If someone asked me a decade ago what words I would use to describe Toyota in the Philippines, the answers would have revolved around dependable, easy to maintain, and practical. You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2021, and that has obviously changed. Yes, Toyota is still making great everyday cars, SUVs, pick-ups, and vans, but now they're getting back into things we enjoy writing about.

Toyota gave full beans to their efforts in global motorsport; they are the Le Mans and WEC champs for a few years in a row now. They also kickstarted racing activities in key markets, including the Vios one-make race here in the country since 2014. It was Toyota's chief, Akio Toyoda, that initiated this renewed drive to race and put all their efforts under one banner: Gazoo Racing. They used that experience to make more exciting cars. To make better cars.

In 2012, the Toyota 86 reintroduced us to the exciting driving experience that the brand can deliver, and there's now a new generation model coming. In 2019 they launched the A90 Supra, reviving one of the greatest nameplates ever in Japanese sports cars and one of the world's most legendary tuner cars. Yes, both were products of collabs as the 86 was built with Subaru, while the Supra was built with BMW, but is that a bad thing?

GR Yaris image

Now they've got another new performance model, and like the Supra and the next-generation 86, this is a Gazoo Racing or GR model: the GR Yaris. And we're headed to the track to find out what it can do.

It's good to see the Clark International Speedway again. I have a lot of great memories here, suiting up for the Toyota Vios Cup back in 2013 and 2014. Pulling up to the paddock, we take a peek at a pair of GR Yaris units that were being prepped for a day with journalists. I sincerely hope these two cars survive the day.

If you're familiar with the Yaris in our market or even own one, don't worry your eyes aren't deceiving you. Even without the aggressive aero bumper or the widened fenders, it's clear that this Yaris is very different from the one in local showrooms. The only thing those two models have in common is the Yaris name, and that's because this version of the Yaris is sold in Europe, Australia, and Japan only. The platform, the design, and even the number of doors are different; this one is a three-door while the regular Yaris we have is the five-door.

One doesn't have to have intimate car knowledge to know if a car was built to perform; you just have to do a few simple checks. One of the first ones I do with any performance car I haven't read up much on is by tapping on it as I would knock on a door. I tap on the major panels to find out what the manufacturer used. If you tap on the side doors, the sound is clearly steel. If you tap on the tailgate and hood, the sound is different because they're aluminum. Even the roof isn't steel; actually, it's CFRP, or carbon fiber reinforced plastic.

GR Yaris image

Then I take a look at the proportions and the stance. Yes, this tiny hot hatchback is wider, but what's more important with the GR Yaris is the relationship between the extra width of the track (AKA: tread, or the distance between the centerline of left and right tires), the wheelbase (the distance between the center hub of the front and rear wheels), and the overall length.

Those wheels have been pushed as far outward as Toyota's Gazoo Racing can. If you look at a go-kart, you'll get a better idea of the purpose: better handling. There aren't much in the way of overhangs too (a portion of the vehicle the goes beyond the tires), something that would be familiar if you're a fan of one other particular brand: Mini. If you've ever driven something like a 3-door Cooper S or a JCW, then you can expect similar handling from the GR Yaris.

GR Yaris image

Under the hood is a very potent engine called the G16E-GTS: a 1.6-liter turbo intercooler with three cylinders. Sounds unimpressive, right? Well consider this: it has 272 PS and a whopping 370 Newton-meters of torque. Not even the 2.0-liter flat-four in the current 86 has anywhere near that much and considering the weight of the vehicle, that means it has 212.5 PS per tonne. There are some that would point out the Honda Civic Type R has a power-to-weight of 220 PS per tonne, but there's a catch: this isn't a front-wheel-drive vehicle like the FK8.

You can't tell by looking at those big brakes behind the front and rear wheels, but if you peek underneath the rear bumper you'll spot the telltale sign that this is a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Well, you don't actually have to get on your knees and look; you can just read the GR-Four badge on the tailgate which, by the way, is a somewhat neat and subtle throwback to the Celica GT-Four rally car.

GR Yaris image

That's what the GR Yaris is made for: rallying. There's a lot at stake with Toyota and rallying because, during the heyday of Japanese automakers at the World Rally Championships in the 1980s and 1990s, Toyota was there at the sharp end. They were WRC team champions for 3 years (1993, 1994, and 1999) and propelled 3 drivers to earn 4 championships: Didier Auriol in 1994, Juha Kankkunen in 1993, and two for Carlos Sainz (yes the father of current F1 driver Carlos Sainz, Jr.) in 1990 and 1992.

GR Yaris image

This is a matter of pride, and Toyota really took it upon themselves to develop the car themselves without any other automaker to support them. If you remember, Toyota drew a bit of flak for the 86 because they had to work with Subaru, but even more for the Supra because of BMW; actually, the identification plate with the chassis number of the A90 GR Supra says made by BMW in Austria. But with the GR Yaris, that is not the case. This is a Toyota through and through, and it's produced in Japan. They are reclaiming their pride.

GR Yaris image

After ogling the car for a bit in the garage, we were shuffled off into the briefing area. I won't bother with the details other than we were to do the normal acceleration exercises, braking exercises, a slalom, and a few laps on the track. Ideally, I'd like more seat time, but given that we have to share the cars, then this will have to do for now.

GR Yaris image

Hopping inside the GR Yaris, I had to take a minute or two to get familiarized with the controls. The Yaris that Toyota sells here in the Philippines basically has the same interior layout as the Vios, and that makes it really easy to get used to. The Yaris this GR model is based on is totally different inside as the dashboard, the vents, the door panels are different. No matter though, because all I really care about for this day is the steering wheel (which feels great, BTW), the seats (nicely bolstered for cornering), the pedals, and the shifter. That's where it gets interesting.

GR Yaris image

Toyota resisted the notion of going for an automatic gearbox for the GR Yaris for our market. In Japan, they have a GR Yaris with a smaller engine, front-wheel drive, and a CVT. We're not getting that. Our GR Yaris will only have the turbo three-cylinder, all-wheel-drive, a proper 6-speed manual gearbox, and three perfectly placed pedals. This is going to be an outstanding day.

Launching the car takes a bit of practice because it's all-wheel-drive; bogging down is easy to do if you try to launch at around 3500 rpm. If you've launched a manual WRX before, then this will be familiar. Once you do figure out a nice RPM to launch with (I prefer 5000), then the GR Yaris will just squat for a bit and go. There's not much tire dramatics, as the four-wheel-drive system helps lay the power down evenly. Nought to 100 km/h is done in 5.5 seconds, but maybe in the future, we can have some fun with it using our GPS meter.

GR Yaris image

Remember those brakes? They really do well to rein in the speed for the track. Towards the end of the sessions, those black rims seem to have a thin layer of brake dust but that's OK. No one has had an off-track excursion which, by the way, the GR Yaris can probably handle because there's actually quite a bit of ground clearance if someone did go onto the slippery grass. We didn't get an official number, but you can tell just by looking at it that this isn't a lowered vehicle.

Most of the corners at Clark are second gear if you drive a 5-speed, but with the GR Yaris 6-speed then third is often more appropriate to give you the balance you need. The steering has a good feel to it, which isn't all too common these days even from performance cars.

GR Yaris image

What I did enjoy playing around with was the drive selector which alters the behavior of the center differential. In normal mode, it's biased towards the front. In sport mode, it sends 70% of the torque to the rear wheels. In track mode, it's an even 50% split.

Normal mode wasn't interesting to me because it feels like a front-wheel drive with a little extra confidence. Sport mode is really fun because if you prod the throttle a bit more then the rear will rotate a little more into the corner and you can countersteer a bit before the stability control reins you in (we were told not to turn it off). Track mode is actually great, but perhaps if we have some solo time in the car and can play around with a bit more then we will.

GR Yaris image

After a few laps and a few tight and twisty excursions on the slalom, and it was done. There are two things that surprised me about the GR Yaris, and the first is that it's surprisingly comfortable. That's not something I normally expect in a performance car, but the suspension manners of the GR Yaris are outstanding even on the bumpy bits. Clark may be a smooth track, but you can tell the manners of the suspension if you clip one of the kerbs with a bit of speed.

If anything, it actually feels like the new generation of Subarus; the front suspension is composed of a pair of MacPherson struts while the rear suspension has a pair of double wishbones. The final test will be on our roads, but we'll save that for another day.

GR Yaris image

The other surprising bit is this: it's easy to drive fast even if you make mistakes. If you dive into a corner with a bit too much speed, recovering for the turn is easy. Yes, you can get a bit of understeer, but if you apply a little bit more of the brakes then bleed it off as you apply turn (i.e. trail-braking), then the GR Yaris will oblige. This car is more forgiving of your sins than a priest on Sunday.

The 2021 Toyota GR Yaris retails for PHP 2.65 million. Sounds steep? Well, consider this: the GR Yaris is a homologation special. What that means is Toyota Gazoo Racing has to build a minimum number of these vehicles to sell to the public in order to be allowed to compete in an FIA series. In this case, that would be rallying or the World Rally Championship.

GR Yaris image

That also means the numbers they will sell worldwide will be limited. Under FIA regulations, they need to build 25,000 units in the first year, but that encompasses the base Yaris. The minimum of the homologation model (meaning the one that will actually be raced) is 2,500. Of that 2,500, only 700 will be in SE Asia, and only about 130 to 150 (max) will be sold in the Philippines. Here's the catch though: not too long after Toyota gave dealers the go signal to collect reservations, they had to close the order books right away. The entire allocation has already been reserved. This is going to be a collector's car, one that can be a wild one on the track if you train yourself to master it. 

GR Yaris image

When I was driving the GR Yaris on the track, a few friends messaged me about my opinion on the GR Yaris in a nutshell. I gave the simple answer: What if a 3-door Mini Cooper S (or JCW) and the Subaru WRX met. They had a few laughs, got together one night, and bam! Out comes the GR Yaris. 

I do have one significant criticism: the sound. The GR Yaris is way too quiet. Toyota even has some kind of simulated engine sound amplifier for the engine but honestly I'm not a fan of those artificial systems. That's something Lexus does with their naturally aspirated V8s in models like the RC F and the (now discontinued) GS F. But for the GR Yaris, I don't like it. That goes double if you're wearing a helmet; we were on a circuit after all.

Dear Gazoo Racing: we love the GR Yaris, but it deserves an exhaust that can do it justice.