Hardcore. A Noun: the most active, committed, doctrinaire members of a group. Sounds like us, and many of you for that matter, given our respective and complementary allegiances to evo.
Committed, that is, to a movement that places driving enjoyment at the very top of the list, and a predilection for cars that aren’t especially bothered with the monotony of the everyday. And just like us, you may feel our movement is under threat, given it’s struggling for compatibility with the equally committed doctrines of the anti-speed lobby, environmentalism, electrification, and that term – and I’m sorry to mention it in this company – ‘autonomous driving’. Shudder.
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Thankfully, despite all this, hardcore cars still exist. They come in many different forms, and at many different price points; hardcore as a fundamental quality can be found just as much in a screen-free Caterham Seven SuperSprint as it can in a McLaren Senna. After all, it’s as much about what is left out as it is about what is put in.
Joining the M1 for a long slog north in mercifully snow-free conditions, the Mercedes-AMG GT R has already convinced me of its hardcore credentials. Convinced, I should say, with the sort of unyielding, insistent and emphatically persuasive manner you might experience from an embrace of gratitude from Vinnie Jones, just after you’ve rescued his beloved pet Jack Russell terrier from the approaching wheels of a reversing lorry. Well meant, jovial even, but with an underlying sense of menace all the same.
To be honest, so far I don’t quite know what to make of the GT R. There’s a trend for modern supercars to be increasingly easy to drive, hiding their full talents – and often, therefore, their personality – under an invisible electronic safety net. But even though the GT R has all those advanced systems at its disposal, it feels bewilderingly alien initially, and I’m desperately intrigued to get under its skin.
There are the physical dimensions for starters. A vast expanse of bonnet gently rising and falling like the Chiltern Hills, the worrying width, a cosy interior (although certainly not cramped) and cartoonish proportions. The manually adjusted AMG bucket seat clamps the waist, and thrusts your shoulders forward so that there’s little choice but to have the flat-bottomed Alcantara wheel close to the chest, inputs derived from the elbows, not the shoulders. If only there was a giant meat cleaver of a sequential push-pull gearlever sprouting from the centre console, rather than the somewhat apologetic steering-wheel paddles. That broad centre console instead features plenty of switchgear, some of it rather awkwardly sited behind my reach thanks to the uncompromising seat. Most of the buttons – including the driver modes – will be familiar to anyone who owns a modern AMG, or Mercedes come to that.
There are other factors at work here, too. The steering is extremely fast, and so my inputs are overkeen at first, the R darting nervously onto unwanted tangents, exaggerated by awkward cambers. The ride is firm, although in the softest setting not overly so, but sitting nearly on top of the rear axle exacerbates the sense of movement over poor surfaces. It also sends the driver a priority-tagged email written in capitals regarding the rear tyres’ intentions, and while it’s hovering around 5deg C at the moment, what it’s saying about the sudden manner in which the Michelin Cup 2s are relinquishing their grip sends my heart rate soaring. The snap of frequent oversteer has all the progressiveness of a hungry alligator.
So the GT R feels emphatically hardcore. Yet as I’ve already said, hardcore can come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s much more to this trip than just getting to know the GT R. Somewhere else on the M1, bobbing along at high speed, heading north with a constant, droning, metallic zing, is a perky, feisty little hot hatch, fizzing with energy and adorned with go-faster stripes. I know evo’s James Disdale is – as am I – a very big fan of the Toyota Yaris GRMN, but will he still be after four hours of the M1?
There is a plan in place. Inspired by some glorious magazine features over the past three decades that pitted supercar against hot hatch, we want to take our unlikely pairing on a road trip that exposes their strengths and weaknesses, relative to each other, in different environments. Day one is the Moors. Day two is the Dales. Although, in theory, the AMG and Toyota share so little, they’re also examples of cars that put the driver very firmly at the centre of their existence – cars that we want to celebrate.
Before we start, though, it’s time for fuel, and then a car wash to keep photographic maestro Gus Gregory happy. The GT R doesn’t need fuelling that often, but when it does it makes wallets spontaneously combust; the GRMN is disarmingly light on the wallet, but a far more frequent visitor – as we shall see.
Dizzy doesn’t seem too fatigued after the drive up. ‘It’s clear that the Yaris has been developed by a team of dedicated car nuts,’ he notes enthusiastically, before heading off in search of the first of many cups of tea that punctuate his average day.
Day one is advantage R, and the AMG runs amok on the expansive, wild, North York Moors, its wide-set LED headlamps the eyes of a beast on the prowl with a gruesome appetite to munch on small Japanese hatchbacks. The little Toyota soon learns to keep its distance, for it predictably has no answer to the AMG’s 577bhp, even though with 209bhp propelling just 1135kg its power-to-weight ratio is better than a classic Impreza Turbo’s. In a Yaris. A Yaris, people.
Initially, I was sceptical whether the ‘hot-V’ 4-litre AMG V8 would have the depth of character to really blossom in a supercar. No one could ever doubt what a brilliant engine this is, but when essentially the same motor – complete with savage bent-eight soundtrack – can be enjoyed in a ‘small’ saloon at half the price, would it offer enough extra ‘something’ to really captivate the soul? In a word, yes. And then some. From the moment it rips into life, to its shuddering idle akin to a cross-channel ferry about to leave port, the V8 is a constant presence, breathing hard through its twin induction tubes and blasting out hot gases through its triple tailpipes, spitting and crackling on the overrun. Throttle response is so sharp it seems impossible that this car is turbocharged at all, a feeling compounded by the rich soundtrack that has the demonic blare of a late-1960s Trans Am racer. There’s something about the routing and design of the part-titanium exhaust that makes it sound as though there’s a fat, unsilenced side-exit pipe emerging from under the driver’s door.
Nevertheless, while there’s exhilaration in all this for the GT R driver, so much of the sensation is of a cramping self-restraint, for it would be ludicrously easy, so criminally indulgent, to point that long nose at the horizon and hold the rightmost pedal to the carpet. I can just feel that 150mph cruise, the vision of Whitby Abbey out on the far cliff suddenly appearing as we crest the brow. Of course, I don’t, and so the GT R is restricted to the occasional stabs of angry, V8-induced violence, ripping entire car lengths from the Yaris.
After a morning in the GT R, the GRMN feels upright and drastically ordinary, its suspension surprisingly compliant. Just for a split second I question our decision to bring the Toyota along…
Scratch that thought. As we’ve said on a number of occasions, the driving position is far too high, the ergonomics and general ambience are decidedly low-rent (not that the last point bothers me much), and I would mention the price if they hadn’t already sold out. What does instantly appeal, though, is how small the car is overall – an attribute that is priceless on the kind of roads we’ll be driving on tomorrow, but which is also not without appeal today. The GRMN driver has a multitude of cornering lines available through any given corner; the GT R driver usually has one: simply keeping the car between the verge and the white line.
That adds another layer of discovery to the GRMN experience, and I’m not sure I’m enjoying it any less than I did the GT R. It’s a properly quick little thing, too, and while the brakes look tiny, the upgraded calipers and J-hook discs have fine stamina and pedal feel. Combine that with a wonderful sharpness of response from the supercharged engine and you’re in heel-and-toe heaven.
We decide to transit across to the Yorkshire Dales late afternoon, and having suffered 45mph Britain we reach our evening photo location with seconds to spare. As the sun drops below the highest peaks, so it’s time to break for our rural digs for the night. I lead in the GT R, with the Yaris tucked in behind, and our route consists mainly of a trench-like road that snakes viciously between high walls. I am beginning to feel comfortable in the GT R; the secret is to block out all the drama and keep everything calm. A steering adjustment can sometimes be as small as a squeeze of pressure in one hand, for that’s enough to get the long nose to subtly change direction. Along this road, and with dusk rapidly morphing into night, it’s like threading a giant V8-powered needle: an all-consumingly exhilarating mental task. I keep my focus, trusting in the car, in its grip, in its feedback.
The GT R has everything from spherical suspension joints and rear-wheel steering, to active aerodynamics and an air management system, and while I couldn’t honestly say whether the aero is contributing to the R’s fantastic stability at speed, I can really feel how agile the car is on turn-in. At 1555kg it’s no lightweight, but it’s clear the carbon and magnesium in the structure has helped keep mass to a minimum; it’s a big car with a lot of tech, so that figure (15kg lighter than a GT S) starts to look fairly impressive. It can’t shake off the GRMN, though, the Toyota surely in its element on this road, although given its perilously low fuel level I’m surprised Dizzy hasn’t backed off. It must be hurting using all those revs to keep up, but he clearly can’t resist the temptation. Neither would you.
As the first shafts of pale but persistent sunlight illuminate a stunning Dales vista all around our hotel, so the after effect of Disdale’s commitment last night becomes clear. The Yaris fires with a raspy, agitated cold-start routine, exhaling deeply through its tiny central pipe, but the one-mile range promised to us over a beer last night is now a series of dashes on the primitive TFT display. Ahhh.
No need to worry: we’re within walking distance of a quaint little rural petrol station, a perfect, albeit coincidental, bit of planning on evo’s part. Or rather it would be if that garage hadn’t run dry, which is how I come to be short-shifting in the Yaris, desperately eking out the last dregs to get us to the next village and an even smaller fuel station.
This is totally counterintuitive, because right from the off the GRMN begs to be driven flat out, connecting in a way that’s hard to reconcile with mere numbers, or even logical thought. But the more I mull it over, the more it feels to me to be centred on the drivetrain; a realisation, perhaps, that the great hot hatches haven’t just been about chassis dynamics, or lap times, or raw performance statistics, but about an indefinable spirit that envelops you the moment you slam the (often tinny) door behind you.
Yesterday’s action was just a preliminary skirmish, it’s today that we’ll really discover what our cars have to offer, with a route that takes in some of the most beautiful but challenging roads I know, not just in the UK, but anywhere.
The Toyota’s supercharged motor begs to be taken to the red line, then a snap of a gearshift – so delicate, yet precise – and the process begins all over again. Demanding unique gearing for the Yaris was a masterstroke on the part of the Gazoo Racing team that developed the car, because having that frenzied sprinting character at real-world speeds is so crucial in a hot hatch – and its omission the undermining of so many currently on the market.
I glance in the mirror and the GT R’s gaping frontage all but fills it, but I can’t resist a smirk. I know what’s coming next, and it isn’t pretty: about five miles of rollercoaster road, enough to have the front splitter of any supercar flying off into the undergrowth within seconds. Surely Dizzy will have to back off.
The smirk soon fades. I thought the GRMN would dance balletically across these roads, but over the worst of the compressions and jumps it’s using an awful lot of its damper travel. A couple of times it even hits the bump-stops, which is a bit unnerving. I have no choice but to ratchet back the commitment a tad, and while the inherent agility of the car means it can pull a few lengths out when faced with, say, a sudden S-bend through a narrowing humpback bridge, or any similar challenge, it can never fully break free from the Merc.
When we stop for photography it’s soon clear why. Disdale has that look of a man who’s just discovered a new love. ‘There’s so much composure when you put the dampers in Sport; it’s got much more control then,’ he gushes of the Merc. ‘You can really point it into corners and then feed in the power, feeling the tail step out just a fraction on the exit – not sideways, just a natural movement. It’s so effective, so controlled.’
This wasn’t in the script. Yesterday was Big Car Day, today is supposed to be Small Car Day. No one has told the AMG that, clearly. A development based at the Nürburgring is one of many things that connect these two cars, but it’s the GT R that rises to what is, unbelievably, this even greater challenge.
Only when we turn off ‘that’ road and onto a narrower, equally immersive route does the Yaris pull away. Now the stone walls are really close in, and it’s not just the radii of the corners, but the sudden elevation changes that really make it feel claustrophobic. The Merc does well, but on this road it’s the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. You’d be mad to try to hang on to the GRMN in it here. Thankfully, Dizzy isn’t mad, and hence I find I’m sailing on alone in the Yaris.
I’ve been overdriving this car. With such a keen engine and focused demeanour that’s the initial temptation, every time, but the epiphany is recognising that the Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres just don’t offer the initial crispness of turn-in perhaps expected. Combine this with a steering rack that doesn’t really build any natural weight and I’m inducing understeer and also exaggerating the sense of body roll by being overly aggressive. And so I calm down, finesse my inputs, and the Yaris really clicks. Its limited-slip differential is so effective, finding extraordinary traction, and I’m then immersed in a whirl of blipped downchanges, the nip and tuck through corners, the rasp of the exhaust – driving just for enjoyment.
I don’t think either of us wants the driving to end, but it must, and the long drive south is inescapable. I knew I’d love the Yaris GRMN, and it hasn’t disappointed. OK, so it’s an expensive, flawed car on a number of levels, but it’s also a car able to induce a genuine smile any time and almost anywhere, and as such I emphatically believe it’s a real tonic for our times. Even so, it’s the GT R that has been the biggest surprise – and possibly impressed me even more. Not because of its ferocious performance – that’s a given – but because it possesses a rich seam of ability that transcends the obvious hardcore attributes you’d expect in a car like this.
I leave the exhaust ‘on’ the whole way home. Silly really, but the combination of that constant thudding blat of a noise, the long bonnet and the piercing arc of the headlamps illuminating the trees has me – despite lacking two cylinders, clearly – imagining I’m in an Oreca Viper GTS-R at Le Mans in 1999. I’m lost in my own world, just me and the GT R.
Maybe that’s the real point here: hardcore is a focus that bequeaths a certain purity where nothing else matters, whether it’s a dash to the shops in a Yaris GRMN or a night-time mission in a GT R. It’s all about the driving.
Toyota Yaris GRMN
|Engine||In-line 4-cyl, 1798cc, supercharger|
|Power||209bhp @ 6800rpm|
|Torque||184lb ft @ 5000rpm|
|Top speed||143mph (limited)|
|Basic price||£26,295 (sold out)|
Mercedes-AMG GT R
|Engine||V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo|
|Power||577bhp @ 6250rpm|
|Torque||516lb ft @ 1900-5500rpm|
|Top speed||198mph (claimed)|