Matt Saunders reveals why Toyota’s all-wheel-drive hot hatch was his favourite drive of the past 12 months
All right, I win the prize for nominating the most obvious headline-making new performance car of the year; slow hand clap, etc. I also like the music of The Beatles, open fires, comfortable footwear, live sport and fish and chips for dinner. Perhaps my tastes are not complex. But I’m glad somebody went the obvious way with this. The brilliant Toyota GR Yaris deserves absolutely nothing less.
Frankly, before we go any further, I feel the need to point out how unjustly I think this car was denied our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car title this year. Yes, it rained. Granted, we were testing over the unforgiving bumps, kerbs and cambers of Castle Combe circuit, which always somehow seem frightening even when they’re bone dry. The odds were very much set so that a stable, relatively inexpensive, hustle-worthy four-wheel-drive hot hatchback with just enough power and a sensible set of tyres could sweep all before it. And the Yaris very nearly did.
But I have a feeling that those judges who deprived it of a top score weren’t voting on the basis of the driving experience they’d just enjoyed, but rather in imagination of one they might have had on a more typical British day. It’s just a hunch. The rules of the competition were, and remain, clear: you award points according to a car’s driver appeal, end of. But perhaps one or two looked at the heavens, and then at the Ariel Atom 4, Lamborghini Huracán Evo and McLaren 765LT in the pitlane, and gave some extra credit to the cars they’d rather have taken home and got back out on a balmy June weekend.
To me, Britain’s Best Driver’s Car isn’t like much of our wider job as road testers. It’s knockout football: the cars involved either do it on the day, or they don’t. And, wow, did the GR Yaris ever do it. On the road, it is nothing short of sensational. It’s got practically everything you want in a properly nutty little hot hatchback: compact proportions, fluent and absorptive suspension, great body control, enormous traction and enough accessible performance to make you laugh out loud over and over again.
On a wet track, it inspired confidence like absolutely nothing else. It was utterly imperturbable through standing water and found grip in places where some of the supercars were hopeless. And I just didn’t understand those voices who said they wanted more liveliness and handling adjustability from the car. For me, dialling up Sport mode and chucking the Yaris through Bobbies and The Esses, backing it in on a trailing throttle and getting plenty of change out of the rear axle without ever flirting with disaster, that might have been the most fun I’ve had all year.
The GR Yaris makes you grow horns, as the very best driver’s cars so often tend to do. And yet the incredible real-world pace, unearthly composure at speed and first-rate driver reward that it has seem so wonderfully unexpected and unlikely coming from a car like this. The absurdity and shock value iare all part of the appeal – and I’m smitten.