Why the humble Yaris is a performance star

Fancy a white-knuckle spin in a Yaris? It doesn’t sound right, but don’t be dismayed. This is no ordinary family hatch.

Toyota GR Yaris

Fancy a white-knuckle spin in a Yaris? It doesn’t sound right, but don’t be dismayed. This is no ordinary family hatch.

It’s the GR Yaris, which has any car-mad youth will tell you is bad, in a good way. This is a rocketship version. Nought to 60mph in 5.5 seconds should convince you, even if it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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Unfair? Maybe a little. From the back, this car looks quick with its bulging haunches.

Elsewhere, it looks tame. Neat, proportioned and tidy but you would never guess this track star could lose the majority of hot-hatches and give a Porsche a run for its money.

Maybe its relative timid looks are a good thing for it doesn’t draw second glances except for petrolheads – I lost count of the number of young lads who knew a lot about the GR but had never seen one.

This car is an oddity. Toyota only make it so it can qualify to be a racing car.

It is a road-going sports car developed directly from Toyota’s championship winning World Rally experience. Homologation is the key word. For it to compete in competition it has to be a production car, so Toyota has to sell enough of them to qualify.

Proper rally cars tend to be so light that luxury features are stripped out but this model feels pretty posh. It has the style of a premium hatch – only the dial offering track, sport and normal settings give an indication of this car’s prowess.

But the way it drives is sublime. Make no mistake, it is a proper sports car with teeth-rattling ride and stunning cornering ability. In truth, I found little difference between normal, sport and track settings. In all three, it is as sharp as a pin and quick off the mark.

It is built on a unique platform, combining Toyota’s new GA-B platform, which debuted on the new generation Yaris hatchback, and a rear section adapted from the platform used for the Corolla and C-HR models.

The rally team emphasised the importance of light weight and this is reflected in the use of aluminium body panels and a forged carbon composite roof in the body structure, and scrutiny of how weight could be reduced in parts throughout the car.

For the best possible aerodynamic performance, the body itself is another unique element: although based on the new Yaris hatchback, it is a three rather than five-door model, with a lower, tapering roof line.

The engine is a new, 1.6-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged unit. It is the world’s most powerful three-cylinder engine and also the smallest and lightest 1.6 turbo. Producing 257bhp and 360 Nm of torque, it can launch GR Yaris from rest to 62mph in just 5.5 seconds, and on to a limited top speed of 143mph.

Engine power is harnessed through Toyota’s new GR-Four permanent, electronically controlled all-wheel drive system.

The unit is in fact the largest-capacity and most powerful three-cylinder engine currently in production, yet it is also the smallest and lightest 1.6 turbo unit. Its maximum power output is 257bhp at 6,500rpm, with maximum torque of 360Nm – performance on a par with that of a 2.0-litre turbo unit. GR Yaris is as light as a B-segment hot hatch, yet the power is comparable to C-segment performance models.

Although the new Yaris hatchback is the base vehicle for the new model, the only unchanged exterior parts are the headlights, door mirrors, rear light clusters and the shark fin antenna on the roof. Everything else has been redesigned or adapted to meet the targets for downforce, aerodynamic performance and stability.

The design of the GR Yaris’s interior reflects the car’s performance, particularly around the driver’s cockpit. The binnacle has the same binocular arrangement as the standard Yaris but with additional functions related to the car’s specific performance qualities. The 4.2-inch TFT colour multiinformation display adds an all-wheel drive indicator showing the torque distribution and mode selected for the GR-Four system and a turbo pressure monitor. The analogue meters have white figures with red pointers for high, at-a-glance visibility.

The new GR-Four system is the first original sports all-wheel drive system Toyota has created in 20 years. Developed specifically for GR Yaris, it controls vehicle posture and allows the car’s power to be realised with high traction and great cornering, regardless of road surface quality.

Three versions of GR Yaris are available. Standard specification includes GR-Four all-wheel drive, 18in cast alloy wheels, LED lights, Ultrasuede seat upholstery, dual-zone climate control and multimedia system with smartphone integration and eight-inch touchscreen.

Customers can then specify either of two option packs as part of their car’s specification.

GR Yaris Circuit Pack provides lightweight 18in forged alloys with Michelin Pilot 4S high-performance tyres, retuned suspension, front and rear limited-slip differentials and red-painted brake callipers. GR Yaris Convenience Pack includes premium audio system, satellite navigation, parking sensors, Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, ambient cabin lighting and head-up display.

Performance hatches are in vogue at the moment. Ford Fiesta ST and, surprisingly, Hyundai i20 N are fashionable and undercut this model, but Toyota aren’t too concerned. This car isn’t a marketing decision or even a loss leader but rather a necessity to qualify as a proper rally car.

It doesn’t make money – don’t car companies always say that? – but it does succeed as a great halo car.

* This model was voted car of the year by the Northern Group of Motoring Writers of which Steve Teale and Frederic Manby are members.

Toyota GR Yaris Circuit Pack

Price: £33,520

Engine: A 1,618cc three cylinder petrol engine plus electric motor

Transmission: Six speed manual

Power: 257bhp

Performance: Top speed 143mph, 0 to 60mph in 5.5 seconds

Economy: 34.3mpg combined

Emissions: 186g/km

Insurance: Group 36A

Warranty: With the Toyota Relax scheme the warranty can be extended to 10 years or 100,000 miles