On the face of it, it sounds like total fantasy: a Toyota Yaris with four- (or all-) wheel drive, a potent engine and a modified body that screams purpose. It’d be madness, like seeing your great aunt Muriel in studded leather gloves and chaps.
No matter how unexpected it sounds, though, that’s what it seems like Toyota is teasing us with. The Yaris GR-4, confirmed as a concept by Toyota Europe’s Twitter account this week, will debut at Rally Australia next week. Why debut it there if it wasn’t in some way linked to the WRC beast that has already secured a 2019 driver/co-driver world title for Ott Tanak and Martin Jarveoja?
Rally Australia is the last round of the WRC season. It’s the perfect – and only – place to launch a product with ties to the real racing deal before the start of the 2020 calendar, and Toyota clearly doesn’t want to wait that long. Perhaps it’s just as excited as we are.
The more you think about the necessary recipe for what would essentially be a road-going WRC homologation special in the vein of the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, the less likely it sounds. A turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine should fit under the bonnet but custom-engineering a four-wheel drive setup for what would be a tiny number of cars sounds commercially unviable. The massively flared wheel arches shown in the teaser shot are just as easily dismissed as pie in the sky.
But wait. Don’t be so hasty, we told ourselves. Look deeper into Toyota’s brain. What’s it thinking? The answer is that it’s it’s concentrating on GRMN. The Gazoo Racing Masters of the Nurburgring sub-brand has begun an explosion within a company whose array of interesting cars had, in the 2000s, become as stale as a week-old Welsh cake. That all changed with the introduction of the GT86 in 2012; not badged GRMN back then but offering a sweetly-balanced and purposeful reminder that, actually, Toyota is very good at building fun cars when it wants to.
The real take-off of GRMN came out of the blue in the Yaris GRMN, a hard-nosed battler of a hot hatch with over 200bhp from a supercharged 1.8 petrol engine and a chassis tuned for focus and feedback. It was so different, and so invigorating in a sea of homogeneous, microwaved hatchbacks that you couldn’t do anything other than stare open-mouthed at the audacity of it.
Then came the GR Supra, another GRMN project whose fruits are still ripening. Tuners, just like Toyota itself, are busy exploring what the striking and poised sports car is actually capable of, from engines turned up to 1000bhp to carbonfibre wide-body bolt-on kits. The world of the A90 Supra is getting wilder every day.
So with that in mind, would it really be so crazy to suggest the type of Yaris we’re talking about? No, it wouldn’t. The WRC rules are changing from 2022 to introduce hybrid tech (at last). Toyota’s big USP has been its hybrid technology since the 1990s, and while it seems unlikely that they’d already have a prototype in full working order as soon as this, with the advent of standalone electrified rear axle technology it’s easier than ever to package four-wheel drive into a small car.
As for the super-wide body, why not? Toyota has come to realise that to be taken seriously its GRMN wares have to look the part as well as delivering from the driver’s seat. A standard Yaris body with a spoiler and some bigger wheels wouldn’t cut it, so for this, potentially an epic statement of intent on a global stage, Toyota can’t afford to pull punches.
We’re realistic about the fact that, even if this Yaris GR-4 emerges just as we’re imagining it, it will have to be a low-volume, high-cost halo car. A sanitised GRMN version would be the bigger seller in a wheel to wheel battle with the brilliant Fiesta ST, but what better way to boost the GRMN car’s credibility than direct, traceable links to a WRC championship-winning machine?
That’s a marketing card that hasn’t been played effectively since the demise of the great rivalry between Subaru and Mitsubishi, so it’s an open goal for Toyota to shoot at. Dare we hope for something amazing? Yes, I think we should.