I had preconceived notions about the Toyota Yaris GRMN. I shouldn’t have. I should have approached it with an open mind, but the state of play of the current mainstream Yaris alongside its competitors raised my suspicions.
In lifespan terms, the Yaris is fast approaching the end of its expected run. In fact, the current Yaris first appeared overseas in 2011 meaning, amongst Toyota passenger cars, it’s past due for replacement.
Taking a basic commuter car and expecting it to turn high performance is often a big ask. Some cars do a great job of moving from the mundane to the monstrous, while others aren’t quite so convincing.
Stretching an ageing platform that wasn’t ever designed for hot-hatch use feels like a big ask for the Yaris. Enter Gazoo Racing, Toyota’s motorsport division, and eventually the part of the Japanese giant that will be tasked with creating a whole family of hot, warm or just sporty-styled Toyota vehicles out of mainstream models.
The Yaris GRMN is the first of these, the GR Supra is the second. While the Supra is by far the scene-stealer of 2019, the Yaris is to be the focus of this drive and it’s an incredibly intriguing proposition.
While a hot Corolla potentially makes more sense to Australian sensibilities, given the size of our small-car market and the reach of hot hatches like the similarly sized Volkswagen Golf GTI, the Yaris GRMN comes off the back of Toyota Gazoo’s efforts in the World Rally Championship.
It’s also only a very limited toe-in-the-water for a brand as big as Toyota. Europe is the only market where the Yaris GRMN will be sold, and a scant 400-unit production run is all this model will see. Even Toyota’s home base of Japan doesn’t have access to this performance hero.
Part of the reason is the rather bespoke build process that goes into making one. Gone are the regular petrol and petrol-electric powertrains available in European-built Yaris hatches, or for that matter the 1.3- and 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engines available in Australia from Japanese production.
Instead, a 1.8-litre 2ZR-FE engine from the previous-generation Corolla finds its way under the bonnet. Far from being shoehorned in its natural state, though, the addition of a Magnuson Eaton supercharger and tuning work from Lotus sees outputs punted up to 156kW at 6800rpm and 250Nm at 4800rpm.
Kerb weight is a fairly lithe 1135kg. That doesn’t make it super-light, but still gives it a generous power-to-weight ratio.
The end result is a 0–100km/h time of 6.4 seconds channelled via a six-speed manual and Torsen limited-slip differential up front. That’s a little different to the WRC car that serves as inspiration for this one – with all-wheel drive, a sequential gearbox, and almost 280kW from a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine.
Brute force is one thing, but the Yaris’s transformation involves more than just an injection of horsepower. Steering comes in for revision with a faster rack, while Sachs dampers and a 24mm reduction in ride height underpin the handling package.
Brakes get a re-spec with 275mm grooved discs up front clamped by four-piston calipers (in GRMN white, no less) and 278mm solid rear discs with single-piston calipers. Black lightweight 17-inch BBS wheels add to the sinister appeal, and are wrapped in 205/45R17 Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres. Good tyres for the GRMN’s intended purpose, without a doubt, but expect a cabin full of road noise with a fair measure of wind noise from around the window frames for good measure.
Oh, then there’s the *ahem* subtle visual differentiators not related to performance, like a central-exit oval exhaust tip, jaunty rear spoiler atop the tailgate, black roof, and a smattering of GRMN badges and red and black decals scattered about the bodywork in the spirit of Toyota’s WRC car. Kinda cool, if that’s your thing.
Inside, it’s a nice place to be. The dash does have squishy soft-touch plastics. Nothing that would send a Volkswagen fan into a frenzy, but more than Australia sees. The GRMN cars also get a more integrated-looking sat-nav screen that’s much easier to use, a black headliner, and dual-zone climate control. Fancy.
Even sliding into the narrow, grippy Alcantara-clad sports seats, behind a small-diameter steering wheel nicked from the 86 coupe, I couldn’t help but think the Yaris GRMN might be more bark than bite.
I needn’t have worried.
Thumb the GR-branded starter button and the Yaris GRMN barks into life with a gruff and gravelly undertone. It isn’t antisocially loud, but it’s certainly laden with more purpose and attitude than a roomful of standard Yarises, Yarii… Err, whatever you call ’em.
By opting for supercharging instead of the near-ubiquitous turbocharging of rivals, the Yaris delivers a boldly different performance proposition. Instead of a neck-snapping rush of acceleration moments after moving off, the Yaris piles torque on in a progressive manner.
There’s no shortage down low, but eke towards the 4800rpm peak and you can feel the swelling rush. Instead of blindly plucking a gear and mashing the throttle to build pace, the GRMN rewards the rise and fall of the tacho needle with an excitable attitude from 2000 to 3000rpm, a robust midrange from 3000 to 4000rpm, and a howling top end that carries up to 5000rpm and beyond.
If you're really concerned with such things, fuel consumption is rated at an official 7.5L/100km on the combined cycle. Surprisingly, despite a rather fast-paced thrashing, the trip computer showed a still decent 9.2L/100km.
While the prodigious outputs could be a cause for concern, on the warm and dry Belgian roads I experienced the Yaris GRMN on, it seems the Torsen differential up front is up to the task. There’s minor tugging from the wheel if you mash the throttle like an oaf (guilty, once or twice), but most of the time the hot Yaris just digs in for more grip and sprints like a cheetah.
Shuffling through the gearshift isn’t, perhaps, the most precise experience. Compared to an Aussie Yaris, the gear change carries more weight and has a shorter throw, but there’s still a hint of vagueness as you row about. The car I drove tended to lock out sixth and guide the lever back towards fourth gear if I didn’t devote my full attention. Far from ideal at the 120km/h motorway limit.
There’s a hint of fuzziness to the clutch action, too. Decent weighting that’s still incredibly urban-friendly is nice, but the indistinct bite point could really benefit from some clarity.
As for steering, Toyota perfectly demonstrates that sporty steering need not be pointlessly heavy.
The Yaris covers high speeds with stability, offers alert changes of direction on twisty roads, and while it may not be the last word in feel and feedback (compared to something like an 86), it still loves a pleasant chat with the driver about what’s happening up front.
The ride earns kudos, too. It’s hunkered down, packed with poise, and rarely brittle or harsh. Compression up to a point is rather forgiving, but beyond certain limitations the Yaris GRMN can turn nasty, punishing over bigger hits – of which Belgium has surprisingly few, to be honest.
There’s an honest and open rawness to the whole experience. It’s not blighted by fussy driver aids, dulled by an overabundance of tech, or stifled by Toyota’s usually conservative constraints.
It’s perhaps a little galling that a car this exciting isn’t available to the Australian market. Toyota suggests that the 400-car production allocation for Europe is entirely accounted for. No second production run is on the cards, and no chance of Australian availability.
There’s no assurance the Yaris GRMN would do well in Australia, either. Overseas, you’d need to find £26,295 (Take a deep breath that's roughly $48,000 at current exchange rates) for the privilege of owning one. Given its lack of pedigree, love it or leave it styling, and less popular light-car dimensions, it would be a hard sell.
This drive isn’t so much about the individual model, but what future Gazoo Racing-fettled Toyotas might be like – that is, rather a lot of fun. Not something you can readily say about much of Toyota’s current range.
Change is afoot within the company. Company president Akio Toyoda has declared it to be so, and new-generation products like the C-HR compact SUV and Corolla hatch show genuine signs of driver involvement.
With the right modifications and power-up potential, GRMN versions of those cars could really shine. The Gazoo brand is also likely to stretch to less aggressive GR-badged cars, and sporty-styled GR Sport models all headed up by a bespoke GR Super Sport model not based on any current Toyota model, but rather intended as a springboard for Toyota’s future World Endurance Championship car development.
The future looks bright for Toyota as it prepares to put its 'automotive whitegoods on wheels' reputation behind it. There’s an undefeatable fighting spirit at the core of this car – here’s hoping it finds its way into many more.