Review: Toyota RSi returns, as an Etios…

The RSi badge is a hallowed one for Toyota enthusiasts.  Just the mere whisper of it sends them into frenzied talk about the old wedge shaped AE82 Conquest RSi.  But those days are long gone, and Toyota has long since had anything worth declaring as a bona fide hot hatch.  So it might please a few people to hear the badge is being revived.  RSi is back… it’s the, um, Toyota Etios RSi…


You’ve likely just uttered to yourself the same words I muttered when I first heard about this ambitious South African development, “The Etios is a piece of junk though…”  But like the man behind this project told me then, have faith, because the Etios has potential…


Fast forward a couple of years and the Toyota Etios RSi is on the verge of being released to the public.  What started as one madman’s wild dream is about to become a reality.  But if it’s to succeed, one simple question needs to be answered – can an Etios really be deserving of the RSi badge?  Behind the wheel, at the helm, and chucking the Toyota Etios RSi through a twisting section of scenic road outside of Hartbeespoort, the inadvertent burst of laughter that escapes me suggests yes.


Was that just wastegate flutter I heard?  It was!  It is – there it goes again!  Lift off the throttle and there’s a definite “wha-stustustu”.  Run the Toyota Etios out to a redline shift and there’s a filthy “whaaa-psssshhhh”.


The exhaust releases all sorts of pops and snarls and burps and farts.  It sounds angry, but the Etios RSi’s temperament is anything but.  It’s happy, gleeful even.  It just wants to be driven.  And it makes the driver just want to drive more too.


It flatters the amateur driver; forgiving mistakes instead of punishing them, and teaching you where to improve; and for the capable driver, it makes you feel downright god-like – still forgiving, but rewarding you so much more when you get it right.  Do so, and the speed readout on the Etios RSi’s gauges through corners will leave you utterly flabbergasted!


How is it possible for something with origins as humble as a Toyota Etios to be able to corner at such pace and with such stability?  How can a simple Toyota Etios ride with such composure, such unflappability?


I was fortunate enough to be invited to drive the Toyota Etios RSi through each stage of its development, and the brief has been clear and unchanging since day one – this is to be an everyman’s hot hatch.


Right from the early development stages – the very first stage of development, actually – the standard car’s suspension was tweaked and tuned to deliver on very specific traits.  Chassis control was to be progressive and consistent.  The Toyota Etios RSi was to respond as linearly the 100th time through a set of corners as it did the very first time.


But more than that, it was to never compromise on comfort and practicality for the sake of speed and sportiness.  Anyone can make a ‘sports suspension’ hard, but the Toyota Etios RSi blends perfect poise and firmness through corners with a delicate ride that soaks up imperfections and never impedes on personal comfort.


Despite the lowered suspension, bigger wheels, and new Bridgestone Potenza RE002 rubber on the Toyota Etios RSi, ride quality has been improved vastly from stock due to the recalibrated suspension geometry and dampers.  There’s body roll – but it was always intended to have that as a gauge of how much farther it could be pushed, a means of communication between driver and mechanical horse.


The brakes were simultaneously upgraded – now boasting bigger discs up front (the rear drums remain) and utilising track-spec brake fluid.  Don’t lament the lack of discs at the rear though.  80% of the braking is done through the front wheels, and that’s where the bulk of the weight sits too – and the Toyota Etios RSi can hardly be found wanting in the stopping department.



Hundreds of laps around Zwartkops and Midvaal are to thank for the testing and development of the brake upgrades to ensure they won’t run out of steam.  The standard ABS has been tweaked to allow greater margin for driver involvement, and the once wooden feeling pedal now drips with feedback.  The bite is immediate thanks to braided hoses, and the lack of weight (the Toyota Etios RSi tips the scales at 970kg in production trim) ensures stopping distances are kept short.


Handling and stopping aside, the Toyota Etios RSi can’t claim hot hatch bragging rights without some fizz beneath the bonnet.  The standard has been set high by the chassis, but then again this was never conceptualised to be anything but the highest standard of OEM+ engineering.


It’s now several months on since I first drove ‘Phase 2’ of the Toyota Etios RSi development, but the results are still as mindboggling now as they were that first time I drove it.  The natural progression from chassis and brake upgrades was adding power, and in the Etios RSi it was done so with a mild sprinkling of turbocharged boost.


For the numbers addicts – those who believe a car is nothing more than its outputs – the Toyota Etios RSi will leave them underwhelmed.  This is no Fiesta ST.  The standard 1.5-litre Etios engine, originally developing 66kW and 132Nm, has received a low boost turbocharger (just more than half a bar) to turn the wick up just a bit.  Final figures are 110kW @ 5900rpm and 210Nm @ 3250rpm – hardly astonishing.


But the bulk of that torque is available from down low – 190Nm arrives at 2200 rpm – and the power build-up is something more than your standard turbo motor.  The benefit of low boost – in addition to minimising strain on the engine – is the way the Toyota Etios RSi actually delivers those figures.  It’s not a dollop of throttle, a lump of boosted torque, and a sharp drop-off thereafter into the abyss – it’s a linear progression that feels more naturally aspirated 3-litre than it does turbocharged 1-and-a-half.


All the torque is there, none of the turbo-lag – and it’s backed up vocally by a new free-flow exhaust that makes all the right noises to leave you feeling giddy – if not a little ashamed for waking up the neighbours…  It’s perhaps a touch too loud at times – mainly on the freeway where it drones ever so slightly – but everywhere else it’s utterly grin inducing.


Power still goes to the front wheels, and surprisingly via the standard Etios’ 5-speed manual gearbox without any LSD.  I’m assured it’s up to the task of handling the extra power, and my most recent drive cements that opinion.  Perhaps it’s the revised suspension or the larger tyres, but power gets to the road well – barring the chirps of protest on hard shifts into 2nd and 3rd gears.


The gearbox – part of that original ‘potential’ I was told of – is perhaps not as crisp or short of throw as the venerable Suzuki Swift Sport.  However the shift action feels precise, well weighted, and immensely positive – not even a hint of conflict between the standard equipment and the newly added dollop of power.


Pomp and circumstance is great and all, however the performance figures are what matter most in a robot-to-robot society of DSG boy-racers.  0-100km/h is dealt with in a brisk 7 and a half seconds – completely outgunning the Suzuki Swift Sport, Opel Corsa Sport, and Hyundai i20 Sport this Etios RSi will compete against.


Upgrades have been applied to more than just the functional bits beneath the surface.  The next phase of development I got to sample focused on making the Etios RSi as comfortable inside and as visually appealing outside as it was enticing to drive.


This meant reworked styling in the form of squared off bumpers, side skirts and a new moulded rear diffuser – all blacked out as standard.  A rear roof spoiler also goes a long way to looking the part, as do the twin tailpipes.  RSi badging is a given, but in a throwback to the original RSi models of yesteryear, a red pinstripe along the Etios RSi’s shoulder gives a subtle sporting edge to the visual demeanour.



Sadly, the interior doesn’t get as extensive a make-over.  Short of remoulding the dash at great expense, nothing would save the Etios RSi from its inherited flaw of an ergonomic nightmare of a cabin.


That’s not to say the spec hasn’t been upgraded substantially… Leather upholstery will be the standard getup, complete with red stitching to complement that found on the new leather steering wheel, gear shift lever, and handbrake lever – however buyers will be able to option combination leather and honeycomb cloth for greater levels of grip.  That’ll be the box to tick, as even the re-clothed seats lack sufficient side-bolstering.


Yet despite the main touches being relatively small in the grand scheme, the Toyota Etios RSi is a vastly improved prospect compared to the base model from which it was developed from.  25kg of sound deadening has been added at strategic locations to reduce noise levels by 9db at highway speeds – with tedious noise path analysis to ensure the wrong noises were taken care of, frequency by frequency.


The right noises have been taken care of too – a new radio head unit and speaker system ups the standard specification to be on par with the competition, albeit still not to the same level as Opel’s IntelliLink setup.


The interior is by far the weakest aspect of the Etios RSi’s game – and one unlikely to change.  It’s the compromise you’ll need to make in lieu of all the other gubbins that make the Etios RSi as special as it is.


And special it really is, mating phenomenal driving dynamics to a truly happy go lucky nature, and adding a dash of refinement to boot.  This development mule – affectionately named ‘Fred’ – is as good at being a boy racer as it is just being a regular car with a pleasant demeanour.


The Toyota Etios RSi has been developed with a single-minded vision – an everyman’s performance hatch, built to OEM levels of quality, but with all the performance credo you might hope for from the hallowed RSi nameplate.


Does a technically aftermarket vehicle deserve the RSi badge?  There will be those who argue not – but someone has taken up the mantle to develop something exciting for a brand with a cult following locally, and having driven this mule on several occasions I can see no good reason why the Etios RSi can’t be the next Opel Superboss or BMW 333i.  This is South African ambition at its best!


And it won’t be unattainable – the Toyota Etios RSi goes on sale in just a couple of months’ time through selected Toyota Automark dealers.  The kicker of it all is the price.  R260 000 is where it’ll start – undercutting both the Suzuki Swift Sport against which it was benchmarked against, and the Hyundai i20 Sport with which this will wipe the floor.


Better still is that the Etios RSi will be sold with a warranty plan matching that of the standard Etios on which it’s based.


Ambitions don’t get much higher than this – the most potent sub-R300k ‘new’ vehicle in the South African market – but the Toyota Etios RSi shows a true dedication to enjoyable motoring.  Fun, back to basics performance in the same vein as the original Mk1 Golf and AE82 Conquest RSi – the kind of car that makes you remember why you love driving in the first place.

To keep up to date with the Toyota Etios RSi project, and to see when you can get yours, show your support by liking the official Etios RSi Facebook page HERE

Toyota Etios, Etios RSi, Toyota Etios RSi, Torquing Cars, Roarke Bouffe

Words: Roger Biermann

Photos: Roarke Bouffe


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