Car reviews - Toyota - Yaris - hatch range
Big steps in refinement, safety, dynamics and value
Room for improvement
Cabin architecture dull, styling not a knockout
25 Oct 2011
‘LESS IS MORE’ might be a tired old cliché, but it has long applied to Toyota’s range of cars in Australia – and more specifically, the Yaris, even back when it was known as the Echo.
The Japanese light car, cumulatively Australia most popular since its launch in late 1999, impressed us from the outset with its seamless blend of individual style, fine dynamics, intelligent packaging, utter reliability, and unexpected personality.
We’ve known of one example affectionately known as ‘Yari’, for instance. And in the world of modern Toyota, that is quite an anomaly. Can’t imagine anybody nicknaming their family sedan or SUV ‘Auri’ or ‘Klugi’!
But here’s the rub. Complete as the outgoing, 90 Series Yaris was, it was flawed. As the years progressed the dynamics fell behind most rivals, the body felt tinny and the interior presentation – clever as it was – seemed twee.
And on the safety front the Y-car fell far, far behind most of the competition.
Enter the Generation III version. Still unmistakably Yaris. Still Toyota clockwork reliable. But also much more grown up than before.
Designed in Japan – a first for a Toyota supermini since the ’96 Starlet – it is actually regarded internally as a European car, since much of the R&D work was carried out in Europe, for Continental tastes.
Slightly longer, shorter but wider, chief designer Takeshi Go told GoAuto that he was tired of hearing how the last Yaris blended in too much in traffic, and that rivals like the Ford Fiesta made it look meek. “Like a herbivore in a world of carnivores,” he exclaimed.
Make what you will with the slightly fussy nose the proportions are spot-on, the rear is well resolved, and the subtly more muscular stance makes the previous Yaris seem a little, well, fruity. The styling is a grower.
The new 130 Series is a tad more controversial inside, however. We lament the loss of the individualistic (and futuristic) centrally mounted digital instruments and almost limitless storage areas. By comparison the newcomer’s dash seems anodyne.
But, as with the exterior design, the details do reward. The instruments – now ahead of the driver and unashamedly analogue – are the very picture of clarity and functionality.
The Lexus-like trim textures are pleasing aesthetically (if hard for those who crave for soft-touch dash tops), beautifully fitted, and obviously durable.
And no longer must eyes be taken off the road when stretching to reach the heater/vent controls. Ditto the improved driving position, which includes reach and tilt adjustment for the wheel.
Only the relative lack of storage (compared to before) is a retrograde step.
Deep side windows and thin A-pillars improve visibility (though the C-pillar is wider than before so look out when parking) the seats are bolstered for better overall support and a 50mm-longer wheelbase has liberated heaps more rear legroom, as well as a more bountiful cargo area.
And – what a miracle – a new shoulder-height seat-release mechanism in the three-door model means that getting in and out of the spacious back seat area is a breeze.
Looking at the specs, even the base YR scores seven airbags, stability and traction controls, Bluetooth and audio streaming connectivity, power windows, and a trip computer.
Plus – at last – cruise control is available. Higher spec models offer satellite-navigation (still a rarity in the light car class) with SUNA traffic info and climate-control.
We only wish the dashboard was a bit more stylish. The fact that the press launch concentrated on details like the ‘stylised’ door speakers and single-arm wiper reveals how much individuality has been expunged from the cabin.
Nevertheless, Yaris has finally grown up and it is inside that most passengers will see, feel and hear the advances in ergonomics, refinement and usability the smallest Toyota available in Australia has made.
Yet it is what’s been done underneath that has left the most lasting impression on us.
Yaris engineering boss Hirofumi Yamamoto name checked the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio, VW Polo and Peugeot 207 as his dynamic benchmarks, and somehow the Yaris – from the YR manual base to the YRX auto flagship – possesses a fine balance of agility and comfort that left us feeling delighted.
The Australian-tuned electric steering, for instance, is both responsive and weighty for a keen driver to appreciate, yet isn’t too heavy or fidgety so as to alienate traditional Toyota owners. If we are being picky we’d like a bit more feedback and feel, but overall there’s a sweet and harmonious balance going on here.
Similarly, even on the standard wheels and tyres, the handling, grip and ride compromise surprised us, even on dirt roads and loose gravel. Again, we’re not talking Renaultsport sharp, or even Renault 16 soft, but the Toyota’s chassis set-up rewards and relaxes.
Because of the many and various advances over the old model in sound deadening and body rigidity, both carryover engine choices – 1.3 and 1.5 – seemed to function better in the newcomer than before, particularly when mated to the five-speed manual gearbox.
And while we lament Toyota’s decision not to offer an automatic with more than four forward gears, most drivers will agree that the self-shifter is not such a bad gearbox, even if most rivals offer far more efficient alternatives, especially VW, Ford, Hyundai and Kia.
Yes, stepping on the throttle equals too much engine noise and not enough oomph, basically, but other than that the auto’s performance is adequate. Well-chosen ratios help. Still, we’d go the light and easy manual every time.
Overall, this third-generation Yaris is a bit of a surprise package.
The styling does need time to ‘breathe’ before the clever details begin to emerge, and the interior isn’t the characterful cheap and cheerful item it once was but what Toyota has engineered instead is a light car of integrity, value, refinement and immense capability… especially for the price.
A mark of a new model’s appeal is how soon we want to get back behind the wheel, and the latest Yaris had us calling Toyota immediately after our first drive to book a longer test.
Yep, it’s true. The cheapest car the T-brand sells continues to be the best.
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