By what we can only imagine was a cosmically ordained coincidence, we drove the Toyota Yaris GRMN the same week that the Toyota Gazoo Racing team won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time. Given that GRMN stands for Gazoo Racing Masters of the Nürburgring—verbose branding that we’re assured will spread to other performance Toyota products—there’s obviously some connection between the mighty TS050 LMP1 car and this subcompact performance hatchback.
Sold exclusively in Europe and limited to just 400 units, the Yaris GRMN is an attempt by Toyota to prove that it can make a hot hatch. It’s a parts-bin special in the finest tradition of such things, having been drawn from a mishmash of genetic material that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. The body is the standard two-door version of the base-spec Yaris, augmented with the sort of angular graphics that bring to mind the late 1980s. Power comes from a supercharged version of Toyota’s 1.8-liter inline-four, which Lotus has tuned to produce 209 horsepower, slightly less than it does in the Elise. Torque is sent to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and a Torsen limited-slip differential.
Although far from perfect, the GRMN is overflowing with character. Indeed, we’d struggle to nominate a better way to experience some of the narrow and twisty British roads we drove it on. The combination of a small car and a powerful engine is hard to grow tired of, and the supercharged four suits the Yaris’s always enthusiastic nature extremely well. Toyota’s claimed 6.4-second zero-to-62-mph time is well within the frame of reference for Europe’s brawnier hot hatches, but the GRMN feels quicker than almost all of its turbocharged rivals thanks to the immediacy with which the supercharged engine responds, without any of the lag or top-end tightness that many of them exhibit. This Yaris pulls cleanly from idle to its 7000-rpm redline, with harder use rewarded by some endearingly angry noises from the center-exit exhaust.
We Got It Wet
Grip is more of an issue, but in a good way, as the GRMN’s chassis fights hard to deliver those horses in some kind of order. The chassis tuning has been dialed up substantially compared to the stock European Yaris, with 60 percent stiffer springs, Sachs Performance dampers, and a thicker front anti-roll bar. Ride quality is pretty reasonable for something so low and firmly suspended. Despite its 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050A rubber, though, the Yaris struggles for traction, exhibiting torque steer over bumps and the potential for lurid understeer in tighter corners. The limited-slip diff helps out in faster turns, especially in the rainy conditions we saw. (British rain also gave us an opportunity to experience the novelty of the Yaris’s single wiper arm, which attempts to overcome its deficiency in swept surface area by operating at a maniacal speed.)
But the GRMN’s most likable characteristic is that it feels exciting even when it is not being driven hard. The steering has a faster rack than the standard Yaris, and although the weight of the electrically assisted system is a little light for our tastes, it delivers both impressive accuracy and discernible feedback. The brake pedal was similarly lacking in resistance in routine driving but felt better under the harder use the car encourages. The manual transmission has a short, slick action, but the overall gearing seems too high; we’d gladly have traded some of the quiet cruising ability given by the tall sixth gear—which has the engine turning only about 2400 rpm at 60 mph—for a more tightly stacked set of ratios to make more of the engine’s enthusiasm for revs.
And while the rawness of the driving experience is key to the GRMN’s charm, the rest of the Yaris remains basic to the point of austerity, with hard, scratchy plastics; an unintuitive touchscreen interface; and an audio system that struggles to make itself heard in the buzzy cabin. Huggy microfiber-upholstered seats and a nice-feeling leather-wrapped steering wheel are pretty much all that distinguish the GRMN’s cabin from that of the basic Yaris 1.0-liter three-cylinder that costs less than half as much.
The Pricing Rules You’ve Got to Follow
The GRMN’s limited-run status is underpinned by some very serious pricing. That’s because of the cost of parts and development against the low production volume and also because Lotus has demanded a chunky premium for use of its version of Toyota’s own engine. But at roughly $29,000 in the United Kingdom—before the Queen’s mandatory 20 percent—there’s no denying this is an expensive Yaris, even given Europe’s tolerance for higher prices. The good news is that we’re promised more GRMN models to come, some of which will reach the United States—and we’re told that they will be much more affordable.