Toyota hasn’t made a hot hatchback in years, so you’d forgiven the Japanese car giant for playing it safe when making a hot version of the Yaris. But the ladies and gents at Toyota Gazoo Racing - its own entity as of 2017 - clearly have no interest in what everyone else is doing, and have torn up the rulebook to make this delicious little performance car.
Having driven a prototype version at the Nurburgring last August and now driven the finished product in Spain, we reckon we have the Yaris GRMN (that stands for Gazoo Racing Meisters of Nurburgring, by the way) sussed out. Here’s why it’s unlike any other small hot hatch out there…
These days, if you spend under £40,000 on a performance car, the chances are it’ll be powered by an inline-four turbo. Pop the tiny little bonnet on this hot Yaris though, and you’ll find that the Gazoo people have squeezed-in a 1.8-litre engine. Complete with a supercharger. Remember those?
The unit started out life as the 1.8-litre supercharged straight-four Toyota builds for the Lotus Elise, although the GRMN’s designers claim that, after extensive development to package it in a front-mounted configuration, there’s not a whole lot of that original engine left. Both Toyota and Lotus worked on the thing, and some of the tweaks will end up on future Elise engines.
It’s good for 209bhp and 184lb ft of torque, and has just 1135kg of car to cart around. As such it’s impressively quick. You might want to look away now, GT86 owners: 0-62mph takes just 6.4 seconds even though it requires a shift into third gear. It’ll do 60mph in second gear after just 6.1 seconds.
Most importantly, its an angry little ball of internally-combusted fury. It doesn’t do a whole lot below 3000rpm, but once you hit that magic mark in the rev range, the Magnussen Eaton supercharger progressively turns up the wick while letting out an absurd sucking sound. It’s accompanied by a frankly rude bark from the exhaust system, the likes of which you’d never, ever, expect to parp out the rear end of a Toyota Yaris.
There are no artificially-induced pops and bangs from the exhaust either, just a wall of pure, comically furious noise. It’s a rough, sort of metallic din that’s unrefined in the best way possible. Factor in the kind of super-sharp throttle response afforded by the lack of turbocharger, and you’ve a car that’s hilarious fun to drive before even considering the changes to the underpinnings, which we’ll get to later.
Manufacturers have become ever-more obsessed with fitting flat-bottomed steering wheels to their performance cars. Hell, even slower stuff like ST-Line Ford Fiestas have gotten in on the D-shaped steering wheel game, signaling that the trend has well and truly jumped the shark.
It’s now looking like a hideous cliche, but the Yaris GRMN doesn’t have time for such shenanigans. Instead, it borrows a wheel from the GT86, which looks particularly smart in the car’s otherwise rather staid cabin. It’s been given various tweaks too, including a because rallycar red centre line.
The chassis fiddling involved to create a Yaris GRMN is best described as extensive. We have plush Sachs dampers, an increase in spring rate, a 30mm drop in ride height, a new strut brace, additional under-body bracing, huge four-pot front callipers on cute little discs and a fatter front anti-roll bar.
The result of all Gazoo’s work is… something that isn’t quite as tidy to drive as you might expect. And that’s something we rather like. The heavy steering doesn’t feel as fast as EPAS racks used by rivals, and as a result the GRMN is a car you have to wrestle around to get the most out of it. The Torsen limited-slip differential isn’t exactly subtle either, so you have to keep on top of its occasionally grabby moments. It’s all manageable though, and merely makes this pokey Yaris all the more satisfying to drive quickly.
The damping’s well judged, being firm enough to quell excessive body roll without bouncing around and making the front end feel nervous. The road route we took the prototype on last year involved some hideously broken up tarmac which left the hot Yaris mostly unfazed, so we’ve no doubt it’s not going to be a crashy, uncomfortable mess when it arrives in the UK.
The standard-fit Bridgestone Potenza RE050s do give up and send the front end washing wide a little too easily for our liking, but I’m not sure the optional Potenza RE-11S boots - fitted to the cars we sampled on track - are the answer. For one thing they’re not even homologated for the road in Europe (they’re pretty much cut slicks and make the tread on Michelin Cup 2s look generous). And while the added grip allows for some pretty serious entry speeds, they rob you of the standard car’s nicely mobile rear-end.
When testing a modern performance car, on a track or a good bit of road, the first thing you look for is a sport mode button. But not in the Yaris: it comes pre-set in angry bastard mode, and that’s that. Good.
There’s something refreshingly simple about this approach, as the hot hatch segment as a whole seems to be becoming increasingly infected by a desire for needless complication. All you need to decide is whether or not you want to turn the ESP off.
Although on that note, we’re keen to point out that the GRMN’s system still allows for a surprising amount of slip - it’s like a lax substitute teacher who’ll let the kids get away with pretty much everything bar burning the classroom down.
As you’ve probably gathered by the lashings of posh bits and bespoke fiddling aimed at this Yaris, Toyota doesn’t seem worried about competing with the likes of the Peugeot 208 GTI and Ford Fiesta ST on price. Ah yes, the price. There’s no easy way to say this: it’s £26,295. For a Yaris.
You can’t help but admire Toyota’s confidence with this thing, and in any case, it doesn’t seem like such a bonkers price when you consider the work that’s been done to create it. And then there’s the exclusivity factor, which leads us onto our final point…
We weren’t joking when we said Toyota isn’t interested in competing with other builders of B-segment hot hatchbacks: the Yaris GRMN isn’t even a car you can buy right now. Why? Because it’s a limited-run special: just 400 Yaris-badged units will be built for Europe, with a further 200 units made for the Japanese market with the ‘Vitz’ model name. All were reserved within 72 hours of being released, and your only hope now is to put your name on the waiting list and cross your fingers that a lot of people change their minds.
Toyota won’t say if a watered-down, unlimited version might be made at some point. Instead, the GRMN is all about making a statement. And what a statement it is.
It’s far from perfect - other than the brilliant Ultrasuade Toyota Boshoku seats and the GT86 wheel the interior is just as dull as the cabin of the standard Yaris, the sat-nav system is at times infuriating, and the lumpy gear change a definite weak point of the driving experience.
But you can’t help but admire the way it doesn’t want to run with the pack. It has the satisfying feel of a skunk works project, I suppose because in a way that’s exactly what it is. Those 600 people aren’t going to be disappointed.