First Drive

Toyota GR Yaris 2020 UK review

The car’s instruments have a few new digital modes, but down on the transmission tunnel is where the chief differences are. In place of the regular Yaris’ electronic handbrake you’ll find a manual one with an old-fashioned lever; if you pull it on while the car’s moving, the four-wheel drive system automatically disconnects the rear halfshafts (which might be my favourite technical feature about the whole car). Meanwhile, Toyota has also moved the gearshift console upwards and forwards for more intuitive access, and next to it you’ll find the GR’s rotary drive mode selector. It defaults to ‘normal’ mode, in which the clutch-based driveline gives you a 60:40 front-to-rear torque split. Tweak it to the right and you get ‘track’ mode, which moves the default torque bias to 50:50. But rotate it to the left and, in ‘sport’ mode, you get a 30:70 split. It’s not a lockable torque split, so that lion’s share of torque only stays at the rear contact patches until the front ones begin to spin up; but it does have an influence over the way the GR Yaris handles.

The car’s performance level is quite a lot more serious than you might imagine any supermini – those ‘80s homologation legends notwithstanding – could ever be. The three-cylinder engine sounds vocally meek-and-mild at first; a bit like an angry Daihatsu Charade with a loud-hailer. You warm to its charms, though – particularly once you’ve discovered how keenly it responds to throttle inputs, how indefatigably boosty it feels through the mid-range, and how freely it revs beyond 5000rpm. And the resulting potential for roll-on acceleration? I’d swear it feels every bit as potent as early Subaru Impreza Turbos did, only without the laggy pause for intake of breath of the old Scoob. It’s a giggle to say the very least.

The medium-heavy, alluringly tactile shift quality is surprisingly ‘Scoobyish’ too; likewise the progressive, composed-yet-supple way it rides and handles at pace. There was just a little bit of bite about our test car’s low-speed ride (Toyota’s optional Circuit Pack, as fitted, adds stiffer springs, dampers and roll bars, as well as lightweight forged 18in alloy wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres and the aforementioned Torsen slippy diffs front and rear), but it becomes pleasingly fluent at cross-country speeds. Most importantly, there isn’t a hint of the occasionally hyperactive vertical jiggle over testing roads that you can find in an equivalent fast Ford, say. You just get really authoritative underlying body control blanketed by an initial absorbency that’s as reassuring as it is pleasingly pragmatic to unearth.

With steering that’s only medium-paced and a hint of moderation about the suspension tuning, the car doesn’t pivot and swivel on turn-in quite like some hot hatchbacks. It might give back just a little bit more reassuring weight and feel through its slightly muted steering, too. It has really striking mid-corner agility, however, changing direction energetically once it’s committed to a bend, and rolling only enough to communicate lateral load clearly.

The four-wheel drive system isn’t there to allow the car to do an impression of a rear-driven two-seater, clearly; even in sport mode, it only gently straightens the car’s cornering attitude with power rather than rotating it towards the inner verge. Even so, it allows you to pour on power before you pass an apex – waiting just an instant as the boost builds, the diffs bite in, and the car catapults itself viscerally inwards and onwards like a fast 4×4 of old. And the way it does so is as compelling a phenomenon as any driver’s car at this price level or below it can supply.

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