never feels anything less than sporty but it does lack any degree of real feel. I can see why they have set it up as they have, the car would doubtless feel more edgy if it was tweaked and likely make it less progressive, which actually may appeal to a smaller audience than how it is currently set up. It’s very confidence-inspiring as it is with an almost invincible feel – at least on the public road.

We head further East through the Forest of Bowland towards Gisburn Forest. It’s all Yaris country around here but these roads perhaps more so than the roads we’ve been on so far today. Narrow in width, bumpy, broken and littered with shale, they present a challenge to any car trying to make progress and this is where the Yaris really shines. Sure, a Range Rover or Land Rover can tackle these roads with aplomb but they can’t cover them with such agility, athleticism and speed and most other performance cars would feel like they were being abused if you tried to attack these roads. Apt then that Gisburn has its own rally stage and therefore a fitting place to bring the car.

The road gets narrower and narrower as we head through the forest before opening up onto the moor between Slaidburn and High Bentham. This is a fantastic piece of road, single track, winding back and forth and up and down but there are no trees or hedges, so visibility is wonderful, just the odd stray sheep to watch out for! This road is genuinely thrilling to drive in the Yaris, constantly on and off the power and working the brakes hard as this ribbon of asphalt winds back and forth with each bend separated by very short straights with some of the corners almost doubling back on themselves.

Thankfully it's quiet today and there’s never a need to use the passing places that are scattered along the road to allow oncoming traffic to pass. You can use all the width of the road here as the sightlines are so good, meaning you can get tremendous flow and indulge yourself in a truly immersive experience.

Scarlet flare GR Yaris

The engine is also a high point in this car. Whilst a 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine doesn’t fire up the senses like a high revving naturally aspirated V8, the noise is gruff and offbeat, although as is the norm now the sound is largely synthesised through the speakers. Many people have deleted the sound enhancement but I’m a fan and it lets you know what’s going on whilst keeping things civilised outside of the car. The real strength of this engine is its tractability, response, torque and ability to rev right out, unlike most turbocharged engines which tail off short of the rev limiter – not so in this, the revs build beautifully.

In real-world driving it’s the torque that provides clear advantages in every situation – there’s a big enough swell of torque that you can accelerate perfectly acceptably in a high gear without the need to change down in normal driving and then in spirited driving, the torque arrives so early that corner exit is never anything less than slingshot like unless you’ve heroically misjudged your gear selection. The ease with which you can cover ground at a moderate pace is night and day different to something naturally aspirated like an E46 M3 where torque is virtually non-existent and gear selection is everything. It’s an essential part of the package this power unit, and genuinely impressive in how it helps meld together such a cohesive drivetrain and deliver the Yaris’s fairly unique driving experience.

We finish the day on a wider, quicker road, the B6478 towards Clitheroe. It’s well-sighted and has a mixture of fast sweeping curves and tight hairpins and with a fair amount of elevation, you can be pushing on uphill or metering the speed accordingly as you descend. On one particular downhill section, there’s a nicely positioned ‘hump’ in the road that allows the car to really unweight itself, you could likely get airborne if you were to have a marshalled road with no fear of oncoming traffic but we leave that to the imagination today and instead enjoy the way the suspension travel deals with the sudden change in height, but still allows the car to be wonderfully pliant and controllable. It is what makes this car so different to most other cars out there today, despite the cringe-inducing cliche it genuinely is set up like a 'rally car for the road', with good wheel travel with suspension that’s stiff yet compliant enough to deal with roads you’d otherwise expect on a rally stage.

It’s been a great day, spent on roads the GR Yaris was designed to excel upon. But on the way home, my mind falls into further contemplation surrounding owning the car for over two and a half years. I’ve certainly come on a journey with this car, and my opinion and realisation of its talents evolving over time. Initially, I bought into the hype, only to be left thinking where is the magic? And I think that’s where the initial hype train did the car an injustice. Everyone expected some super mega out-of-this-world experience but in everyday real-world driving that rarely occurs in any car, let alone one costing £33,500. Take it for what it is, a truly bespoke piece of engineering that fulfils a brief - expose it to the right conditions and you have a remarkable package that is engaging and thrilling to drive. Long may it remain in production.

"I’ve not driven many - or any - cars that feel so structurally strong over bumps and broken tarmac as this. Body stiffness is unlike any car I’ve driven before, it feels like it is honed from granite."

Toyota was so scared it wouldn’t make the 25,000-unit homologation target, that it even commissioned a special JDM-only version of the car that utilised the body shell but used ordinary Yaris running gear underneath. But there are now more than 32,000 worldwide, and over 5,000 have found their way to the UK. Toyota originally aimed to sell just 750 UK cars. Part of the reason was probably the exceptional 0% finance deal Toyota offered on these cars for the first couple of years. They’re sold out now but those numbers mean it's relatively easy to get hold of a second-hand, low-mileage example if you want.

Will the numbers lower future values? Almost certainly I’d say, a combination of the hype, ‘flippers’ and the finance deal means there are likely more cars than the specialist enthusiast buyers who want these things. Not necessarily great news if you own one and want good residuals to remain (they’re still pretty good as we write this) but great news if you want a proper homologation special at a relatively affordable price. There’s little available for the money that has a 5-year/ 100k mile warranty and this kind of pedigree.

Scarlet Flare GR Yaris

Is it a hot hatch? Well, it’s the right size but I think that’s about the only concession. Most hot hatches are front-wheel drive and personally, I think that’s how we should box them. This means the Yaris isn’t a hot hatch at all. I think we think of it as a ‘Rally Special’, a modern Impreza/ Evo type car and the spiritual successor to those rally legends. Despite appearances, the GR Yaris should be classified as an out-and-out performance car.

Today, how would I sum up the Yaris? Once again using one word; FUN. There are relatively few cars that can produce as much pure driving enjoyment as this yet feel so special. And it does feel genuinely special, from the incredibly stiff platform to the way the diffs engage with a clunk when you select first gear, to the bespoke and properly developed three-cylinder engine, to the carbon roof and associated aerodynamics, to its production in the Motomichi plant where the LFA was manufactured. In producing a homologation special Toyota took the bull by the horns and left no stone unturned in terms of its aim and execution – the result is a relatively affordable hatch, with a full rally pedigree, that can be a genuine giant killer given the right circumstances.

Has it been a success? Well as I write this news has filtered through that production will continue with a 'MKII' car that has some subtle modifications, most of which have come from feedback from users and motorsport. Largely elements of the package have been strengthened to make the car more reliable and we’ve no doubt these changes will produce a car that improves on the current car. It has also been promoted to a permanent resident in the Toyota lineup – proof that the car has been a commercial success as well as fulfilling its brief as a ‘halo’ car.

So, as we come full circle, does it deserve the hype? Absolutely. It’s unique in its execution, the sector it sits in and we should applaud Toyota for producing such a gem of a car, the likes of which we might never see again. Don’t listen to Public Enemy, believe the hype!


TOYOTA GR YARIS - Facts & Figures

Engine - 1.6-l 3-cylinder turbo

Output - 258 bhp and 266 lb-ft

Kerb Weight - 1283 kg (DIN)

Transmission - "GR Four" AWD, 6sp manual

Performance - 0-60mph: 4.64secs, 0-100mph: 11.62secs

Quarter mile: 13.25s @ 105.9mph*, top speed 143 mph (lim).

List Price - £35,705 (2024)



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