So it turns out 2020 is not a total loss – although Covid-19 put a bummer on things, at least the year brought us the Toyota Yaris GR, promised nearly a decade ago by company boss Akio Toyoda
It’s nearly over. The decade is closing on a high, for some of that climactic headline drama, and we can only hope for peace and quiet in the 2020s.
Right now from where I’m standing the decade behind us looks rubbish – maybe a bit more time will sweeten the reflections. A pandemic hasn’t completely ruined things though. Toyota still managed to outshine everyone else this year with the Yaris GR, a road-going rally car developed by fanatics.
It’a a true homologation special long after we’d all given up on authenticity in the car industry. If you have any serious fetishes look away now… Three cylinders, turbocharged, all-wheel drive, manual six-speed. So many idiosyncrasies you expect a start button in the roof, ashtrays in the boot, and a ‘Fabriqué en France’ plaque on the dash. Except, not even the French have it any more ever since they‘d forgotten what a ‘Rallye’ sticker can do for a hatchback.
No, this is a Japanese car, a Toyota, a car made by the most boring corporation in the world. They operate in a world of beige, of decimal points and Camrys. This is a company that once delayed our media shuttle to a factory in Fukuoka so I could shop for slacks at a nearby mall, because jeans weren’t allowed. They stain the beige leather. Not very well known for their spontaneity in life, the Japanese…
This was ages ago, which is why I was suspicious back in 2011 when Akio Toyoda, who’s only the president, announced an era of fun at Toyota. I thought it was a spin on things, a momentary lapse on a show stand, but Toyoda went on a full-out campaign promoting the company’s new slogan, “Fun to drive, again.” They were serious. Man, the cheek…
Toyoda immediately got to it, and drummed up the comeback of the cheap rear-drive sports car, the 2012 Toyota 86. Then the Supra arguably rolled out to even more hype, but neither car seemed convincing enough to match the gravity of Toyoda’s original claim. A brand so removed from any notion of fun, with MR2s, Celicas and Carlos Sainz editions all confined to the past, has to dig deeper.
It takes more than just a couple of sports cars. I realised that when I drove a Mazda 6 wagon, with a bunch of blank switches and a base naturally aspirated engine, and a manual gearbox. It runs in the blood, over in Hiroshima, because how else can the most basic Mazda feel so right to a driving enthusiast? It’s the same with the new 1.1-litre Ford Fiesta – 75 horsepower, no sixth gear, closed borders and a thousand-kilometre roadtrip combined for some of my favourite moments of the year. This thing steers better than a Boxster. Consistently, small Fords just get it.
Now I have to admit so does Toyoda. Here is a man who commutes in a one-of-a-kind Toyota Century and races Lexus LFAs around the Nordschleife, so maybe I shouldn’t have doubted him. And then the Toyota Yaris GR finally did it.
Since Subaru and Mitsubishi left the world rally stage not one of the top manufacturers left in the sport produced a road-going version of a WRC car. They all use standard shells to build their rally cars so no homologation was necessary.
Toyota entered the sport and got to it straight away with a special two-door body that isn’t even available in the Yaris line-up. Team leader and four-time world champion Tommi Mäkinen lent his development touch. He never got it wrong before, so the Yaris GR turned out to be the biggest hit of the year. The lower, longer, more aerodynamic shell Mäkinen wanted has 259 more weld points than a regular Yaris and nearly twice as much structural adhesive. The three-cylinder turbocharged engine is set further back for balance and a lower centre of gravity, and a bunch of aluminium plus a carbon fibre roof lower the weight by 12 percent.
This is a proper rally homologation special that hasn’t been seen since… I can’t remember. I think we might have to go back as far as the 1990s to find this level of dedication to the muddy cause. The Toyota crew threw out the standard suspension too – instead of the rear torsion beam the Yaris GR has double wishbones.
Toyota even developed the company’s first original all-wheel drive system in 20 years to attain Mäkinen’s, and Toyoda’s, targets. The Yaris GR is an instant classic, especially since it’s hard to imagine anyone else going to these lengths for a niche enthusiasts’ model, with everybody’s attention now focused on EVs.
And it costs just $40,000. Toyota only had to plan 25,000 Yaris GRs to satisfy homologation rules, but I hope they sell millions. For the promised car, it’s a bargain.