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Toyota GR Yaris 2020 review: preview drive

Toyota is back on the performance scene.
EXPERT RATING
8.5
It's been almost 20 years since Toyota last tried its hand at a proper performance car, but the Japanese brand is back with a bang with the GR Yaris. But is it enough to put Toyota back on the go-fast map?

Of all the car brands you thought might launch a proper hot hatch in 2020, where was Toyota on your list?

Come now, be honest. This is a brand that hasn't dipped a solo toe (so not including partnership deals) into performance waters in decades, after all, and so I'm guessing it was somewhere near the bottom.

And yet here was are, standing in the pit lane of Portugal's Estoril race circuit, a squat and heavily camouflaged GR Yaris parked in front of us, its twin exhaust pipes chattering away, its driver's door open to reveal a par of decidedly sporty seats and a manual gearbox

Yes, it's been a long, long time coming, but Toyota is finally back on the hot-hatch scene.

And we're talking a proper, rorty hot hatch, too - all turbocharged engine, all-paw power and a weight-stripped framed - which Toyota says is enough to push the Yaris deep into Golf GTI and Hyundai i30 N territory on the performance front. 

The question now, of course, is was it worth the wait?

With a turbocharged engine, all-paw power and a weight-stripped framed. With a turbocharged engine, all-paw power and a weight-stripped framed.

Price and features - Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

Full disclosure, Toyota is yet to divulge just how much the GR will cost when it arrives in Australia towards the end of next year.

We do have some hints, though. For one, while international markets will get the option of a base-model car as well as a Performance Pack version - the latter adding a pair of mechanical limited-slip differentials and stickier Michelin tyres - Australia will only introduce the cheaper variant for now, and for the foreseeable future.

Australia will only introduce the cheaper variant for now. Australia will only introduce the cheaper variant for now.

That means we get the engine, gearbox and all-wheel-drive setup (but more on that in a moment), as well as a yet-to-be-determined feature list that will be confirmed closer the GR Yaris' late-2020 launch date. 

Be warned, though, the GR Yaris is unlikely to be cheap, with Toyota not seeing any of the regular city-sized hot hatch crowd (think Fiesta ST) as a threat. Instead, they list the bigger and more expensive Subaru WRX and Ford Focus RS as its true competitors.

And that means, should you read between the lines, that the Japanese brand's mean micro-machine will likely be priced accordingly.

Short answer? We hope it's priced around $35k (and if it is, it's a gem). But we suspect the price will start above a far-harder-to-digest $40k. If so, it risks feeling like a lot of money for not much car.

Design - Is there anything interesting about its design?

It all depends on what you think of camouflage. See, the cars we’re driving are still technically prototypes, hence its camouflaged suit and interior draped in Harry Potter robes.

The final version will be revealed in Japan in January, but again, a careful look does reveal some design clues.

For one, the bonnet has a pretty huge bulge in its centre, rising above these two deep channels that run alongside it linking the windscreen with the grille.

There’s a squared-off grille beneath the Toyota badge (clearly home to the sizeable cooling system), and a jutting-jaw of a front spoiler completing the front-end view.

There’s flared side skirting linking the 18-inch alloys, and the body work climbs to a massively swollen wheel arch above the rear tyre. At the back, you’ll find a roof spoiler jutting out over the rear windscreen, and twin exhaust pipes poking out from under its rounded rump. 

There’s flared side skirting linking the 18-inch alloys. There’s flared side skirting linking the 18-inch alloys.

Inside? Well, that’s a little more mysterious, given the test cars were draped in thick cloaking to hide what lay beneath, but that’s not to say we couldn’t take a little peek every now and again. So expect a fairly straightforward, layered-styled dash with a central multimedia screen perched on top.

One final point on the design; according to Toyota, this GR variant shares not one body panel or piece of glass with the regular Yaris revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show this year. 

That’s because the GR team insisted on lightweight aluminium for the doors, bonnet and hatch, and a carbon-fibre weave for the roof, all of which is designed to shave kilograms off the kerb weight.

Bravo, Toyota. Bravo. 

Practicality - How practical is the space inside?

It’s a three-door, manual-only hot hatch. So really, just what were you expecting here? It’s as practical as a perforated raincoat, as well it bloody should be.

Toyota is yet to reveal the offical dimensions and storage details of the GR Yaris, but don’t expect them to be outstanding.

Limited storage space, a lightly cramped backseat and a boot built for overnight stays rather than a week-long vacation will be the order of the day here.

Featuring a boot built for overnight stays rather than a week-long vacation. Featuring a boot built for overnight stays rather than a week-long vacation.

Engine and transmission - What are the key stats for the engine and transmission? 

Ok, now we’re talking. The GR Yaris makes use of a brand-spanking-new turbocharged, 1.6-litre, three-cylinder engine that is a serious standout in this segment.

Again, Toyota is keeping mum on the exact details, but the GR’s chief engineer, Naohiko Saito, told us to expect more than 185kW and 350Nm. That, my friends, is a lot, and means a sprint to 100km/h in less than six seconds. 

The new Fiesta ST, for example, is good for 147kW and 290Nm, meaning the tiny Yaris is actually closer in outputs to cars like the Golf GTI, which makes 180kW and 370Nm, or even the Hyundai i30 N, which is good for 202kW and 353Nm.

That power is fed exclusively through a six-speed manual gearbox and sent on to all four tyres, with the driver able to choose how much power is sent to the front or rear axle via a dial in the cabin. 

Fuel consumption - How much fuel does it consume?

Another mystery, I’m afraid, but one that will clearly hinge on how excited you are behind the wheel…

Fuel consumption is another mystery. Fuel consumption is another mystery.

Driving - What's it like to drive?

The truth is, it almost doesn't matter how the GR Yaris actually drives. The company's biggest boss, Akio Toyoda, had promised "no more boring cars", and this pint-sized powerhouse fulfils that promise. And Toyota deserves a round of applause for turning its considerable focus to the world of performance.

The key word there is almost... Because once the warm glow surrounding this car subsides it will be expected to stand on its own merit.

Happily, then, it does. And then some. 

Toyota deserves a round of applause for turning its considerable focus to the world of performance. Toyota deserves a round of applause for turning its considerable focus to the world of performance.

Sure, the Performance Pack version won't be coming to Australia - at least in the short term - and that is a crying shame, given the noticeable difference in the way that car handles track work, but believe me when I tell you the base car is no slouch.

The true magic of the GR Yaris exists under that bonnet, where an all-new and turbocharged three-cylinder engine defies its size deficit to pump out a seriously impressive flow of power.

It's truly impressive; this seemingly endless delivery of grunt that never seems to tap out, maintaining its flow over the entire rev range.

We've covered the numbers already, of course, but more importantly, the GR Yaris feels fast, climbing through its gears without a misstep as it powers its way to 100km/h and beyond. And we do mean beyond - Toyota is yet to release official performance numbers, but we broke 200km/h in fifth gear on the main straight of the Estoril circuit, and it still felt like there was plenty in the tank. 

But a performance car is so much more than its outputs, and much work has been done here to lower kerb weight, too. And it pays dividends on the twisty stuff, with the feather-weight Yaris (Toyota says it's less than 1300kg) sitting biting into corners with next to no body roll, the Dunlop rubber giving up grip long before the GR shows signs of wilting.

That engine, its kerb weight, and the non-adaptive suspension that feels, after a brief spell at least, pretty well suited to both track and road duties, combine to make the GR Yaris a formidable new hot hatch entrant.

 The GR Yaris a formidable new hot hatch entrant. The GR Yaris a formidable new hot hatch entrant.

There are some quibbles, though. I think the steering is too light and too slushy on-centre, both of which felt less than responsive and confidence inspiring on a road drive. 

But the bigger issue is the price. Yes, the GR Yaris will out-perform most in its segment on power alone. But Toyota doesn't see cars like the Fiesta ST and Polo GTI as its rivals. Nope, they've got their sights on vehicles like the Focus RS and Subaru WRX.

And while Toyota assures us the little Yaris will be "attainable", that makes us very nervous about just what it will cost...

Safety - What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating? 

Again, a mystery I’m afraid. We do know the new five-door Yaris will be equipped with the usual suite of high-tech safety features, and we'd imagine the vast majority would make their way to the Yaris. We hope.

The GR Yaris is yet to be ANCAP tested. The GR Yaris is yet to be ANCAP tested.

Ownership - What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

Toyota's five-year warranty will apply here, with servicing required every 12 months (though kilometre maximums are yet to be confirmed).

Verdict

It’s hard to put into words exactly what's happened with Toyota lately, but this is not the car company we’ve come to know over the past two decades or so. In fact, it feels like an entirely new brand.

If you had told me even five years ago that I’d be lusting over a Toyota Yaris, I’d have told you you were crazy. But here I am in 2019, lusting.

If they get the pricing right, and that's a big if, then the GR Yaris will be one hell of a buy. 

Note: CarsGuide attended this event as a guest of the manufacturer, with travel and meals provided.

Pricing guides

$19,030
Based on Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP)
Lowest Price
$15,390
Highest Price
$22,670

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
Ascent 1.3L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $15,390 2020 Toyota Yaris 2020 Ascent Pricing and Specs
SX 1.5L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $18,080 2020 Toyota Yaris 2020 SX Pricing and Specs
ZR 1.5L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $22,670 2020 Toyota Yaris 2020 ZR Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8.5
Andrew Chesterton
Contributing journalist

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