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REVIEW | Filthy weather brings out the best in the Toyota GR Yaris

The author's Lunar Black Toyota GR Yaris en route to Dullstroom on the first day of the 2021 Targa Ramponi.
The author's Lunar Black Toyota GR Yaris en route to Dullstroom on the first day of the 2021 Targa Ramponi.
Image: Douglas Abbot

So there’s this car rally I go on every year called the Targa Ramponi: a two-day jaunt around Mpumalanga with a gang of like-minded enthusiasts who own some pretty cool modern classic and vintage cars. It’s a blast and something that I personally look forward to all year.

In 2020 I rode shotgun in my mate’s 1991 Mazda MX-5 and this year I vowed to take my 1980 Porsche 911 SC. Well I did until two weeks before our departure date when I checked a certain Norwegian weather site and saw that the areas we would be driving through – Sabie, White River, Nelspruit and Barberton – were all expecting monsoon levels of rain.

Now I understand the old saying that ‘dirt doesn’t slow you down’ but on the other hand I’m also a firm believer that ‘dirt speeds up the rot’. Especially on older cars and especially when it involves liberal amounts of sky juice. Some owners don’t care – more power to them – but I do, which is why I am a little OCD (perhaps overly so) about piloting the SC in foul weather. 

Now of course this unfortunate forecast put me in something of a predicament. Should I bail? Should I again try to hitch a ride with one of the other drivers? Or should I risk 38 hours of derision and just take my faithful old beater – a 2010 Fiat 500 1.2 Pop.

The gaping front grille allows unimpeded airflow across the entire radiator core.
The gaping front grille allows unimpeded airflow across the entire radiator core.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

After days of mulling these options over I suddenly remembered that I am a motoring journalist and that if I wanted to pilot something modern then I could wrangle up all manner of suitable steeds. However, for this particular event there was only one that could truly fit the bill: the Toyota GR Yaris. 

Perhaps the most talked-about car of the year, this compact Japanese hot hatch was designed and engineered by Toyota’s motorsport division – the comically named Gazoo Racing – for use in the 2021 World Rally Championship (WRC). A passion project personally overseen by the car maker’s racing-obsessed CEO, Akio Toyoda, it also drew on the knowledge and experience of rally gods such as Tommi Mäkinen, Jari Matti Latvala and Kris Meeke.

The result was a clean sheet design: a competition-bred performance car that, unlike the GT86 and GR Supra, had no DNA in common with other manufacturers. No expense was spared in its development and as such the GR Yaris rides on its own custom chassis that splices together the front end of the Toyota GA-B supermini platform with a rear end adapted from the GA-C platform used in the Corolla Sedan. The same goes for its bodywork.

An exotic blend of gravity-cheating aluminium and carbon composite, the only parts that the three-door GR Yaris has in common with its strictly five-door sibling are the headlamps, door mirrors, tail light clusters and shark fin roof antenna. Everything else, from the front bumper with its fist-sized brake cooling ducts, to the rear air diffuser, is totally bespoke.

GR is short for Gazoo Racing – Toyota's performance division.
GR is short for Gazoo Racing – Toyota's performance division.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Compared to a standard fourth-generation Yaris, the GR Yaris is also 55mm longer, 60mm wider and up to 95mm lower due to that aggressively sloping roofline that was designed to better channel air to a massive bolt-on spoiler. And if you stuck the whole car in front of some super-sized x-ray machine you would discover that its actual bodshell, its steely bones so to speak, has been knitted together with 259 extra weld points and some 14.6m of extra structural adhesive.

This makes it not only incredibly strong but also immensely rigid: a perfect roadgoing base from which to build a stage-shredding rally car. Yet despite checking all the boxes this homologation special would never swagger its way into a service park. Indeed, thanks to Covid-19 and all the associated fallout, Toyota pulled the plug on the GR Yaris and instead decided to stick with its long-serving Yaris WRC car for the 2021 season. 

Sad news for Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä but for the rest of us mere mortals, well, at least we can still experience the GR Yaris for ourselves as Toyota decided to stick to its guns and build the 25,000 roadgoing units needed to homologate the rally car. And going on how well it’s sold and how much interest it's garnered they might actually be building a few more. SA was allocated 190 units earlier this year and at the time of writing most are spoken for. Well except for this stealthy Lunar Black press unit, which is mine for the next 48 hours. 

Forged 18-inch BBS alloy wheels are standard on the GR Yaris Rally.
Forged 18-inch BBS alloy wheels are standard on the GR Yaris Rally.
Image: Douglas Abbot

The 2021 Targa Ramponi, like the 2020 edition before it, starts early on Saturday morning at a nondescript petrol station on Tom Jones Street in Benoni: a familiar meeting place where pockets of wary men arrive sporadically in their classic whips of choice: numerous Alfa Romeo 105/115 series coupés, a clutch of early long-hood Porsche 911s, a solitary Porsche 944, a Jaguar D-Type replica, a pair of Mini Coopers plus a Ford Capri and a Ford Escort are just some of the machines filling up the forecourt. It’s an impressive collection of metal, one that grows by the minute as the clock ticks closer to our 6am departure time.

While some of the diehard classic fans pay more attention to their coffee than the GR Yaris, others are more than a little curious about its presence and want to learn more about it. So I fire through my long list of spec-sheet crib notes as they tap on the carbon composite roof, kneel before those black 18-inch forged alloy wheels and nose around the cabin. I’m about to pop the aluminium bonnet when it’s announced that we all need to hit the highway and everybody disperses back to their cars – next stop, Dullstroom. 

Now for all its hardcore rally swagger the little GR Yaris is pleasantly capable when it comes to the gentle highway cruise. The N4 is not a place to speed so we all settle at the national limit and enjoy the sensation of travelling without moving, which gives me ample time to explore and exploit this Toyota’s interior amenities.

The interior is surprisingly comfortable and well equipped for a homologation special.
The interior is surprisingly comfortable and well equipped for a homologation special.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

These include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning (super annoying but luckily you can turn it off), heated front seats and dual-zone climate control. Fancy. Although clearly something of an afterthought (its chintzy plastic enclosure smacks of hour-99 MacGyvering), there is also a touchscreen infotainment system that offers decent sound as well as the convenience of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Road noise can get a bit intrusive depending on the grade of tarmac you happen to be rolling over but on the whole the GR Yaris easily disperses with long-distance drudgery. Well, let’s just say way better than I was expecting. It’s frugal too.

In a world where a litre of petrol is now more than R20, this Toyota manages to please my wallet by returning 7.1l/100km by the time we roll into Dullstroom for a quick Full English and another hit of caffeine before we attack the beautiful asphalt ribbons that will take us through Lydenburg, Sabie, Hazyview and White River en route to our overnight spot in the bustling metropolis that is Barberton. 

And it is across these lonely backroads that I get a chance to provoke the mechanical animal chained-up inside the engine bay. Developed from the ground up to comply with WRC-2 regulations, the so-called G16E-GTS engine is currently the world’s largest capacity (1,618cc if you want to get technical) and most potent (a claimed 198kW) three-cylinder engine.

Heavy mist and rain haunted the 45km mountain pass up to the Eswatini border.
Heavy mist and rain haunted the 45km mountain pass up to the Eswatini border.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Force-fed by a single-scroll ball-bearing turbo, it packs a wallop and unlike other small turbocharged engines, revels in being revved. Keep the brushed-aluminium throttle pedal mashed to the floor and watch as that old-school analogue tachometer needle whips past the red paint at 7,000rpm with all the enthusiasm of a highly-tuned naturally aspirated motor – quite some feat.

Yet for all this high-RPM urge, Toyota’s three-pot possesses a hearty midrange with 360Nm worth of torque on tap from 3,000 to 4,600rpm. This negates the need for excessive cog-swapping and makes fast and furious forward momentum an astoundingly easy affair. So easy in fact that with little provocation you suddenly find yourself hurtling along the black stuff at speeds that – caught by the wrong Lowveld cop at the wrong time – will send you straight to the slammer until the courts open again on Monday.

But, hey, this is a phenomenon shared by all modern performance cars: a strange disconnect between high speed and what it takes to get there thanks to incredible levels of insulative refinement and mechanical advancement. Indeed, what automotive evolution giveth it also taketh away. 

A lightweight carbon fibre composite roof helps lower the car's centre of gravity.
A lightweight carbon fibre composite roof helps lower the car's centre of gravity.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

So far so somewhat predictable then. With its WRC roots and macho styling chops the pint-sized GR Yaris feels like nothing more than a rarified, limited-edition hot hatch that on regular highways and byways drives much the same in a straight line as comparable rivals from the likes of Volkswagen, Mercedes-AMG, Renault and Mini. Ignore the Toyota badge on the steering wheel and you could, quite frankly, be in any one of the above. 

Fortunately there is one more road to tackle before we all check into our Barberton digs for a night of cold beers and swapped war stories: a semi-secret strand of black bitumen spaghetti that loops and twists its way up through the Makhonjwa Mountains to a remote Eswatini border post populated by a few sleepy guards and a handful of curious free-roaming goats. Last year in 30-degree-plus weather it proved a punishing test of vehicular brakes and cooling system components but now, obscured with fog, wracked by rain and smothered in mud, it resembles a special stage from the Wales Rally GB. And it’s here, once I get past the two Porsche 911s, that the GR Yaris really starts to shine.

My test unit is the flagship Rally version that in addition to the standard GR-Four all-wheel drive system features front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials, plus a set of lightweight 18-inch forged alloy wheels shod with 225/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres for extra bite. Now generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of all-wheel drive cars but in these butt-clenching conditions it’s certainly the layout of choice.

The drive mode dial lets you tweak the amount of torque distributed between the front and rear axles.
The drive mode dial lets you tweak the amount of torque distributed between the front and rear axles.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Toyota has also fitted a Drive Mode Select dial that lets you play with the amount of torque distributed between the front and rear axles. Normal applies a 60:40 split, Track an even 50:50 while Sport – what I’m in now – applies a more tail-happy 30:70 bias that allows me to get that rump to step out through some of this road’s tighter twists and turns. Sure, while not quite as aggressive as the drift mode in the third-generation Ford Focus RS, there’s enough aft movement here to keep us rear-wheel drive traditionalists entertained. Yet perhaps even more impressive, however, is the traction.

Despite weather conditions worsening by the minute the GR Yaris seems completely unperturbed and manages to sniff out almost as much mechanical grip as it did in the dry. You can feel those tyre blocks clawing into the sodden surface as those two Torsen differentials work overtime in sending maximum drive to the wheels needing it most.

It’s a form of mechanised alchemy that steadily sharpens my confidence and sees me taking almost foolhardy liberties through mud-streaked corners that would see other performance cars sliding and snaking with trepidation. Where you point, the GR Yaris goes. Simple as that. It also stops. Toyota has fitted its 1,305kg halo car with a set of monstrous anchors.

Front wheels shroud 356mm grooved discs and four-piston calipers.
Front wheels shroud 356mm grooved discs and four-piston calipers.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Especially up front, where those black multi-spoke BBS wheels shroud 356mm grooved discs and four-piston calipers – bigger than what you’ll find on the GR Supra. Some might call this overkill but on this road with the amount of pace I’m carrying, it’s most welcome. Seriously, the way this machine scrubs off speed is probably on a par with the way it clings to terra firma.

The middle pedal is also beautifully weighted with a fine linear action that allows for perfect modulation. It’s been placed just right for effective heel-and-toe work. Except with this lovely short-throw six-speed manual transmission benefiting from Toyota’s automatic rev-matching system, you needn’t bother. You can neuter it if you like but I choose to leave it on and let the ECU do the blipping for me – one less thing to nibble at your concentration. 

And so, firing through a monochrome tunnel of mist and drizzle, the GR Yaris comes into its own with a devastating blend of traction, handling and racecar rivalling braking efficiency. Perhaps a bit anodyne in the dry, all it takes is a little meteorological treachery to showcase this car’s true talent as a devastatingly quick point-to-point cross country weapon. One that, as long as you have the cajones to push the limits, will back you up every step of the way. It’s a brilliant piece of rally-bred engineering and in hindsight the perfect pick for this year’s rain-stricken Targa Ramponi. Yeah, let’s just say that I harbour no regrets for leaving the SC at home.

GR logos are stitched on the front headrests.
GR logos are stitched on the front headrests.
Image: Thomas Falkiner

Taking into account the emblem adhered to its radiator grille the GR Yaris should also prove to be a fuss-free long-term ownership proposition – something you can beat on with confidence and something that, thanks to Toyota’s vast dealership network, should be easy to service and maintain no matter where you happen to reside (or where the road takes you). 

Downsides? Well the rear seats are basically useless, the boot is small and shallow thanks to the battery and rear axle placed beneath it and the artificial engine noise constantly broadcast through the speakers has the tendency to get on your nerves after just a few short kilometres. The glossy sheen of the touchscreen infotainment system also acts like a kind of mirror, shooting all manner of reflections into your eyes at inopportune moments. Other than that and a few low-rent interior plastics here and there, there’s really not all that much to find fault with, although some might take issue with the price.

And, sure, starting at R615,700 and topping out at R726,300, the GR Yaris is expensive for a Yaris. Except once you delve into the backstory and discover just how bespoke this car really is – and how fabulous it is to pilot – I’ve got to say that it actually offers surprisingly good value. Especially when you factor in its homologation special status and limited production run credentials. However, having said this, rumour has it that Toyota will, due to international demand, be extending it for a little while longer, which means another small batch of GR Yaris models might well be heading to Mzansi sometime soon. Oh, how I dearly wish I had the ammo to put my name down on that waiting list.


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