TOYOTA HAVE REALLY tested the loyalties of its petrolhead enthusiasts. To be fair, this has been a bumper year for the country’s beloved marque thanks to a revitalised range and fun new whips such as the FJ Cruiser. But what’s really been missing and for far too long is a proper city racer. Where was the tweaked hatch to take on the new champions of its old urban stomping grounds such as the OPCs, RSs and GTIs? When would a new combatant rise from the ashes of RSIs and TRDs of the past? Well Toyota South Africa have heeded the call and endowed the bog standard Auris Sport X with the Toyota Racing Development stamp of approval and a centrifugal supercharger. The changes are substantial. Some are good, others simply not good enough.
Ho-bloody-hum. It’s a bog standard Auris Sport X on the outside with just three minor differentiators. A tiny TRD badge nestles below the Auris badge on the bootlid, a dark window tint has been applied to the greenhouse and finally, the body is hunkered down thanks to a Sportivo suspension upgrade. The rest of it is unchanged, typical Auris right down to those undersized alloy wheels. It’s somewhat disappointing, but to be fair, TRD is not a standalone division such as BMW’s M or even Mercedes-Benz’s AMG, rather a mild tuning and accessories arm for the Toyota company, acting as an extended options list when speccing your vehicle to your personal preferences. The standard white paint looks great though on a bodyshell that’s dated well since its SA release five years ago. Having said that, 18-inch alloys and a more aggressive air dam treatment or a visual clue on the bonnet alluding to that newly aspirated four pot heart would have done wonders, as would a deeper wing.
Oh dear, if you thought the exterior was unspectacular, wait until you climb inside. The cabin is untouched from the standard Sport X with not so much as a telltale TRD badge or sticker in sight. What you do get is a neat Japanese interior that is built to last, and features a plethora of modern conveniences such as air conditioning and USB/MP3 connectivity with a leather-bound steering wheel featuring controls for multimedia and Bluetooth sync.
At last! Toyota have heeded the call and blown their four-cylinder Auris engine to the tune of 133kW and 203Nm. It’s all been done in-house at their Durban plant, with aninitial run of 200 units. This is one of the first units to roll off the assembly line.My first time out in it went a bit like this. Flatten the clutch, floor the throttle, punch it into first gear, drop the clutch and go! ‘Uh, oh.’ There was no catapulting towards the horizon, nor being fired out of a shotgun. Just a laboured crawl to a premature redline of 6 400rpm and then no amount of snap shifting would save it from a puffy cloud of rev limiter. I pulled over immediately, popped the bonnet and confirmed that there was indeed a supercharger under the hood. Now, it’s not all bad news so let’s unpack what just happened. This car had done just 300km when I collected it, and just under 1 000km when I returned it. That’s still a very tightly wound engine, one that traditionally favours coastal conditions where the air is a lot easier to breathe. It’s Valvematic (improved VVT-I) system revs best beyond 5 000rpm, at which point it gets a second wind, but in this supercharged iteration, has the task of spinning up with the added weight of a supercharger’s belt in tow. There still is a notable increase in power and effervescence as we close in on that sweet spot. Problem. The original car’s red line of 6 400 has been retained. So you spend far too much time waiting for the power to come on song, and just when it does you hit a cushiony rev limiter necessitating a gear change once more which will send you out of that narrow usable power band. Bugger. And the noise! Why isn’t there any? The original car’s pipeworks has been left untouched so no aural pleasures here I’m afraid. It sprints to 100kph in 8.7 seconds, that’s around a second off the pace of a proper hot hatch.
There are other issues. Such as the fact that the donor car never benefited from (or needed) traction control, and none has since been fitted to this car. Also the standard brakes remain. Yet, at five in the morning questing towards the Cradle of Mankind along Kromdraai, something good happened. The cool crisp air and quiet roads with twisty cambers somehow energised both car and driver and there it was at last, a crisp engine note with a hint ofinduction rasp to it. The sporty suspension that felt compliant in the city, was here on these esses and circles endowed with gecko-like grip, if still very prone to understeer. The car was breathing easier too, and that infernal redline just got easier and quicker to nail each time. Approach a remote traffic circle in fourth gear and pile into the standard stoppers and you’ll scrub off enough speed to require second gear from the manual six-speed transmission. It’s a neat transition between cogs. Keep wide then pitch it right to trace an arc that kisses the inside radius then pour on the throttle and let the predictable flow of understeer send you wide to exit cleanly into the left lane. It’s as flat as a pancake and some protestation from the tyres is the only sign that the car misses electronic restraint on those front wheels. Do this too many times, however, and when you eventually come to a stop you’ll do so amidst plumes of smoke from the brake discs. Not an ideal situation, really.
Toyota South Africa want the TRD badge to work. They really do, I’ve seen their dedication and optimism and I’m afraid public reception to this TRD will mostly dampen their spirits. It shouldn’t though, if they consider this car as a test bed for ongoing TRD projects. Once the car has gone through some more refinement and development it could be a proper little fighter, especially at the coast. As soon as a model with more kilometres on its odometer is availed in the Cape where we do our testing traditionally, we’ll be happy to revaluate it alongside some of its rivals such as the VW Polo GTI.
Don’t be disheartened, though, dear Toyota hot hatch enthusiast, you asked for cut and thrust but you got copy and paste. Having said that, this car is just a brake, exhaust and engine mapping upgrade away from greatness. And for heaven’s sake Toyota SA, chuck in a pair of signature alloys and maybe two or three more TRD badges. Interestingly, its biggest rival might ultimately come from its own stable as the company’s new ‘86’ (Hachi Roku) sports car is set to hit South Africa in 2012, a car that challenges hot hatches in totality