DURBAN, KwaZulu-Natal – Toyota has picked up the gauntlet laid down by some of its sportier competitors and served us an appetiser that previews future performance-focused Gazoo Racing products. With just three of the 400 Yaris GRMN units produced globally made available to Toyota South Africa Motors for marketing purposes (sorry, that means you can't buy one), our short stint with the Yaris GRMN comprised a cruise on the N2 highway and a blast on the tight-and-technical Dezzi Raceway in Port Shepstone.
Based on the three-door Yaris built in Europe (closely related to the Pulse model that preceded the Asian-sourced version currently offered in our market), the GRMN-badged Yaris is Toyota's foray into the B-segment hot hatch segment. Still, apart from much of the interior trim and some of the larger body panels, there are few similarities between the Yaris GRMN and its donor car ... particularly when it comes to the task of driving.
How different is it really?
The interior is dominated by hefty GR-branded bucket seats, which although aggressively bolstered, are comfortable enough even for broad-of-beam individuals. While both the driver and passenger seats offer height adjustment, they'd ideally be sited lower (something only emphasised by a subsequent blast in the revised GT86). An easily legible GR-specific instrument cluster has been added to the cabin, along with a small-circumference leather-wrapped steering wheel similar to that found in the GT86.
The remainder of the interior remains largely unaltered and feels more solidly screwed together than the Thailand-built model, with the facia comprising both urethane soft-touch materials and a few hard plastics. A touchscreen infotainment centre (complete with reverse camera), dual-zone climate control and a digital trip computer are all standard equipment.
And the outside? Well, here Toyota has made a host of alterations. The Yaris GRMN rides 24 mm lower than the standard vehicle and boasts 17-inch BBS forged alloy wheels, a honeycomb grille, a central-exit exhaust, a black rear wing, a rear diffuser and painted brake callipers that match the vehicle's red and black detailing. But the real difference is in how it drives.
So, what’s it like to pilot, then?
Prod the GRMN-branded start button and the character of this little hot hatch becomes immediately apparent, with the supercharged four-cylinder mill fizzing to life. The lightweight exhaust does well to keep idle hum to an acceptable level, despite its "rally inspired" tone. Conduct the customary gear-lever wiggle to ensure you’re in neutral and engage first, and you're given a glimpse of the deliciously mechanical quality of the six-speed manual transmission. There are no drive modes to adjust or variable dampers to set here; you simply get in and get going.
The trip from Umhlanga to Port Shepstone doesn't reveal too much about the GRMN’s performance abilities, as cruising at the national speed limit in sixth gear sees the revs hovering at a fairly relaxed 2800 r/min. Still, we discover that there's enough stopping power to avoid an unexpected stray cow that makes its way onto the N2 and more than sufficient overtaking urge to pass slow-moving trucks. For such overtaking manoeuvres, the dropping of a couple of cogs gives us a proper feel of the gearshift and clutch action, plus the opportunity to hear the raspy intake note as the dual VVT-i system comes on song.
Off the highway, the wheel and tyre combination work in harmony with the Torsen limited-slip differential to serve up prodigious mechanical front-end grip. The Yaris GRMN is eager to be pushed and gleefully rewards its driver when it is. It offers a sense of driving enjoyment and precision not too dissimilar to that of the outgoing Ford Fiesta ST, albeit with a slightly more manic personality and an even more unforgiving ride at low speeds.
The headline performance figures of 156 kW and 250 N.m offered by the 1,8-litre supercharged four-cylinder motor suggest strong performance and, aided by larger brakes, beefed-up suspension and Sachs performance dampers, the Yaris GRMN certainly has pukka on-paper hot hatch credentials.
To the track…
Once on the smooth surface of Dezzi Raceway, we discover just how engaging a driving experience the Yaris GRMN is able to offer. Tipping the scales at a claimed 1 135 kg, the vehicle feels light on its feet, with its supercharged powertrain delivering a level of responsiveness not offered by its turbocharged rivals.
Once loaded-up in a corner, the steering feels well weighted and provides a pleasing level of feedback from the front axle. There's just a whisper of understeer, while the Bridgestone Potenza RE050 rubber shows little sign of wear during the brutal session. Turn-in is sharp and a playful yet easily controllable rear-end adds further enjoyment to what is an impressive overall package.
The 2ZR-FE motor pulls with verve above 5 000 r/min and urges the driver to push all the way to the redline. Downshifts are slick, too, with a pleasing punch forward as the gear engages smoothly thanks to a spot of rev-matching using the well-positioned aluminium pedals. Again, we find ourselves wishing for a lower driving position, with the fast off-camber sweeps of Dezzi Raceway making the Yaris GRMN feel almost top-heavy.
The uprated brakes, though, provide terrific feel and demonstrate little sign of fade, even in this punishing environment. In short, the Yaris GRMN delivers an experience to savour on the track and, rather refreshingly, asks of its driver a high level of engagement.
Beyond the Yaris GRMN
If this Yaris GRMN is anything to go by, Toyota has some truly exciting developments up its sleeve. Indeed, this plucky little hot hatch is proof that the Japanese firm can create a responsive, communicative and ultimately fun car that is almost as comfortable tackling the daily commute as it is a casual track day.
It's a real pity the Yaris GRMN is not available for purchase in South Africa, as – based on these first impressions, at least – local Toyota fans who yearn for the days of TRD and RSi badges would finally have something to crow about. Still, looking forward, the hot Yaris has certainly set high expectations, leaving us watching Toyota closely with the hope that future GRMN derivatives will be sold in South Africa at competitive prices.