Gazoo Racing Meister of Nurburgring. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? It’s what the ‘GRMN’ bit of this Yaris stands for, and no, the omission of ‘the’ isn’t a typo. But GRMN is a big deal over in Japan, and the first car from those aforementioned Meisters for Europe is - judging by a drive in a late prototype - astonishingly good.
We’re not massively surprised, as all the right bits and pieces are there. It bucks the turbocharger trend, instead opting for a 1.8-litre supercharged inline-four, broadly similar to the engine you’d find in a Lotus Elise. It’ll offer up somewhere in the region of 215bhp and a 0-62mph time of 6.3-6.5 seconds, with the exact figures arriving once the car has been homologated.
It has fatter anti-roll bars, Sachs dampers complete with lower, stiffer springs, while on the inside the driver and front passenger each have a rather lovely Toyota Boshoku ‘Ultrasuade’ bucket seat. To finish all that off, we have a Torsen limited-slip differential and four piston brakes up front. Yep: four pots, on a tiny little Yaris.
That’s a pretty serious ingredients list to start with, but then again, Toyota hasn’t ever built a hot hatch like this before. It’s new territory for them. In fact, it hasn’t made anything quite this potent in years, nor anything as limited - with just 400 units being made, so it’ll be rarer even than the Lexus LFA. Thankfully, the small skunkworks-like team behind this thing have well and truly nailed it.
We were first handed the keys to a part-camouflaged prototype on a road loop in the vicinity of the Nurburgring, complete with some of the worst road surfaces I’ve ever come across. This showed the Yaris to be, well, firm. Very firm. So there’s little in the way of body roll, but it handles rubbish road surfaces with confidence: even at higher speeds, the GRMN doesn’t skate around and lose grip. It’s brave to choose a route with such bumpy surfaces, as it has the potential to show up not just the suspension, but also the differential setup.
The Torsen LSD is aggressively set up - it certainly has no qualms in telling you what it’s up to when it drags the nose back into line. But it’s not grabby, as it can be in other front-driven applications. The steering gives plenty of feedback too, although it’s a little on the light side.
In the tech presentation given before we set off, the car’s engineers made a big deal about the four-pot stoppers, not because of the braking force they allow, but for the control they offer. And with good reason: the middle pedal is feelsome and progressive - a world away from the horrid, over-servo’d setups that seem to be becoming ever more common.
It was clear even before taking to the Nordschleife for a hot lap that the Yaris’ chassis is a peach, but the 1.8-litre engine gets our respect too. It’s such a joy to drive a small hot hatch that’s not turbocharged, something that hasn’t existed in this corner of the market since the demise of the N/A Renault Sport Clio.
Its linear power delivery means it’s not a car that ever feels mega quick, but throttle response is wickedly sharp. Oh, and thanks to a meaty centre-exit exhaust - which apparently was a nightmare for the engineers to package - it bloody loud. Weirdly, it reminds me of the Abarth 124. It’s not an especially nice sound, just a hilariously angry wall of noise that fills the cabin whenever you put your foot down.
Although my mind was mostly focused on not stacking it during our single Nordschleife lap, the GRMN was grippy, frenetic and absurdly entertaining. The short wheelbase does feel rather keen to rotate under hard braking, but that’s half the fun.
Downsides? Well, there aren’t any big ones, really. I suppose a slightly slicker gear change might be nice - the six-speed is something you’d find in a variety of less exciting Toyotas (although the sprockets have been reinforced for the GRMN), and the shift is ever-so-slightly rubbery. It’s only made obvious because the rest of the package is so damn good. The seating position is also a tad high, but that’s not a deal-breaker either.
What Toyota has come up with is a properly sorted, properly fun hot hatch. And it’s done so through relatively simple means: the dampers are passive, the differential is mechanical and there aren’t even any driving modes to muck about with. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the gestation period of this thing, which was only around a year.
The outgoing Ford Fiesta ST is seen as the benchmark in this class, and rightly so: it’s an awesome thing. But compared to this little weapons-grade brute I’d almost be tempted to label it as weak.
As you’d expect, the posh parts and engineering know-how adds up to quite a price. And that price is €29,900 for much of Europe, and £26,295 for the UK. £3000 more than even the surprisingly pricey Ford Fiesta ST200, in other words. The limited production run and high-spec engineering mean that it should hang onto its value, though.
From what we’ve seen so far, it’s worth every penny. But what’s arguably more interesting is what this car is going to do for Toyota’s image. The Japanese firm’s line-up has been - GT86 aside - positively humdrum for the last few years, but to rock up to the hot hatch market and drop this bombshell shows it’s more than capable of shaking up its image.
Toyota is up for making awesome fast cars again, so the future’s looking very good indeed…