Sometimes, love just isn’t enough for the Toyota GR Yaris

This hot hatch wants commitment
by Dinzo Tabamo | Oct 21, 2021

“The GR Yaris is unlike anything else on the road with the Toyota badge”

What is love? At its most superficial, love is attraction, a powerful force that draws you in. It’s looking at an object for the first time and seeing the toys you played with as a kid, the rally cars you idolized as a teenager, and the turbocharged hatchbacks you drooled over in college.

The Toyota GR Yaris evokes this kind of love. The hot-hatch stance, the wide track, the massive grille, the red brake calipers, the stock BBS wheels—it’s unlike anything else on the road with the Toyota badge. Know why? Because it was made with love.

Does that mean other Toyotas are not made with love? Well, like other forms of love, it’s complicated. You see, Toyota creates cars based on what the market wants. It created the Corolla, the most straightforward, dependable, and reliable car ever made. And it has 50 million examples of this testament to mobility. In the past two decades, Toyota has created new segments that have been eagerly accepted by a hungry public: affordable SUV (Fortuner), mini car (Wigo), subcompact SUV (Rush), MPV (need you ask?).

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Who is the GR Yaris for? Spoiler alert: It’s most likely not you.

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PHOTO: Echo Antonio

Unlike other models in the Toyota stable that were created through committees and market studies, the GR Yaris exists because Toyota wanted to go racing—rally racing to be exact. And we will utter the two favorite words of gearheads worldwide: homologation special. This is when a carmaker must build a race car to prove that it could be a mass-produced vehicle, then mass-produce it as proof of concept.

So the GR Yaris became the antithesis of aspects that result in a cookie-cutter Toyota car (sedan body, automatic gearbox, bland engine). This Toyota hot hatch has a three-cylinder 1.6-liter turbocharged engine (257hp, 360Nm), all-wheel drive, Brembo brakes, BBS wheels, and a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic roof. And it only comes with a manual gearbox. In other words, this is a car nut’s dream car made real. And it’s a Toyota. In fact, up until its conception, the words “Toyota hot hatch” would have been considered an oxymoron.

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Our demo unit even has a special bodykit with upgraded mufflers. I had to be extra careful not to scrape those beauties. And I became even more careful when Toyota Motor Philippines emailed me how much they cost.

PHOTO: Echo Antonio

I press the start engine button and a low throaty roar permeates the cabin, then settles into a beautiful rumble. GR badges adorn the seats, the engine-start button, and the gauge graphics. There are even GR logos on the key fob and the engine cover. They’re tasteful reminders that you’re driving something special, as if you can forget.

It may look small outside, but it’s comfortably roomy inside. It’s not cozy like a Miata, but everything is within reach.

The clutch isn’t as friendly, from what I recall, as that of the Civic Type R. There is a bit of a learning curve to tame it if you haven’t driven a manual in a long time. Boost arrives early, around 2,500rpm, and then you’re engulfed in a (controlled) tsunami of torque. I reach sixth gear at 90kph, a little sooner than I expected. The GR Yaris is clearly more a sprinter than a long-distance tourer. Although thanks to the generous torque, you can hold gears longer than in most manual-transmission cars.

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Actually, it’s along SLEX that I begin to miss having an automatic transmission. I’ve been spoiled by modern slushboxes that harness the power; all I have to do is point the steering wheel and step on the gas.

Then I discover the i MT button behind the handbrake, and the shifting experience improves. I wouldn’t call it rev-matching, but more of a smoothening of shifts and clutch points. All of a sudden, making smooth shifts requires half the effort—or almost none at all.

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PHOTO: Echo Antonio

The cabin is also good for long drives. The sport seats are supportive, easily holding my body and accommodating it comfortably at the same time. It doesn’t need it, but the GR Yaris has a surprisingly good audio system. I played some tito holiday jazz music and I can hear the instruments quite clearly.

And thank goodness Toyota is finally installing Apple CarPlay compatibility in its models. Although I wish it were better integrated. The USB port is on the head unit itself, so there’s a cable that snakes out from the upper portion of the dashboard. In other CarPlay-compatible cars, the USB ports are located in more discreet parts of the cabin. You can even hide your phone in the center compartment in other vehicles. But this is a personal nitpick. If you just connect via Bluetooth and not use Waze, you won’t notice.

Toyota also didn’t scrimp on the electronic nannies. The GR Yaris is equipped with active lane assist. Drive over a well-painted lane marker and the steering wheel will nudge you into the lane. In principle, it’s the correct thing to do. But in real-world conditions, on Philippine roads where order is a vague concept, it might cramp your driving style.

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PHOTO: Echo Antonio

The GR Yaris clearly takes effort to drive, noticeably more than your typical subcompact sedan or compact crossover. There was even one day when I opted to take my automatic car for a quick errand. There’s also the matter of the bodykit and approach angles. Thankfully, this isn’t a low car, but I was still extra careful going down steep ramps and uneven roads. I was so afraid of hearing that painful scraping sound when the underside meets pavement. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.

Who is this car for? Well, it’s clearly not designed to be a daily driver. It can, but be ready to be fully committed to the manual gearbox again. Trust me, modern automatic transmissions have gotten so good and so quick that you will look for them after a few days.

And then the GR Yaris will pull off something magical. Before reaching my village, there’s a stoplight where you turn right, then another stoplight a few meters away where you turn left. One night, I was driving home and the first stoplight was green. I downshifted, the throttle blipped, and the hot hatch surged through the corner without body roll. I saw that the second stoplight was also green. I lifted off the throttle slightly to scrub some speed and enter the turn with a modicum of safety, then buried the throttle again. I clipped the apex cleanly, the small engine roaring, and entered the street where my village gate is. The GR Yaris did the acceleration and rapid left-right movement with composure unlike any car I can remember, without being unsettled in the slightest. In fact, I can almost sense it asking me, “That all you got?” I might have been belittled, but I didn’t care because in those few seconds, I was Tommi Makinen.

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But even after your left leg rediscovers its clutch muscles, I realize the GR Yaris feels restless. It’s not at ease behind slow jeepneys and vehicles that don’t stick to a lane. It wants open highways, curvy B-roads, and hidden paths where it can dance. And I doubt if our country has the kind of motoring environment best suited for it.

PHOTO: Echo Antonio

The GR Yaris asks for a lot, in terms of initial cost (P2.65 million without the bodykit), driving skill, fuel (the trip computer said I averaged 5.3km/L), and commitment. It’s that rarest of things: a Toyota without compromise. And if you have what it takes to love a machine built with the purest of intentions, you will be rewarded with a motoring experience few cars on the planet can offer.

Toyota has built the most un-Toyota car of all. And I hope this GR magic trickles down to other models. Many of us don’t need the 110% performance the GR Yaris offers. But it would be nice if there was a bit more fun in models like the Hilux, Fortuner, and Corolla. Because if you can’t be with the one you love...

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