Toyota’s surprise new hot hatch

THIS is no ordinary Toyota hatchback.

As the first model to wear the Gazoo Racing badge, the GRMN Yaris is a limited-edition taste of what Toyota has planned for its fledgling performance brand.

The initials MN stand, rather optimistically, for Masters of the Nurburgring, the legendary German racetrack where the world's fastest production cars compete for lap-time bragging rights.

This supercharged, rally-inspired hot hatch was launched in Europe back in 2017 as a forerunner to the resurrected Supra.

In time, Toyota says, both will be joined by a $1 million hybrid hypercar based on its Le Mans-winning race car.

Toyota Yaris GRMN
Toyota Yaris GRMN

The three cars are undoubtedly diverse, but they share a common thread: Toyota's determination to build exciting cars.

The GRMN Yaris is powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine fitted with a Lotus-fettled supercharger.

There are bigger brakes, wider tyres, beefed-up suspension and other welcome touches.

Visually, you also get a rear spoiler, centre-exit sports exhaust and black BBS alloy wheels set off by white paint and distinctive red and black calipers.

On the inside, sports seats and alloy pedals meet a compact steering wheel pinched from the Toyota 86.

It's a bit of a mixed bag. Bargain-basement plastics are offset by outstanding bucket seats compromised by too-high positioning.

The steering wheel has minimal adjustment and oddly-spaced pedals are less-than-ideal for fancy footwork. The best hot hatches get that stuff right.

The GRMN’s cabin reflects its humble origins.
The GRMN’s cabin reflects its humble origins.

But the engine offers a throaty bark when you prod the starter button. Grab the first of six gears and you'll find the supercharged motor serves up instant peppiness with none of the lag associated with turbo rivals. There's no automatic option, no "sports mode" and no way to calm down this Yaris for urban driving - it's always ready to deliver its best.

A claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.4 seconds gels with impressions the Yaris is brisk without being superlative. You'll go faster in alternative metal with turbochargers and dual-clutch automatic transmissions, but won't be as involved in the process.

Confidence-inspiring brakes with plenty of stopping power join faster steering than the regular Yaris in making the three-door hatch an engaging proposition. There's a hint of supercharger whine and a blat from the exhaust as you cut through traffic, and better body control for mid-corner bumps than you'll find in ordinary hatchbacks. Equally, that uncompromising focus translates to sharp thumps through the cabin over broken surfaces, and a dull roar from the exhaust and Bridgestone sports tyres at highway speed. It feels like a classic Mini Cooper S - firm, raw and willing to be hustled.

The Yaris responds well when hustled.
The Yaris responds well when hustled.

Front-end push on our test suggests the Toyota isn't quite as sharp as the best in class (Ford's Fiesta ST and Peugeot's 208 GTI) when pressing on, even if it does have the advantage of a limited slip differential for better low-speed traction.

We tested the car in Brussels, where it costs a sharp €31,290 ($51,250) - just a little less than the cheapest Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. Then again, cars are expensive in Belgium, where a VW Golf GTI costs the equivalent of $63,000 on the road, about $25,000 more than the brand charges in Australia.

Pricing is academic, though, as the company has no plans to offer it on our shores.

For now, it remains an intriguing taste of what might come from a company that's eager to please driving enthusiasts.

More to come:

Gazoo Racing president Shigeki Tomoyama spoke with Australian reporters at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Toyota took its second overall victory on Sunday. He confirmed plans for a layered performance range to rival the likes of Mercedes-AMG, "a project which will be conducive to the transformation of Toyota".

Toyota's top performance car will be a Gazoo Racing Super Sports car modelled partly on the TS050 Hybrid race car crewed by the likes of Fernando Alonso at Le Mans, and partly on an upcoming "hypercar" racer set to debut in 2020.

The middle ground will be occupied by the new Supra, which may be joined by Gazoo Racing variants of popular models such as the Toyota Corolla and HiLux in years to come.

At the bottom end, dress-up kits along the lines of Toyota's old "Sportivo" moniker are likely to return.



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