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Humdrum Yaris is transformed into a rorting, snorting supercharged hot hatch

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'Gazoo Racing tuned by the Meister of Nürburgring'. That’s the rather convoluted meaning of that four-letter initialism affixed to the back of this particular Toyota Yaris – the subject of this week’s road test.

Bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Say it a couple of times and you’ll soon appreciate why the ‘GRMN’ badging is necessary, even if it doesn’t particularly roll off the tongue 
any more easily.

The Yaris isn’t the only car that will receive the GRMN treatment. We’re looking forward to this badge appearing on other Toyotas in future.

Motorsport fans will have come across the Gazoo Racing name before. Originally, it was one of a number of in-house racing teams operated by Toyota – running alongside the likes of Toyota Racing and Lexus Racing – and made its debut in the 2007 Nürburgring 24 Hours race with a pair of used Altezzas. However, in 2015, the teams were merged to form Toyota Gazoo Racing, which now competes in both the World Endurance Championship (WEC) and the World Rally Championship (WRC).

This realignment of Toyota’s racing teams is apparently born out of a desire within the company to reposition motorsport as a key element in 
the development of its future 
road cars. Which, from the perspective of keen drivers, 
can only be a good thing.

Regardless of what your thoughts might be on the nomenclature, it’s clear that the Yaris GRMN is a serious car for Toyota – a company whose name hasn’t exactly been a byword for driver excitement or entertainment in recent years. It marks the firm’s return to the hot hatch market and is intended to be a bridge between the rally-winning Yaris WRC car and the humble, standard hatch.

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It’s also the first in a series of limited-run GRMN-badged performance cars that Toyota will offer to European customers, and they will all be developed and honed at the Nürburgring.

With the new Supra just around the corner – it was previewed earlier this month at the 2018 Geneva motor show by the GR Supra Racing Concept – could the Yaris GRMN be the harbinger of a more exciting, hardcore Toyota? 
Let’s find out.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota Yaris GRMN on the road rear

The Yaris GRMN is different from most hot hatchbacks of its size, chiefly by virtue of the fact that it has a 1.8-litre four-cylinder 2ZR-FE engine – tuned by Lotus – that is supercharged as opposed to turbocharged.

It’s a Magnuson Eaton rotor-type supercharger and intercooler system that, in conjunction with a heavy-duty fuel injection system usually found on Toyota’s V6 engines and a larger air intake, allows for peak power and torque figures of 209bhp at 6800rpm and 184lb ft at 4800rpm.

I’m no real fan of those Gazoo Racing decals. For me, they don’t quite do enough to make the link to the World Rally Championship car. Thankfully, you can have them removed as a no-cost option.

This considerable output is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox, as well as a Torsen limited-slip differential. Five years ago, a limited-slip diff would have been a rare sight in this class, but it’s becoming increasingly common.

At 
a little less than four metres in length, the Yaris GRMN is small even by supermini standards, so fitting that supercharger in the engine bay along with the 1.8-litre four-pot required the induction system to be packaged in a compact single stack unit on the front of the engine along with the cooling unit and air intake.

As with the powertrain, the Yaris’s chassis has also been subjected to extensive changes. A lateral brace across the front suspension towers provides essential strengthening and a front anti-roll bar that’s 26mm in diameter has been introduced. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension arrangements are fitted with Sachs Performance dampers, and shorter springs contribute to a 24mm reduction in ride height over the standard car – key to lowering the tall Yaris’s centre of gravity. Has it been lowered by enough to turn this into a really compelling driver’s car, though? We will see. Improved stopping power comes courtesy of disc brakes front and rear.

A rear spoiler, central tailpipe, rear diffuser, 17in BBS alloy wheels and garish red and black decals help complete the transformation from bog-standard Yaris to aggressive and outlandish GRMN specification.

The car comes in one colour scheme, and this is it. It’s a niche look, for sure. It’s more hardcore and overtly aggressive than other hot superminis, but it’s alluringly geeky and cultish and it clearly conveys Toyota’s desire for 
its performance credentials to be taken seriously.

INTERIOR

Toyota Yaris GRMN cabin

The standard Toyota Yaris has never been applauded for the material quality of its cabin and the GRMN continues this trend. The dashboard is constructed from dark, dull plastics that lend the interior a plain and slightly low-rent ambience that is both dated and at odds with the car’s hefty £26,295 price.

Ultimately, though, the no-frills approach means there’s less to distract you from the task at hand – the driving. And since it suggests that almost every shred of the car’s budget has been spent on making that driving experience more exciting, you might even quite like the cabin treatment.

The GR-badged starter button causes the Yaris to fire up with a raspy bark, but it's one of only a few interior design features that mark this car out as something special.

A set of rather excellent-looking Alcantara bucket seats are the most noticeable addition. Although firm, they’re plenty supportive and hamstrung only 
by the fact that they are plainly 
fitted too high for an ideal driving position.

The GT86-derived steering wheel – or, more precisely, the car’s steering column – suffers from similar ergonomic problems, here not quite providing enough in the way of adjustability for reach. The sports pedals look the part, but they’re not ideally placed for heel-and-toe gearchanges.

The Yaris GRMN makes use of a 7.0in Toyota Touch 2 infotainment system that incorporates features such as satellite navigation, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB smartphone connectivity. It’s by no means an outstanding system, being graphically quite basic and not as responsive as units offered by rival manufacturers. Nevertheless, it is at least fairly easy to navigate and operate.

Unlike an increasing number of other car firms, Toyota has refrained from incorporating all of the infotainment system controls within the touchscreen and has instead left physical shortcut buttons around its edges. They’re not particularly tactile, but their presence makes navigating through the system’s numerous sub-menus far easier when you’re on the move.

The six-speaker sound system doesn’t sound great, getting tinny and a touch distorted at higher volumes. With such an interesting soundtrack from the engine, though, this is unlikely to bother owners much.

The provision of space in the front is good, with the Yaris’s taller roofline making for plenty of head room. As a strict three-door, however, the backseats may prove to be a touch too tight for adult passengers to truly sit comfortably on anything other than a short trip to the shops. Still, it’s worth noting that, at 650mm, the Yaris GRMN does provide more in the way of rear leg room than a Mini Cooper S Works 210 and Peugeot 208 GTi, which offer 640mm and 620mm respectively.

As for boot capacity, the Toyota has 286 litres of space, again outdoing both the Mini (278 litres) and Peugeot (285 litres).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Toyota Yaris GRMN cornering

That supercharger lends the Yaris GRMN a completely different character from the turbocharged majority in the hot supermini class. Not only is it down on torque compared with the likes of the Cooper S 210 Works and Peugeot 208 GTi 30th (which both offer 221lb ft) but it’s also more of a challenge to access what twisting power it does have considering it’s only available up at almost 5000rpm.

There’s a genuine need to really work the six-speed manual gearbox to keep the crankshaft spinning at its sweet spot, then. But because it’s a slick-shifting and precise ’box, and one that handles fast shifts easily 
and feels well capable of standing 
up to tough track-day abuse, this 
is a real labour of love. In fact, that 
the Yaris GRMN makes you sing 
for your accelerative supper only serves to further cement its positioning as one of the more involving hot hatches around.

I love the shift quality of the six-speed gearbox; the harder you treat it, the better it gets. It’ll take full-bore ‘powershifts’ (where you don’t lift off the accelerator between changes) without the slightest balk.

That torque deficit doesn’t mean the Yaris is slow off the line, either. The performance figures we recorded on a drying track show a 0-60mph time of 6.4sec, which is one-tenth faster than the Peugeot and eight-tenths quicker than the Mini (which was, admittedly, timed in more slippery conditions). From 30mph to 70mph, the Yaris GRMN was also superior, clocking 5.4sec next to 5.8sec for the Peugeot and 6.0sec 
for the Mini.

It’s not the easiest car to get off the line quickly, though. There’s not as much mechanical grip here as you’ll find in some fast front-drivers, so you need to be sensitive with your throttle inputs in first and second gears. Get it right and you’ll be greeted by not only some seriously quick acceleration but also a properly intoxicating engine note. It’s a fairly harsh, unreconstructed-sounding engine, but its waspish and angry timbre complements this hot Yaris’s hardcore character very well and 
it is far preferable to the sonic fakery that often accompanies turbocharged motors.

Disc brakes (ventilated at the front and solid at the rear) provide the Yaris GRMN with plenty of stopping power too. Stamp on the middle pedal and the 1135kg supermini will come to a halt from 60mph in 2.89sec. Again, this betters the Mini and Peugeot.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Yaris GRMN on the road side

The Toyota Yaris has always been quite a tall car, so the uprated suspension is made to work harder than most to properly contain body roll. Even with all of the tuning and stiffening that has gone in, the GRMN model still feels noticeably top heavy compared with many of its rivals.

This is especially so when the car is subjected to quick changes in direction, where you can feel the body’s weight shift along its longitudinal axis before it settles on its outside wheels. There’s also little in the way of provocation needed to exceed the limits of the front tyres’ grip mid-corner.

Off-camber corners require some caution because they emphasise the car’s higher centre of gravity.

Not only does the firmed-up suspension struggle to cope with keeping the Toyota’s taller structure in check, but it also leaves the car with a particularly firm, uncompromising ride that isn’t supple or fluent enough to deal well with bumpier surfaces. There’s a savage side to the car’s damping that makes the axles struggle to deal with bigger, sharper inputs and makes the low-speed ride somewhat unforgiving, so you’d have to be particularly committed to the idea to use the car as your everyday driver.

As with the powertrain, the steering requires a bit of exertion to get the most out of it. The gearing is slow just off centre – quite possibly a legacy of the regular Yaris, because that would have made it feel more stable at speed – so a bit of wrestling with the wheel is necessary in order to get the car to turn in with any proper urgency. Much more, at any rate, than has become typical of the fast supermini breed. This results 
in a steering set-up that, although nicely weighted and suitably feelsome, just doesn’t seem as quick as its 2.28 turns from lock to lock suggest it should.

Driving the Yaris GRMN hard is an endeavour that requires more forethought and commitment than most cars of its kind demand. You need to think hard about your gear selection prior to entering a corner, since you won’t be able to rely on any real low-down shove on the exit. This demands a disciplined driving style that some will embrace about the car. But it accentuates the need for heel-and-toe braking to keep the engine at its sweet spot, and the spaced-out positioning of the pedals does mean there’s a need for considerable ankle rotation to execute such a manoeuvre cleanly.

Couple this with the need to wrestle the Yaris GRMN’s nose into bends, all while being sure to keep the front tyres within their limits of grip, and the Toyota proves to be quite a challenge to drive quickly. It’s a superbly involving car, definitely. But it certainly doesn’t make life easy for you.

So despite the apparently considerable work that has gone in to making this a properly focused driver’s hot hatch, the Yaris GRMN just isn’t quite as incisive or agile in its handling as you expect it to be and it doesn’t quite work as well, on the road, as it might have.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Even if you were willing to meet the £26,295 asking price, you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on a Yaris GRMN – at least on the new car market. All 80 examples bound for the UK have already been snapped up. In fact, of the 400 cars that were destined for Europe, most countries sold their allocations within 72 hours of order books opening.

Those select few who managed to secure one will get a car that isn’t exactly brimming with standard equipment – much as they might care. Sure, there are all the performance-oriented trimmings – sports seats, bodykit, 17in alloy wheels and so on – but your traditional mod cons are thin on the ground. There’s no cruise control of any sort, the seats aren’t heated and although there is an infotainment system, it’s a long way from being a particularly good one.

Despite its limited production run, the Yaris GRMN isn’t forecast to hold its value as well as some European rivals.

The car’s thirsty, too. Over the course of our testing, it was exposed to both lengthier motorway trips and heavy-footed track driving, recording a total test fuel consumption figure of 27.4mpg. By comparison, the Cooper S Works 210 managed 30.6mpg.

As for depreciation, Peugeot both a 208 GTi and the Mini are forecast to perform better than the Toyota. Despite its limited production run, the Yaris GRMN is expected to retain only 39% of its value after 36,000 miles and three years of ownership.

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VERDICT

Toyota Yaris GRMN static

Gazoo Racing’s alternative and old-school formula for a hot supermini, applied to a car as ill-suited to the purpose as the Toyota Yaris, hasn’t resulted in the most effective of performance hatchbacks – but there’s still plenty on which to commend this feral little car.

That supercharged engine is unique in the segment and the requirement to work it hard goes a long way towards making this one of the more rewarding driving experiences in this class. There’s character in spades, thanks to its genuine eagerness to rev and an addictive soundtrack. And it makes the Yaris GRMN a properly quick hot hatch.

An engaging hot hatch with a rewarding powertrain but dynamic flaws.

Given Toyota’s apparent intention to pitch this as a car that puts its driving experience above everything else – think no-frills interior and aggressive exterior – it’s a pity that the chassis isn’t as responsive or rewarding as that powertrain. The Yaris GRMN is certainly an involving car to drive quickly, but next to rivals that are sharper, keener and ultimately more composed – Peugeot not to mention cheaper – it falls short in key areas.

As a statement of intent for Gazoo Racing’s future models, however, it’s highly promising.

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Toyota Yaris GRMN 2017-2018 First drives