THREE little chrome letters can mean the world to a motoring fanatic. Toyota’s RSi moniker, which has been carefully cultivated to become a local performance icon, is among the most revered. Clear evidence of this fact came after the introduction of the new Corolla last year. Toyota aficionados frantically scanned for an RSi in the price list, but couldn’t find one. Toyota replied with, "there will be something for performance fans a little later". And here it is. The RunX RSi. Funky new name, spunky new shape, and a walloping 141 kW motor under the bonnet…
In many ways, this car is mostly about the engine, a 1,8-litre VVTL-i (Variable Valve Timing with Lift – intelligent) unit that develops 141 kW at a screaming 7 800 r/min and 180 N.m of torque at 6 800. Now how, you may ask, did they manage that!
As in other similar systems, the timing of the intake valves is varied continuously throughout the rev range by hydraulically rotating the camshaft relative to its drive gear. The trick part, however, concerns the "L" in VVTL-i.
Two cam lobes, each with a distinct profile, operate a single wide rocker arm that acts on both intake or both exhaust valves. A needle-bearing roller on the arm follows the low-r/min, short-duration, low-lift lobe, forcing both valves to open and close on that profile. The high-r/min higher-duration, longer-lift lobe rubs on a hardened steel slipper follower mounted to the rocker arm with a spring. Even though the high-r/min lobe is pushing down further than the low-r/min lobe, the spring absorbs the extra movement. At 6 000 r/min – an important moment in RSi talk – the ECU sends a signal to an oil control valve at the end of the camshaft that puts oil pressure behind a lock pin in the rocker arm, sliding the pin under the spring-loaded slipper follower, locking it to the rocker arm and forcing the arm to follow the profile of the high-r/min cam lobe. By increasing the intake valve lift when the engine speed is high, VVTL-i allows greater volumes of fuel/air
mixture into the combustion chamber for increased power. The result is that you have basically two engines, with the second being accessed by going over 6 000 r/min.
With no traction control and 141 kW going to the front wheels only, we were expecting the RunX to be quite unruly from a full-bore standing start. And, indeed, a noticeable percentage of Bridgestone Turanza rubber went up in smoke during take-off on our acceleration runs. After this fiery start though, things calm down – for a while. Under 4 000 r/min there’s little to indicate the imminent arrival of 141 kW. Above 5 000, the engine starts sounding a little stressed. Even as high as 5 500 -yawn- you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Then, at 6 000 r/min exactly, the sophisticated VVTL-i system gets the message that you are, indeed, in quite a hurry, and unleashes what seems to be double the amount of power it had been pumping out just milliseconds before. The nose lifts slightly, you get a clear sensation of additional acceleration, and it continues to over 8 000, the engine now sounding ready to climb out from under the bonnet, howling in a manner not unlike that of a severely distressed Arno Carstens (ex-Springbok Nude Girls front man). Then suddenly you hit the limiter, change gear, and relative calm returns until the dizzy heights of the rev range are reached again. And again. And again. Addictive stuff indeed, and also perfectly illustrative
of the car’s Clark Kent character – comfortable, docile family runabout one moment, then chilli-pepper hot hatch the next.
Our 8,58 seconds 0-100 km/h time was reached after much experimentation – it is quite a challenge to achieve exactly the right amount of wheelspin – but it compares favourably with other hot hatches, of which Volkswagen’s fractionally faster Golf GTi is probably the main target. We did, however, expect a higher top speed than the recorded 205 km/h.
So, while the RunX RSi’s on-paper performance figures won’t win many bar-room arguments, the on-road reality is highly entertaining.
Front suspension comprises conventional MacPherson struts and a stabiliser bar. A torsion bar and stabiliser set-up do duty at the back. On the RSi, the suspension’s grip on the road is aided by sticky 195/55 16-inch tyres. Steering is unchanged from Corolla, but the driver now holds on to a small, sporty leather-clad wheel.
Brakes have been uprated – 275 mm ventilated discs (front) and 279 mm solid discs (rear) – and ABS and EBD are standard. In our simulated emergency braking routine, the RSi halted from 100 km/h in an impressive average time of 2,99 seconds. Less impressive, however, was our test car’s tendency to pull to the left under emergency braking.
In normal day-to-day use the RSi, judged on ride and low-rev throttle response, could have been a peppy 1,8-litre Corolla.
The Celica-sourced floorplan’s ability to smooth out road irregularities has not been compromised by the bigger wheels. It’s a very a composed chassis, one that manages to both provide a comfortable ride and not get all wallowy at the merest sight of a corner. In fact, the RSi relishes being chucked into the twisty bits.
Which brings us to the other, spicier side of the RunX’s character. Steering actually feels quicker than the claimed 3,5-turns lock-to-lock had us expect, and turn-in is eager. It is at this point that some, perhaps, would like a lower seating position and slightly more lateral support from the seats.
With the engine wound up past 6 000 r/min you enter the party zone, where engine, gearbox and chassis come together to transform the RunX into a real hell-raiser. But you have to keep your wits about you. To stay in the power band you
have to make use of the engine’s ability to spin all the way to 8 200 r/min, otherwise a gear change may see the revs fall below 6 000 r/min. Driven in this manner, the RunX is blisteringly quick.
Cornered with enthusiasm, the Bridgestone tyres squeal in protest rather early, but keep on sticking. The RunX bites into corners and refuses to let go. That is, unless you have a very heavy foot and try to force all 141 kW to the front wheels in tight bends. Doing this will see the onset of significant understeer. Take your foot off the accelerator too suddenly, and it switches to oversteer. Get the balance right, though, and the RunX is a rewarding and sharp driver’s tool with xceptional body control. But the RSi requires dedication from the driver, and a willingness to make full use of the superb slick-shifting six-speed gearbox. Good thing then, that you can then keep the revs under 6 000 and have performance delivered in a less frenzied way, should you be in a lazy mood.
You’re also likely to save quite a bit on the fuel bill by keeping below 6 000 r/min. Our fuel index figure worked out to 10,77 litres/100 km – rather thirsty – with the result that a 60-litre tank should allow for just over 550 km between fill-ups.
Judged by the huge attention the RunX received during our two-week test period, Toyota is on to a winner here. There’s a bit of Audi A3 in the way the rear hatch curves and hugs the tail lights, and some glimpses of Honda Civic in the overall architecture, but the RunX manages to cut its own distinctive dash. It may share its front end with the Corolla, but the headlight mouldings have darkened inserts, and it gets a sportier grille. Some members of the CAR test team felt the wheels looked a little lost in the arches. But overall, it’s a distinctive, sporty looking car that is likely to become a favourite amongst aftermarket customisers.
The interior is pure Corolla, albeit with silver trim on the dash, red-on-black "Optitron" instrumentation markings and, of course, the short-throw six-speed gearshift. New Corolla has brought with it a tremendously improved cabin, one of the best in the business, in fact. This hasn’t been lost in the RunX. Space is generous all-round and trim quality is second only to Volkswagen’s Golf.
There are plenty of little storage boxes: between the front seats, in the centre console and hangdown section of the facia, and another to the right of the steering wheel – in addition to the usefully sized cubby, rather narrow door pockets and front seatback pockets.
But the cabin is not perfect. Reaching the radio’s volume button requires quite a stretch, the front seats don’t go back far enough for tall drivers, and the front seats could do with more lateral support and bigger squabs. And, bearing in mind the attention to detail that resulted in the spacious interior, the 200-dm3 luggage compartment was a disappointment.
We measured 34 dm3 of wasted space under the floor on top of the full-size alloy spare. Fold the rear seatbacks (split 60:40) forward and usable space grows to a more acceptable 960 dm3.
Specification is comprehensive. Standard creature comfort items include leather upholstery, height-adjustable steering wheel, automatic air-conditioning, power windows and side mirrors, front-loading CD-player/radio and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. On the safety and security side of things, transponder key immobiliser, alarm, selective central locking and dual front airbags are fitted.