The returning Mads Ostberg leads Rally Australia after the opening stages, while Ott Tanak heads Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier in the fight for the 2018 World Rally Championship title.
Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three appearances for Citroen.
But C3 WRC driver Ostberg benefitted from a low running order, which defined the opening legs, to take a 5.4-second advantage over Esapekka Lappi from the first three stages of the season finale.
Points leader Ogier was first onto the gravel routes and could only manage 10th overall, 8.4s behind nearest rival Neuville - who sits just three points adrift of the defending champion in the standings.
Ogier said: "[The road order is] the worse - we knew it before. I guessed this one was going to be hard."
Although Neuville complained of a difficult morning, he had the advantage of following Ogier's wide lines and capitalised with a more efficient run.
To keep his title hopes alive, Tanak needs to win the rally and the powerstage, with Ogier and Neuville finishing seventh or lower, and fifth or lower, respectively.
The Toyota driver survived a scare when he picked up a rear-left puncture late on during SS3 when he hit a "shit" man-made jump, after which he clipped a bank.
He still held on to set the fourth fastest time on the run and is sixth overall.
Ostberg's nearest challenger is Lappi, who is making his final appearance for Toyota ahead of a move to Citroen for 2019.
After a torrid showing in Spain, Lappi again felt he had more to give despite being fastest across the first two stages.
He said: "To be honest, it didn't feel so good. It's so wide that I was too cautious and I felt that I had a lot of room at every corner.
"In the end, I was on the clean line so maybe it was a good compromise. There's a lot of margin for sure so maybe I can go much faster."
Lappi's Toyota team-mate Latvala is a further 0.4s behind in third, as the team attempts to wrap up the manufacturers' championship over Hyundai.
Craig Breen recovered from a brush with the local wildlife and a suspected cracked brake disc to finish the opening stages in fourth ahead of Hayden Paddon.
On the day's first stage, Breen reported that he had: "Hit a fucking kangaroo. Poor Skippy, he's gone. It was a baby one."
Behind Tanak sit M-Sport duo Teemu Suninen and Elfyn Evans.
Hyundai's Andreas Mikkelsen was an unfortunate casualty of the opening stages.
He emerged out of a chicane to find a tractor on the route and moments later he span backwards off the road into a ditch and was unable to continue.
In WRC2, class champion Jan Kopecky and Rally GB winner Kalle Rovanpera are absent, leaving Alberto Heller to head the order in his Ford Fiesta R5.
|1||Mads Ostberg, T.Eriksen||Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT||25m34.4s||-|
|2||Esapekka Lappi, J.Ferm||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||25m39.8s||5.4s|
|3||Jari-Matti Latvala, M.Anttila||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||25m40.2s||5.8s|
|4||Craig Breen, S.Martin||Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT||25m41.4s||7.0s|
|5||Hayden Paddon, S.Marshall||Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT||25m41.7s||7.3s|
|6||Ott Tanak, M.Jarveoja||Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT||25m42.2s||7.8s|
|7||Teemu Suninen, M.Markkula||M-Sport Ford WRT||25m48.0s||13.6s|
|8||Elfyn Evans, D.Barritt||M-Sport Ford WRT||25m49.2s||14.8s|
|9||Thierry Neuville, N.Gilsoul||Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT||25m53.6s||19.2s|
|10||Sebastien Ogier, J.Ingrassia||M-Sport Ford WRT||26m02.0s||27.6s|
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