Malaysia’s obsession with speed and sporty looks is both fascinating and perplexing at the same time. Kilometres per hour is talked about in the same breath as kilometres per litre, a legacy of our long, smooth highways and lack of speed limit enforcement. But despite a faster vehicle being naturally more capable of higher velocities, our market is simply not interested in sports cars or performance parts.

Perhaps high taxes and price creep have pushed even mildly hot hatches beyond the reach of most Malaysians. Or maybe we’re too in love with our sedans and SUVs to trade them in for something smaller but quicker. But the most plausible reason is that the average local car buyer just wants the most flash for their cash. Why buy a fast car or tune a normal one up when you can look the part with less effort?

That’s why a bodykit is de rigueur these days. Spend just ten minutes observing vehicles on the road and you’ll find an assortment of plastic or fibreglass appendages in varying levels of quality and obscenity. And I’d argue that the car that started the trend was not the king-of-the-road Perodua Myvi, but the progenitor of the all-mouth-no-trousers mobile for young upstarts – the Toyota Vios TRD Sportivo. The three letters may stand for Toyota Racing Development, but in our world they might as well be short for Taipan Racing Design.

Nowadays, practically every Vios leaves the factory with an aerokit attached, so there’s a new sheriff in town – the Vios GR Sport. It carries a Le Mans-winning name and even features some “performance upgrades”, but in true Malaysian fashion the engine has been left well alone. Will it capture hearts and minds once again? Of course it will. Does it have the bite to match its bark? Now you’re asking the right questions.

Le Mans-winning name, local mods

After some initial difficulty, Toyota’s Gazoo Racing arm is earning some serious kudos, thanks to a brace of consecutive Le Mans wins and back-to-back WRC titles. The reverence surrounding the brand is being bolstered by proper high-performance road cars like the GR Supra, GR 86 and, most impressively, the GR Yaris – the latter proving that the company can build its own world-beating über hatch in-house.

All three will be sold in Malaysia at some point (two of them already are), but even though more and more GR Yarises are popping up in places like Telawi, the fact of the matter is that these cars will only ever be available in limited units and are priced well beyond what the typical Malaysian buyer is able to stomach.

That’s where the GR Sport badge comes in, fitted to cars that look the business but still perform like the standard versions. Think of its as BMW’s M Sport package but for mainstream Toyotas. The moniker has also been green-lighted for regional use, which is why UMW Toyota Motor has been able to create its own version for the Vios with unique styling, drivetrain and suspension tweaks.

All this makes the GR Sport the most expensive Vios on sale in Malaysia. At RM95,294, the car is nearly RM8,000 more expensive than the regular 1.5G, which shares almost exactly the same specs (and, if you ask your dealer nicely, can probably be had with a bodykit for free). You’re paying for the badge, a slightly sportier driving experience and looks that will draw those eyeballs at a kopitiam.

Race-inspired garnish on an already sporty-looking dish

And let’s be honest – looks are what you’re here for. A standard Vios with a bodykit is already an assertive-looking machine, but the GR Sport turns it up to 11. The large fake corner air intakes and jutting chin spoiler go well with the new downturned lower grille (replacing the hideously massive grin of the pre-facelifted model) and standard-fit LED headlights, offering more than a passing resemblance to the GR Yaris.

The dark chrome bar between the upper and lower grilles is a curious addition, but it weirdly ties the car together, adding a hint of premium-ness to the design. I’m not a fan of the black door handles, however, preferring the cleaner look of the body-coloured versions. The deep side skirts continue the sporty theme and carry the all-important “10 Speed” badges – more on that later.

If the front and sides are a (mostly) attractive affair, the rear end disappoints. I’ve never liked the Vios’ large taillights; combine them with the black bootlid spoiler and comically-oversized bumper “moustache” and the result is some serious visual clutter, making the car look very heavy from the back. Still, I do like the smattering of GR badges around the car, even if the links to Toyota’s motorsport efforts are tenuous at best.

Despite measuring a massive 17 inches in diameter, the GR Sport’s multi-spoke wheels don’t look much larger than the E- and G-spec’s 16s and look a little lost under the Vios’ relatively tall body. Perhaps it’s the full black finish, which at the very least adds to the car’s aggressive aesthetic, although a machined two-tone look would’ve worked a little better to my eyes. But to each their own, I suppose.

Dated interior, minor frustrations

Step inside and you can really tell that Toyota is using a near-decade-old design for the Vios. Although the cabin has changed massively in the intervening years, the basic layout remains identical, and truth be told, it’s starting to look a little tired. Mind you, this is still a solid interior – it’s all hard plastics, sure, but they are of a higher quality than you’d find in a Honda City and feel better screwed together.

But the B-segment is of a different caliber to what it was nine years ago. Aside from the new City, you also have the impressive new Nissan Almera and even an SUV alternative, the likeable Proton X50. All of them come with sleeker, more modern interiors, large screens and some soft-touch dashboard trim, complete with real stitching – the Vios’ fake stitching on hard plastic looks especially foul in comparison.

The car also suffers from a number of usability issues, such as the lack of a passenger-side door unlock button for the keyless entry system and the doors themselves that are too heavy for their stays (they can swing right into the side of another car if you’re not careful). You’ve also got a tilt-only steering wheel that sits too low and too far forward, an overly-reflective instrument cluster lens and a slightly flimsy armrest cover.

Most annoying is the (admittedly useful) 360-degree camera system, which at low speeds pops up a forward-facing (not rearwards like on Honda’s LaneWatch) view of the car’s sides when the indicators are on, completely hogging the infotainment display. To be fair, this list, while long, is fairly minor and most drivers – especially new ones – will either not notice these faults or won’t be too fussed.

Ample toys, impressive safety

There are, of course, some good bits. The seats are very comfortable and are upholstered in plush leather-and-suede upholstery on the GR Sport, and while the displays are a little small by today’s standards, the seven-inch central touchscreen does support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The 4.2-inch multi-info display, meanwhile, fits a wealth of useful info into its relatively dinky frame.

The GR Sport also comes with all the toys that buyers will love, such as automatic air-conditioning, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and a front dash cam. You also get a bunch of GR logos on the seats, carpets, start button and multi-info display, lest you or your friends forget exactly what kind of corner carver you’re in.

In terms of cabin roominess, the Vios feels a little snug at the front, although it’s by no means cramped. The big, comfy seats take up a lot of room and the centre console is tight as a result, so storage space is at a premium here. The rear, however, does offer a generous (if not outstanding) amount of legroom, although headroom is a little lacking due to the sloping roof.

There’s also no rear air vents here, but you do get twin USB charging ports that will stop kids from fighting over a power bank. The boot measures an entirely useable 506 litres, but while you can fold the rear seats down, they won’t go completely flat, leaving a step that makes inserting longer items a pain.

Safety-wise, the GR Sport comes with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure braking and blind spot monitoring. No, you don’t get the more advanced features like adaptive cruise control and lane centring assist that the City e:HEV RS offers, but then that car is over RM10,000 more expensive. By contrast, the Toyota’s full suite of safety functions are available starting from the mid-range RM82,593 1.5E variant. The Vios is also fitted with seven airbags and stability control across the range, which is nice.

No added power to match the looks

As mentioned earlier, the angry Fast and Furious-style redesign hides a power plant that has not changed one bit. Under the bonnet lies a 2NR-FE 1.5 litre naturally-aspirated Dual VVT-i four-cylinder engine, churning out the same 107 PS at 6,000 rpm and 140 Nm of torque at 4,200 rpm as the standard Vios.

Those aren’t stellar numbers on paper, especially when for the same money you can either get a more powerful NA engine (City), a torquier 1.0 litre turbocharged mill (Almera) or a 1.5 litre turbo unit that beats the Vios in pretty much every metric (X50).

Sure enough, out on the open road, the Toyota isn’t quite as punchy as its rivals. It feels like it has to work a bit harder and you have to dig deeper into its reserves to get up to speed. But it never feels like hard graft because this is a very smooth and easygoing engine.

There’s a decent amount of mid-range torque (the Vios makes almost as much of the stuff as the City) for an NA engine, so the car has no issue keeping up with Kuala Lumpur traffic or overtaking on the highway. It’s only when you’re driving up a hill that it struggles a little, but that’s nothing a bootful of throttle won’t fix.

Ratio overkill

Also decent is the CVT, which in normal mode has the same tune as the base Vios. This means it responds quickly to throttle inputs without being too jumpy, although you can occasionally catch it flat-footed when you call for more power. Again, any slight hesitancy can be immediately addressed by flooring the accelerator, but it does mean that the Toyota is not quite as effortless to drive as the competition.

It’s in Sport mode where the GR Sport differentiates itself from lesser siblings. Just like in those cars, the transmission reacts noticeably quicker, but it’s also been tuned to hold onto a lower ratio for longer off-throttle, providing increased engine braking and letting you accelerate out of a corner with greater urgency. You should really only use this setting if you want to attack a twisty road, such is its aggressiveness.

Then there’s the GR Sport’s headline feature – the “ten-speed” mode, accessible by flicking the gearlever to the right. As the name suggests, the number of virtual ratios has gone up from seven to ten, but they’re all compressed into the same ratio spread as the standard Vios. The engine still registers around 2,000 rpm at 110 km/h, so this isn’t a super-leggy transmission that suddenly turns this car into a high-speed cruiser.

What this does mean is that there is a lot of shifting using the steering wheel paddles. To be fair, the shifts themselves are pretty good – upshifts are very smooth (and quicker than they are in the petrol City), while downshifts give you a kick in the back just like a racing sequential gearbox.

It’s just that you go through the “gears” so fast that you don’t really get to enjoy the way the car accelerates. Seven speeds is already quite a lot to handle on the regular Vios and increasing the number to ten just feels like a complete overkill – especially when the car itself is no faster.

In fact, it may actually be slower. Stacking the ratios so closely together keeps the engine in the upper reaches of the rev band. That’s great when you’re talking about a high-revving screamer like the NA V8 in the Lexus LC 500 (which, incidentally, has the same amount of speeds in its torque converter automatic), not so great when the 2NR-FE’s mid-range is the name of the game. The mill is always just outside of its sweet spot, so it never pulls quite as strong as it does at lower revs.

Well-judged suspension tuning spoiled by inert steering

While the CVT’s modifications are perhaps a little superfluous, there’s plenty to like about the retuned suspension. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear setup remains unchanged but the springs and dampers are now 20% stiffer and are accompanied by the aforementioned larger wheels.

The changes have the potential to absolutely ruin the Vios’ ride, so I’m happy to report that the GR Sport remains eminently comfortable. Sure, the car does get jostled about a bit more over bumps, but it still absorbs much of the road’s harshness. In return, you get greater composure over larger undulations, leading to a more stable and less bouncy ride at higher speeds.

The improved primary ride is matched with the Vios’ impressive refinement. Thanks to the acoustic glass windscreen, outside noise is kept to a minimum, including wind noise. However, because the GR Sport rides on high-performance Toyo Proxes TR1 tyres, there’s a bit more road roar at higher speeds.

As you can imagine, the stickier rubber pays dividends when it comes to handling, providing imperious grip that goes hand-in-hand with the reduced roll and better mid-corner bump absorption. The GR Sport is able to keep a tight line through the corners, but there’s one issue that has stopped me from truly enjoying it.

That would be the steering, which is unchanged over the standard car. As expected from an electrically-assisted system, it’s a little lacking in feel, but its real flaw is the slow ratio, which forces you to add more lock than you’d expect to get around a bend. It makes the GR Sport feel more cumbersome than it is and robs it of any sense of agility afforded by the tyres and suspension.

The steering also remains light throughout and doesn’t add any weight when you turn the wheel. All this means you have no real idea of what the front wheels are going to do, so you end up feeling disconnected from the driving experience. That’s not such an issue for an everyday family car, but it’s a different story when the vehicle is geared towards an enthusiast crowd.

Verdict: Great improvements, middling execution

No, I’m not saying that the GR Sport needs to handle like a sports car, and indeed the step up in body control is probably enough for most people. But while the ride and handling balance is genuinely impressive, the car never feels particularly engaging to drive because of the steering.

Which brings us to the ultimate question – should you spend the extra money on these mods? Certainly, RM8,000 is a not-insignificant chunk of change, but you do get a lot in return. And for the vast majority of buyers, the looks alone are worth the price of admission. Me? I’d pocket the change and get the standard Vios, which is handsome enough as is.

Perhaps I’m a little biased. I prefer my regular everyday cars and my performance cars to be distinctly separate vehicles and the GR Sport falls somewhere in the middle. But I am not a typical Vios buyer and those who are actually in the market for a B-segment sedan want something that is practical, comfortable and reliable, yet looks sporty and aggressive. That’s exactly what this car is.

The Toyota Vios GR Sport is priced at RM95,294 on-the-road without insurance, inclusive of the sales and service tax (SST) rebate that’s valid until December 31. A five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty is included in the price. Browse full specifications and equipment of the Vios range on CarBase.my.