The hot hatch formula is – like Beauty and the Beast – a “tale as old as time” (or perhaps even a “song as old as rhyme” … give me a break, I’ve been to Disneyland recently)
Take a hatchback, cram a bigger/more powerful engine in it, and then add a few extra go-faster bits like better suspension or brakes … it’s a simple recipe, and unlike tonight’s best-ever chicken tacos you don’t need to read through fifty thousand words of background story and waffling to get to the recipe.
Just about every manufacturer under the sun that has hade a hatchback car has tried their hand at their own interpretation.
Today we are looking at a Forgotten Hero of the hot hatch variety – or perhaps more appropriately a “JDM Gem” – from one of Japan’s most legendary automakers; the Toyota Blade Master.
Although Toyota has done much in the past few years to establish itself as a hero brand of the hot hatch nice – thanks to the acclaimed GR Yaris and new GR Corolla – it’s probably not the first brand you think of when you’re asked ‘who makes a good hot hatch?’
Volkswagen, yes. Peugeot – once upon a time but not so much anymore. Renault have a strong claim to fame as well.
But if you’re after a reasonably modern, affordable, reliable hot hatch with epic straight line performance and a more relaxed nature than its highly-strung European counterparts, then the subject of today’s article might interest you.
Table of Contents
What Is The Toyota Blade Master?
The Toyota Blade Master is a improved, performance-focused version of the Blade; an upscale, more luxurious version of the first generation Toyota Auris (itself based on the E150 Corolla platform).
Basically, the Blade was positioned as a premium version of the Auris to try and attract buyers on the market for a more comfortable, more luxurious and more powerful hatchback.
As far as I can tell, the Toyota Blade was a true JDM car, in that it was only sold new in the Japanese market (read our JDM meaning guide here for more information) via Toyota Store and Toyopet Store dealerships.
However, unlike the regular Blade (which sports a 2.4L 4 cylinder petrol engine, 2AZ-FE, used in various Toyotas like the Avensis, Camry and Ravy4) the Blade Master has a trick up its sleeve … a very impressive trick indeed.
Toyota Blade Master Specifications
The party piece of the Toyota Blade Master is the ZYX – a 3.5L V6, mated to a six speed automatic transmission (unfortunately no manual option was ever available).
If that engine sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same as used in a variety of other Toyotas, such as the ever-popular Highlander SUV and the Lexus RX350.
For us Kiwis and our Aussie counterparts across the Ditch, this is the same engine fitted to the Aurion, which is a bit of an unsung hero itself.
This engine is a powerhouse in those vehicles listed above, and is even more impressive when loaded into a family hatch that weighs significantly less.
In the best of hot hatch tradition, the Toyota Blade Master sends its power to the front wheels.
Other equipment includes:
- Alcantara dashboard and door cards
- Multi airbags
- Push button start
- Smart key access
There is also the Blade Master G, which is the same in the performance department but has a few extra goodies like alcantara seats and radar cruise. One thing to be wary of is that I’ve seen a few sellers advertise the regular Master as a Master G, as some people seem to call the car the “Toyota Blade Master G” (when G is actually a trim level)
What’s Good About The Toyota Blade Master?
Impressive Straight Line Performance
This is really what you’re paying for with the Blade Master, and it doesn’t disappoint in the power department.
0-100 is dispatched in around six seconds flat (although as the power is all through the front wheels, achieving such a time is going to be very dependent on road conditions and tyre condition).
Where the Master really shines is dispatching overtakes or accelerating from a rolling start. Ripping a quick 80-120kph for getting past a dawdling campervan is a breeze.
Smoothness & Refinement
Most modern hot hatches use forced induction to generate an outsized amount of power. For example, my Suzuki Swift Sport has a 1.4 turbo, giving it more power than my old 2.4L 5 cylinder Fiat Stilo Abarth.
However, the trade off with forced induction is that it typically does not yield such a smooth power delivery. My Swift has noticeable turbo lag, and is fairly gruff to be honest. It’s an impressive piece of kit, but hardly refined.
The Master G takes the “no replacement for displacement” route, using a powerful (nearly 280hp) V6 to get the job done.
What this means is smoother acceleration and no turbo lag, as well as a level of overall engine refinement that cannot be matched by forced induction.
It also sounds the part, with a sonorous engine note that modern turbos just can’t replicate. No DSG fart noises here.
Toyota Build Quality & Reliability
Ask the average Joe who makes the most reliable car, and they’ll probably say Toyota … and for good reason (you can learn more here about why Toyotas are so reliable).
The Blade Master is no exception, with feedback typically being that the car feels more like a Lexus product in terms of fit and finish, with solid reliability from proven components.
Find a good condition Blade Master, look after it well, and it should last you for many years to come.
At the heart of it, the Blade Master is built on a Corolla platform. The Toyota Corolla is basically a byword for dependable, practical family motoring in a well-sized car.
You can fit adults in the back, or a kid’s car seat. The boot is relatively generous – this is easily a car you could live with every day (although fuel consumption will be higher than most smaller displacement turbo cars. That being said, most reviews seem to mention that when cruising or being driven gently, the Blade Master is a fairly economical vehicle)
As a proper JDM car, all Blade Masters available in countries like New Zealand, Australia and the UK are used imports. The Master seems to be reasonably good value for money. For example, you can pick up a decent-looking private sale example here in NZ for around $8000-9000 ($5k-6k USD) or for around the $12-15k mark you can get a typically lower mileage, fresh import that you’d also be able to get warranty cover on. Considering the fundamentally sound running gear in these cars, I wouldn’t be put off buying privately, saving money and then keeping some aside for future maintenance and repairs.
Handling (Compared To The Competition)
The main problem with the Blade Master lies in the handling department.
Although Toyota’s engineers worked hard to improve the suspension setup (incorporating front struts and double rear wishbones) the Blade Master isn’t a great handling car by hot hatch standards.
Most reviews complain of inert steering, noticeable body roll when pressing on (compared to the likes of the Golf GTI) and a tendency to understeer. One thing to bear in mind is that this is a car where tyre condition and choice plays a big role, so if you’re testing driving one with average tyres then a fresh set might make a big difference.
At best, it is a fairly composed and competent car but you won’t be flying around the bends like you might in a Civic Type R or Renault Megane RS.
The handing isn’t bad compared to most normal cars, but the problem the Blade Master faces is that many prospective buyers will be cross-shopping with more “conventional” hot hatches that have superior handling.
Perhaps the closest equivalent you could buy would be a Golf R32, with the 3.2 V6 (read our Golf R32 buyer’s guide here). Browsing forum threads and various reviews of the Blade Master, a few comments specifically reference the fact that the R32 is a more complete sporting package – whereas the Blade feels more like a normal car with a big engine dumped into it.
If you’re not an aggressive corner-taker, then you probably won’t care. My old Stilo Abarth was a bit like this – good fun on the straights and competent but hardly earth-shattering on the bends.
Slam it on the straights, get on the brakes and hit the corners at a decent but not excessive speed and you’ll have a good time.
No Manual Transmission Option
The automatic gearbox fitted to the Blade is a six speed used across multiple Toyota and Lexus products (I believe it’s a fairly common “Aisin” unit, but happy to be corrected – leave a comment if I’ve got this wrong)
Toyota perhaps missed a trick here by not fitting a manual gearbox; although at the same time it would not be so in-keeping with the “luxury power cruiser” vibe of the Blade Master. In researching for this article, I found a forum thread from a NZ-based owner who had modified theirs to take a six speed manual transmission … that would be an interesting vehicle to own.
While the factory automatic transmission does a good job at providing smooth acceleration and power delivery, these Toyota boxes do have a tendency to kick down too aggressively on occasion, and not hold gears as you’d like. The paddle shifters are more ‘informative’ as well, rather than giving you full control.
In this KiwiCarLife video there is a good demonstration of the gearbox in action, starting at around the 5 minute mark (the whole video is worth a watch though if you’d like to learn more about the Blade Master and see it in action)
It’s Not The Best Looking Car
At the end of the day, the Blade Master is a tarted-up Toyota Corolla with a big engine. It isn’t going to win any awards in the looks department, and the styling is what I’d call “inoffensive”.
It doesn’t have the classic, instantly-recognisable shape of a VW Golf, or the flair that many European hot hatch makers bring to the table.
It looks “ok” and I think that’s about the best thing you can say.
That being said, if you’re the kind of person who wants a car that doesn’t attract attention and if inoffensive and mature looks are a drawcard, then you’re in luck with this particular vehicle.
Should You Buy A Toyota Blade Master?
If you want a hot hatch that can absolutely hustle through corners, e.g. on track days or around twisty mountain passes, then no … you’ll likely be disappointed with the comparatively imprecise and wallowy handling of the Blade Master.
It’s not that it’s bad, it just isn’t as good as some of the contemporaneous competition.
However, if you are the kind of person who wants an under-the-radar hot hatch with a genuinely impressive turn of speed and great comfort, then the Blade Master is worthy of consideration.
I wouldn’t cross-shop this with the likes of a Golf GTI or Renault Megane RS, simply because the Blade does not have the same chops in the handling department owing to its softer suspension and heavy engine.
Think of it like a more comfort-focused, probably much more reliable Golf R32 that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, and you’ll have the right kind of idea.
The best way to think of the Blade Master is as a sort of “mini GT” that is best suited to motorway cruising, tearing up the passing lane when overtaking, and then taking corners in a more relaxed and measured fashion.
If that’s the way you like to drive, and you can find one of these rare JDM gems in good condition, then the Blade Master might be the perfect purchase for you.
Nobody is going to mark your card as a boy racer or hooligan when you pull up in the car park in one of these, but equally you can jingle the keys in your pocket smug in the satisfaction that you have a genuine rocket-ship at your disposal – at least in a straight line.
The only real complaints I’ve seen from owner reviews are people who’ve bought one expecting it to be a point-to-point racer, when it’s really more of a leisurely specimen with a freakish turn of straight-line speed. If you go in with the right mindset, then you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
What are your thoughts on the Toyota Blade Master? Have you owned one? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences. What else would you consider as an alternative? All comments are welcome below.