Modern Day Homologation: GR Yaris Driving Impressions
After my six-year toxic relationship with a Subaru Impreza WRX, I told myself i’d keep away from AWDs in general. For the most part, our ‘most affordable’ options for turbo AWDs locally would either be skyrocketing Evo prices or dealing with Subaru unreliability for a taste of superior traction and sure-footedness. My jump to building my dream car - a Mazda RX-7 - offered some respite to this. Rear-wheel drive, finicky but reliably built and maintained motor, and overall the ideal build I could make out of it, the RX-7 provided me an experience of a lifetime building and driving it. Yet somehow after all that there’s something amiss.
The thing with the RX-7 is driving the car will always have a small caveat at the back of my mind: “Break it and you’ll have a hard time fixing it.” It’s built to be the best it can be and I drive it enough to give it a good workout, but still there ought to be more fun to be had with a newer, less fussy car. I thought to myself that I didn’t miss the point-and-shoot behavior of a proper all-wheel-drive, and then the opportunity to drive the new GR Yaris came up; All of us know that’s something I’d be utterly stupid to pass on.
Thanks to a very generous friend who got dibs on one unit long before Toyota Motor Philippines is able to bring it in, we were tossed the keys to one of the first few GR Yaris-es in town and pretty much left to our devices for a whole day. This meant picking the car up early at 8am and - very reluctantly - returning it home almost 12 hours later.
After setting off and joining traffic along C5, the Yaris initially makes an impression that would last throughout our day with it. Rowing through first, second, and third, it has all the punchy torque down low that makes it easily useable in traffic. Clearly this bit of the drive should not have been fun considering we couldn’t stretch the Yaris’ legs, but even between all the stop-and-go’s, quick openings, and short weaves through the stretch of C5 the car was easily at home punching in-and-out of traffic. This is certainly quite refreshing compared to a car that builds boost and has it all on the top end.
Traffic domination aside, the GR Yaris is still very civil to live with despite being a 6-speed manual with a rally-bred powertrain. The clutch is reasonably light, the shifter excellently positive, and the steering - while electronically powered - is surprisingly direct and perfectly weighted. All these paired with highly adjustable seating and steering positions all provide the driver with ample means for a proper sporting experience. To get that though, we needed to drive a little bit outside Metro Manila and up the mountains to get a true glimpse of what makes everyone rave about this thing.
Thanks to all the tech and engineering that went into this homologation special, the GR Yaris has plenty of talking points, and we’ll touch base on each one from a driver’s perspective. Primarily though, Gazoo Racing prides itself on the AWD system they’ve put on the GR Yaris. Able to split torque depending on the drivers’ preference, the GR Yaris can alter its behavior from being a true stable AWD to something with a livelier rear end. That said, each driving mode alters the experience in noticeable yet very minute ways – all mostly felt once you chuck the car into a corner. Sport mode with the 30:70 rear wheel biased split is perhaps the most preferred choice for spirited mountain driving as it makes the rear feel like it’s easier to rotate on tighter bends, at least that’s how I felt as the rear suspension digs into the pavement once you load it up with weight. Normal mode provides a 60:40 front bias split, making this the more reasonable day-to-day mode. I reckon this mode will lean more towards textbook AWD understeering, but considering this isn’t our car we didn’t bother finding out for sure. Track mode splits torque 50:50 evenly, allowing for optimal grip from all four tires. This wasn’t a mode I tried touching upon since, well, we didn’t go to the track. Perhaps on another day.
We can’t talk about the GR Yaris and not talk about its elephant in the room – the 1.6L three cylinder motor. While the number of cylinders seems like a downside, on the performance side of things it’s really anything but. The G16E-GTS itself has seen a plethora of development based off Toyota’s modular TNGA engine platform, and while I can bore you with all the details, you’d ought to watch the engineers explain instead. That plus the ball bearing turbo and less turbulent exhaust port flow characteristics of a three cylinder has given superb response down low for the GR Yaris such that it has become the hallmark and takeaway of most people who have driven the car. 260HP out of a three cylinder, but all of it is easily on tap even on the tight streets of Manila. I’m definitely not complaining.
Although there is one thing I could pick on: the GR Yaris is too quiet. On one hand it’s something to appreciate for the more civil folk, but on the other it lacks a bit of excitement in terms of driver engagement. Thing is, when you put an exhaust on a three cylinder it sounds – as a friend would put it – like a wet fart. Not particularly pleasant, but perhaps the aftermarket will come out with a recipe that would at least make it tolerable. Surely a proper exhaust system would be top of list when it comes to modifying this.
The suspension end of things are what you’d expect out of a high performance vehicle such as this: it’s pretty stiff. Damping is good overall, and feedback positively translates to the body instead of bottoming out like cheap coilovers do. But then the overall ride is one tad too stiff for our rutted roads. They’re perfect when it comes to outright performance, but it seems it may become a chore to live with on a day-to-day basis. On this side of things, perhaps a proper set of high end suspension with digressive damping tech ought to neutralize the small ruts and bumps while maintaining proper posture for spirited use.
Perhaps the greatest piece of the GR Yaris for me is its slightly overkill braking system. Fixed monoblock 4-pot Advics Calipers with 356mm rotors up front and 2-pot calipers with 290mm rotors out back anchor the 1280kg body so freaking well. Feedback on the brakes is great, with ABS being minimally intrusive. It is this kind of setup that i’ve missed out on during the days I ran a Subaru, and thanks to these brakes the AWD experience has truly become confidence inspiring – late braking and all.
Wheels and tires that came with this car were a set of BBS forged wheels wrapped in a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S. These are definitely expensive kit for an OEM piece, and were very much adequate with keeping grip in check as we put the car through its paces. The aftermarket has discovered however that you could easily fit 18x9.5 or 10s inside the wheel arches wrapped with 265 series rubber – this ought to give local guys a lot of options when it comes to playing dress up with wheels.
Out on the road the Yaris is – funnily enough – not so special in the eyes of the masses. I’d like to think everybody sees it as some sort of widebody Wigo; A car that, for all accounts, is at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to squeezing into traffic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the car itself does not lend itself to any kind of ‘status’ amidst a sea of cars. It is after all ‘just a Yaris’ to the untrained eye. It’s very low key, so perhaps there is some surprise to be had once you build a couple car lengths against that guy who muscled his way into your space at the lights.
It’s safe to say i’ve been left with a lasting impression of the GR Yaris. I feel that it is possibly the most engaging hot hatch we could get locally available brand new, and that’s high praise for a car that falls in a segment full of high performance options. There is nothing like it that punches through first to third in such fluid succession that can still be civilized enough for street use yet still be engaging and fun to drive on a daily basis. Trust that i’ve been racking my brain the past few days thinking of how I could get my hands on one – that much is all I could say about just how good this car is.
Words and Photos by Aurick Go