Toyota is no stranger to crafting legendary hot hatch cars: remember the 100 kW Twin Cam Conquest RSi? Now, with almost double the power – and all-wheel-drive – the GR Yaris returns the Japanese brand to the top of the log in the performance hatch category.

In the late 1980s, three legendary hot hatches featured prominently on posters on many a teenage boy’s bedroom walls. For some, the VW Golf GTi took pride of place on their wall. While others dreamed of owning an Opel Kadett Boss (or later the Superboss). Some had their eye on the Toyota Conquest RSi, a locally developed 1.6-litre 100 kW Twin Cam four-cylinder pocket rocket. It was a heady time, and its effects are still evident in the buying patterns of those erstwhile boy racers.


The petrolheads among us need little introduction to the Toyota GR Yaris. Born on the rally field, honed to perfection on the track, the GR Yaris is no ordinary compact hatch. It is the product of Toyota’s international motorsport division – Gazoo Racing – the same people who edged Toyota to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and in the Dakar Rally.

It is Toyota’s first genuine all-wheel-drive sports car, and its first homologation model for the World Rally Championship competition since the end of production of the Celica GT-Four in 1999. Going all out, Toyota gifted the GR Yaris with a blown 1.6-litre three-cylinder, mated to a quick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. In short, a true-as-nuts pocket rocket that will set your heart ablaze with its 198 kW of power and 360 Nm of torque.

If we’re to remain faithful to the GR Yaris’ race car heritage, we should, however, consider the car’s power-to-weight ratio as an accurate measure of its performance prowess. In the case of the GR Yaris, that figure is a highly respectable 154 W/kg. To put this in perspective, the car’s main rival (at least in the minds of true petrolheads) is the evocative VW Golf GTI – which manages a power-to-weight ratio of 121 W/kg in comparison. 

This is partly achieved by constructing the car’s body shell predominantly from lightweight materials, including a new carbon fibre polymer for the roof that can be compression moulded (a first for Toyota). Aluminium is used for the bonnet, doors, and tailgate.

The realisation that a tuned-up Toyota easily trumps a performance icon such as the GTI, on such a critical aspect, nogal, will be a bitter pill to swallow for the VW fanboys.


With so much power on tap for such a relatively light vehicle (1,280 kg), the GR Yaris needs to be surefooted and then some. The GR Yaris has what Toyota calls GR-Four – their new all-wheel-drive system. With this system, the driver can dial in different driving modes to alter how much power is sent to either the front or rear wheels. In standard driving mode, 60% of the torque is passed to the front wheels. In Sport driving mode, 70% goes to the rear, and with Track mode active, a 50/50-split ensures even distribution of power and a balanced driving experienced under severe conditions.

All this tech helps the GR Yaris reach its governed 230 km/h in 5.5 seconds. Yes, it outperforms the GTI here, too, the latter achieving its zero to 100 km/h sprint in a respectable 6.4 seconds.

It’s not all bad news for Wolfsburg’s range-topping hatchback, however. I must concede that the Golf has one over the GR Yaris, with its atomic seven-speed DSG gearbox. As fun as the GR Yaris’ manual box is in hand, the Germans lead the pack in the dual-clutch stakes by a vast margin. Even with its commanding power lead over the GTI (it packs 180 kW), and nearly a one-second quicker sprint time, the GR Yaris will likely have a hard time convincingly thumping the GTI in a drag race. 


To properly put the GR Yaris through its paces, you need a race track. Toyota obliged during the recent Gauteng-based launch by sending us around Red Star Raceway near Delmas. 

Despite having been around this track in all manner of cars over the years, it was my first time here in more than two years, so I took it easy at first, feeling my way around the track, testing (what I thought was) the car’s limits. Boy oh boy, was this car a revelation! 

By the third corner, I was confident enough to climb on the brakes quite hard, expecting it to unsettle the car. As it turned out, I was not nearly pushing the little Yaris hard enough, as the red-painted four-piston callipers keenly bit down on the car’s 356 mm grooved front discs. Feedback was immediate and weighted, and at turn-in, the GR-Four system came into its own as the accurate and balanced steering guided the car without even a hint of drama through the apex. I climbed hard on the accelerator again as I exited the corner, and the all-wheel-drive made me look good as I powered out of the turn.

Everything about the GR Yaris is tuned to another level that I’m not used to from Toyota. From the outside, GR Yaris screams performance – from the dominantly square radiator grille to the bulging wheel arches. It all comes together nicely inside, too, with the car’s sporty-yet-comfy seats giving another clue to its racing DNA. 


Two derivatives of the GR Yaris are on offer; the GR Yaris and GR Yaris Rally. The former features all the core performance items and is aimed at the regular user with an ‘on-road’ bias. The Rally suffix adds a Torsen limited-slip differential on both the front and rear axles, performance-tuned suspension, revised power-steering assistance, and an upgrade to 18” BBS forged alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4s tyres.

In addition to the mechanical upgrades, the Rally model also boasts combination leather/Alcantara sports seats in the front with enhanced bolstering, leather rear seats, head-up display, the Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) active safety suite, and active noise control that amplifies the engine sound by cancelling out opposing frequencies.  

Both models boast keyless entry with push start, LED headlamps with DRLs, LED fog lamps, heated and power-retractable exterior mirrors, and rain-sensing wipers. On the inside, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, dual-zone climate control, multi-information display, 12-volt power outlet, and a tilt-and-telescopic adjustable steering column deliver on convenience. A six-speaker touchscreen audio system is standard on both cars (with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto).

There is also a full suite of active and passive safety features, including ABS, EBD, brake assist, VSC and Hill Assist Control (HAC), while the Rally model adds pre-collision warning, auto high-beams, Lane Trace Assist (LCA), and adaptive cruise control.


If the GR Yaris has shown us anything, it is that Toyota has rekindled a performance flame that got many a teenage car buff rather hot under the collar in decades gone by. This is a car to get genuinely excited about, and it is safe to say that the GR brand is bound to get even stronger in the future. Toyota, if you’re reading this, there’s a space on my bedroom wall for a new poster…





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