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Car Reviews

Toyota Yaris GRMN – Gazoo Racing turns Toyota tot into a bit of an animal

While the Indian Yaris is soft and comfy with a big boot, in Europe the Yaris nameplate is headlined by an absolutely mental 209bhp supercharged supermini

Fun to drive Toyota Yaris GRMN hot hatch

After decades of making automotive white goods Toyota have finally put performance back on their agenda and the fun and games start with this, the Yaris-GRMN. It takes inspiration from the Yaris WRC programme run by Tommi Makinen out of Finland with an all-Finn driver line-up and that explains why all 400 Yaris GRMNs sold out in 72 hours. With the benefit of hindsight, I think Toyota believes it could easily have sold double that number or more. But perhaps most importantly, the engineering team insists the Yaris GRMN isn’t a ‘numbers car’ but one that involves the driver and rewards commitment. The engineers mean ‘numbers’ in terms of power and in the Ring lap time sense, of course, but I’m going to expand that to include the sale price as well; too often these days cars are discussed in simplistic numerical terms rather in the more esoteric way of how they make you feel.

Ironically, the GRMN does have some rather appealing numbers attached to it. For a start, its peak power output of 209bhp is more than competitive in the class, while Project Manager Stijn Peeters and his small team are very proud of the fact that their car weighs just 1135kg, complete with driver and fluids.

“This is the car that kicks off the Gazoo Racing performance sub-brand in Europe”

We drove the Yaris GRMN last summer in ‘prototype’ form. As it turns out, that drive was of a car very close to its final homologation set-up, and the changes made since are described as ‘details’ and ‘calibration’. This is the car that kicks off the Gazoo Racing performance sub-brand in Europe, which is quite a responsibility in itself given the size of Toyota and the depth of its newfound sporting ambitions. As a ‘Gazoo Racing Meisters of the Nürburgring’ model, it is pitched as the most extreme variant in what will inevitably be a pyramid of sporting machines, and a doctrine applied to various model ranges within the company.

Engine and transmission

The Yaris GRMN is powered by the 1.8-litre supercharged ‘2ZR’ engine also found in the current Lotus Elise. This fact alone makes the car something of a curiosity, for while it’s obviously a forced induction engine, its character is much nearer that of a normally aspirated unit than the small displacement turbocharged engines that have become the class norm. You can get an idea of this from its relatively low 251Nm torque output, noteworthy for not peaking until 4800rpm, which suggests plenty of revs will be required to extract the maximum from the car. Then again, a redline of 7000rpm also hints that this won’t be an unappealing task.

“The Yaris GRMN is powered by the 1.8-litre supercharged ‘2ZR’ engine also found in the current Lotus Elise.”

The engine is hooked up to a six-speed manual transmission that’s been strengthened and, crucially, has ratios chosen to maximise the potential of the engine, not simply to maximise its performance in an EU CO² test. Packaging the engine in the ageing Yaris platform has been a considerable task, because with a short two-year development timeframe and far from an unlimited budget, any fundamental changes to the base car were clearly out of the question. Toyota’s neat solution is to package the air intake, Magnusson-Eaton supercharger and intercooler as one unit, mounting it in the space in front of the engine. All-in there are four radiators, and an exhaust that uses only one cat but that also features a large rear silencer hanging low behind the rear bumper. Fitting in this pipe wasn’t easy because the floorpan had never been designed to accommodate such an item: the large back-box is one change since evo last drove the car, because apparently a number of other journalists present that day felt the car was too loud: not us, I hasten to add…

I won’t spend too long now going over again the rest of the Yaris GRMN package, save to say that the bodyshell is considerably strengthened via a strut-brace, stronger front subframe and four underbody braces, and that the suspension uses Sachs Performance dampers with a spring rate at least 60 per cent up on a standard Yaris, with thicker anti-roll bars. The GRMN runs on 17-inch forged BBS wheels shod with 205/45 R17 Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres, and a Torsen-type limited-slip differential helps deploy the supercharged grunt to the road’s surface.
Since our last drive much of the work has been centred around fine tuning the chassis and engine calibration. The front dampers have been revised, the electro-mechanical steering re-worked to add a bit more weight and ‘feel’, and the engine’s tune now offers a bit more mid-range wallop at the expense of a little top-end fizz.

How’s the Toyota Yaris GRMN to drive?

As already mentioned, any fundamental changes to the Yaris were out of the question, so in spite of its Gazoo corporate colour scheme of white panels, black roof and loud graphics, it has very little of the presence possessed by something like the old Renaultsport Clio 197/200. Open the door and it’s business as usual for a Toyota, with most materials in black for a more serious sporting ambience and a pair of really supportive seats in an Alcantara-like material. That small leather steering wheel is normally to be found in a GT86. It’s obvious the engineers have done their best with what they had to work with but the seat is mounted far too high and the very limited range of steering wheel adjustment offered by the Yaris platform means I’m nowhere near finding a decent driving position. It’s one of those things I’m just going to have to put from my mind.

“The Yaris GRMN is an appealing little thing in the metal, albeit rather mild-looking”

Thumb the GR-branded starter button and the 2ZR engine fires keenly. It unashamedly makes its presence felt at idle, but it’s also nothing like the R3 rally car drone of the prototype we drove, and for that I can’t help feeling rather sad. While relatively weak at low revs, the Yaris is surprisingly energetic in the mid range. Yet, it’s the final 2000rpm where the engine loves to spend its time, sprinting keenly for the red line at every opportunity. It’s just so joyous to drive a small, light hatchback that rewards in this way. It requires some effort, yes, but there’s a compulsion to drive it hard at every opportunity, and an encouragement to be as precise as possible in how you use the power.

Thankfully, the manual gearbox is a brilliant partner for the engine, its ratios one-to-four just right to keep the engine on the boil and its shift quality crisp and tight. Blipping the engine between downshifts never gets old.
Given its character you may be expecting the Yaris GRMN to be a harshly riding car, but while there’s an underlying firmness to it, it transpires that it’s actually perfectly comfortable in everyday driving. You can sense that compliance softness in the way it allows the body a notable degree of initial roll, perhaps exaggerated by the high-set driving position, but it never gets aggressive on the rebound – admittedly on largely smooth Spanish roads.

“Given its character you may be expecting the Yaris GRMN to be a harshly riding car, but while there’s an underlying firmness to it, it transpires that it’s actually perfectly comfortable in everyday driving”

Talking of which, in spite of the sunshine the temperatures this morning are only just above freezing and I’m wondering if they’re a contributing factor in the one real dynamic flaw to be found. Despite the revisions there’s still something a bit artificial about the steering. It’s noticeable in the aggressive self-centring at times, but most of all it’s on turn-in to a corner. Those first few degrees of lock can feel like the front tyres are on a glassy surface, and I’m therefore inadvertently encouraging understeer by overcompensating with the amount of lock I’m dialling in.
Actually the front end does stick, and the diff is very effective. It’s something I think you’d learn to live with, to trust, and beyond it you’ll find a car with a manic enthusiasm for tackling a good road, the diff working overtime to distribute the engine’s output without really torque steering as such, and the car nicely balanced. It’s an adjustable chassis, but it’s not tail-happy in the manner of the 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, which is exactly what Peeters and his team set out to achieve.

Driving the car on track

We also get to drive the Yaris on track, running on Bridgestone RE11S tyres. Non-homologated for Europe, it’s a semi-slick, track-focused tyre much like a Toyo R888. It’s an unusual decision to use these for a launch, but Toyota hasn’t developed a stickier tyre option yet, in the belief that customers will have their own preferences: the RE11Ss show what’s possible. Far from being overawed, the little Yaris relishes the extra grip, the steering also improving in weight and feel. The brake discs may be relatively small, but the bespoke four-pot calipers are up to the task and the fine pedal feel doesn’t disappear even after some hard laps.

“The car is surprisingly fast and intense – just as it is on the road”

The more time you spend with the Yaris GRMN, the more you realise its flaws are largely those of the standard car. I wish it looked more spectacular, had a better driving position, more natural steering feel, and was more basic inside to make it even lighter. And yet I can’t help being strongly attracted to the little Toyota. In an era when many performance cars seem to be developed to satisfy a line in a spreadsheet, the Yaris GRMN is a car created with an obvious passion for enthusiastic driving, and a machine that relishes your input in how it goes about its work. We need more cars like that. Welcome to the revolution, Gazoo Racing.

Read our review on the Toyota-Yaris sedan here. 

Changing the heart of the Yaris

As Project Manager in Toyota Europe’s Z Division, Stijn Peeters led the R&D on the Yaris GRMN Interview by Adam Towler

What couldn’t you change that you wanted to, and why?

This platform (the Yaris) was never developed with performance cars in mind back in 2011. What many people don’t realise is that the platform dictates things like seating position, but also where the steering wheel position can be, wheel size and suspension. The steering rack ratio is also limited by the platform and to change it would mean a completely new development. If we lowered the seat any more the door crash structure would no longer be valid – even on cars of limited numbers we still have to meet that test, and to re-do that in two years is impossible.

Will these considerations go into future platforms?

Clearly there’s a requirement to bring more passion to all our cars, not just the sports ones, and emotion when driving is connected to driver controls. I would like to change things more but was restricted on this car. But this is all a learning process for future [Gazoo] models, a growing process. With regard to bespoke bodywork, if it’s considered at the planning stage, then yes. We’re looking into that. Changes later are doubtful. For these sort of volumes it does not make sense – there is no business case in the world for that.

Is this car an indication of the Gazoo Racing philosophy?

Yes. Sure, numbers are always important. It was clear from the beginning it would need over 200bhp, but I could have made it 225bhp. But we think useful power, and fun to drive, and response, these are far more useful targets than numbers. We know today everyone is below seven seconds to 100kmph. But again, we had to decide on gear ratios. In the B segment the first four gears have to be spot-on. So I chose the ratios that suited driving, sacrificing the 0-100kmph time because the car won’t do it in second gear. Maybe this is an old school way, how cars were developed 15 years ago. If we had to give up on styling changes then so be it – the Yaris GRMN is all about balance and useable performance.

If you had a DSG ’box available, would you fit it?

[Laughs]. Now that really is a tricky question. The engineer in me says it depends how the system performs. The motorsport fan in me says I might gain some seconds on the track, but it will eat away at my inputs – good or bad, but they’re my inputs. The project manager in me says they’ll add complexity and the manual works well, so given the timeframe… As long as the systems can’t read my mind and adapt to my mood, then I’d prefer a manual.

What is the future of hot hatches such as the Yaris GRMN?

I can only speak personally, not on behalf of Toyota. I think we’re heading for an interesting future. Autonomous tech, electrification… But we always see polarising movements: the more we go towards autonomous driving, the more individualisation will be brought out for certain products. There will be a place for enthusiasts, but what it will look like is a question we all have, and there’s no single answer available.

What would you buy as your own car?

I think I’d buy a Mk3 Toyota MR2. That had a lot of the qualities in the Yaris GRMN – useable performance, balance. Money no object I’d buy a Cayman GT4. I’d rather that than a GT3, in fact. But really I am a biker – for many years. I have a Triumph 955 that I do trackdays with. It has taken me a year to learn how to ride that bike fast on a track, but that’s the reward. For me that’s what it’s like with driving for fun: it’s the driver that makes the difference, it’s your inputs that go into the car and you want to feel the response, just like with a motorcycle.

First drive review: Toyota Yaris –

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