Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

We head to Finland to test the new Toyota GR Yaris back-to-back with the original on the best surface of all - snow
 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

Up to this moment in time, the Toyota GR Yaris has eluded me. As a self-confessed Gazoo fanboy, this has been a particularly sore point in my life. I’ve become well acquainted with the rest of the European range over the years, with lots of time in the Supra, strongly debating tanking my credit score to finance a GR86 shortly after the media launch and still maintaining to this day the original Yaris GRMN is the best car I’ve driven, bar none.

It’s the one born for the need of rally homologation though, the most thoroughbred of the lot, that has so far escaped me. Until now at least, and it’s perhaps fitting that my first time perching over the steering wheel of the GR Yaris is on a blanket of snow over a frozen lake on the outskirts of Jyväskylä, Finland - the region which also plays host to Rally Finland when the WRC is in town.

I say perched, as I’m starting the day in the original, pre-facelift car - which I’m now realising just how much like the high-seated regular Yaris the cabin feels like despite being anything but under the skin. To my right sits the new car, but that will come later in the day.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

For now, the idea is to familiarise ourselves with the original car as well as the course cut out from the thick layer of snow and ice. Sat in the passenger seat and providing me with useful insight and tuition is Juha Salo. With nine Finnish Rally Championship titles and 16 entries into World Rally Championship events, every word he can tell me about the car and making the most of it will be invaluable.

Juha has already been behind the wheel for a few sighter laps of our first, tiny technical course to show me the ideal lines and offer a taste of what the Yaris can do in capable hands. “Always in second gear”, he states in that stern, blunt Finnish way, “the engine is very strong, lots of torque”. We’re told beforehand that local hero, Toyota factory driver and two-time WRC champion Kalle Rovanperä prefers it this way when he’s practising on this exact lake. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

Not wishing to make a pratt of myself on the first run, I’m starting sedately to get a feel for the snow and the Yaris itself. Immediate impressions are one of confidence, with the GR feeling predictable in Normal mode, sending a 60/40 power split to the front and rear of the GR-Four all-wheel-drive system respectively.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

As my daringness grows a bit, the 1.6-litre three-pot begins to come alive despite hanging in one gear the whole time. Juha is right - with 266lb ft of torque available from 3,000 to 4,600rpm, it’s easy to balance the power and focus on getting the important stuff right, like big skids. With the relatively neutral power split in Normal mode, it takes a bit of poking to get the Yaris properly sideways but rewarding and easily held once you do.

A move to a larger, faster course only brings that feeling more to life. I’m begging to stretch the engine out and lean on the GR-Four system and Däckproffsen part-studded tyres even more, and it’s happy to do so - almost as if the car is perched on your shoulder, just whispering into your ear “Come on, give it some more”.

I do find my limit before the car’s though, clipping the edge of the snow bank having gone too deep into a hairpin in a pathetic fashion. Juha seems unfazed, sedately commenting “Come onto the brakes earlier”. Understood.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

It’s at this point we’re called in for a 10-minute break and some hot berry juice before making the switch to the new car. There’s a bit of fear in me that really, can the new GR Yaris really be any better?

Immediately, even if all Toyota had done was make the changes to the interior, I can tell you yes. I’m sat noticeably lower and in a more sports car-esque driving position, the cabin feels like a modern-day A80 Supra wrapped around me. Delightfully, the annoying postbox-sized gap that sat between the dashboard and sensor cluster at the top of the windscreen has vastly widened. This now feels like I’m sitting in a car designed as a GR from the outset, rather than borrowing bits from the regular, hybrid Yaris.

The next thing I spot as I shift up into second along the crawl to our third, and fastest, track of the day is the notchier gearshift. Not that the old six-speed’s action needed any improvement, but it’s a slight step up. As is the Rovanperä way, I’ll be staying in second, so it’s something to take stock of for now and forget for the rest of the session.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

It’s the comprehensive set of minute changes that the Gazoo Racing engineers have made elsewhere that make all the difference, though. Changes under the skin include but are not limited to improved rigidity courtesy of a 13 per cent increase in spot welds and 24 per cent more structural adhesive, three attachment points for the shock absorbers as opposed to one to suppress alignment changes under load and several recalibrations of the car’s various electronic systems.

The intricate differences of those I suspect are better explored and detailed when undertaking serious back-to-back testing on a circuit. Briefly testing here on the loose snow and ice though, I can confirm it leads to something so much more focused, hard-edged and like a rally car with heated seats than what came before.

Not that it was much problem with the old car, but the new car remains even more composed over minute surface changes and responsive to input. Finely balancing the car through corners goes from a well-worked salsa routine to a headline Swan Lake performance at the Teatro alla Scala. The difference is somehow, absolutely staggering.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

What I’m feeling the most of though is a 22lb ft rise in torque. It doesn’t sound like a great deal, and with that peak being available from 3,250rpm it does sit in a slightly narrower band - but it’s enough combined with all the other changes to make a world of difference. It’s more gut-punching, more tantalising to stick your foot in and crucially, makes you feel even more of a hero. There’s an extra 19bhp at the top-end too (peaking at 300bhp if you’re lucky enough to have a GR Yaris outside of Europe), but that’s almost irrelevant out here on the snow.

Juha doesn’t seem to react quite as excitingly to my more confident driving, quiet as ever yet seemingly with a tighter grip on the passenger door than before. He does suggest we give the new ‘Gravel’ mode a go, though.

This switches the power split from 60/40 to 53/47, enough of a change to make tail-out action a little easier. By this point, I’ve become Tommi Mäkinen in my head - which I will concede is a sentiment that wouldn’t look anywhere near as convincing to an onlooker of my driving.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

There’s a particular corner where I decide to give a full attack on one approach, leaning a little harder on the brakes, getting the car sideways a little earlier and absolutely booting it the whole way through. I’ll never be a world rally champion, but the fact this car can make me feel like one for just a brief moment in time is enough in itself. My efforts are validated with a thumbs up and a vocally flat “good” from Juha in the passenger seat.

We’re brought back in once again, and there’s one more thing to do. Toyota has brought along another new GR Yaris, this time equipped with its new automatic gearbox. It calls it the Direct Automatic Transmission (or DAT, as it’ll be referred to in every written review from now until the end of the internal combustion engine), and on the face of things is just another eight-speed torque converter gearbox. However, Toyota promises this one has been engineered for competition use.

I could use the paddle-mounted steering wheels to give myself some semblance of manual control but, with just three laps of our course to deal with and the expertise of Juha replaced with a Toyota employee, I’ve decided to let the gearbox figure itself out.

 Somehow, The Toyota GR Yaris Is Now Even Better

Seemingly, it’s also been to the school of Kalle Rovanperä, hanging on to second for pretty much the entirety of our time with it - and that’s far from a complaint. There are just two changes the whole time I’m driving, an upshift under a particularly heavy boot of throttle and back down again shortly after under braking.

Not enough for me to definitively provide a verdict, but those changes did seem pretty quick. I’m very, very keen to find out for myself how it performs on the road but that’s one for another day.

As will be the overall thought on if you’re an existing GR Yaris owner that should make the upgrade or, like myself, if you’re a chancer first-time buyer looking to destroy a credit rating to get behind the wheel of what is feasibly the Lancia Delta Integrale Evo II of our time.

Early signs are very promising though, and applause should be showered Toyota putting such a commitment to making such improvements to what is already a niche hot hatch in an age of such things rapidly dying out. 


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