Turn back the clock three years, open up your glossy Topcar April 2009 issue and browse through the new car sales. At number two you’ll see Toyota Yaris – 1701 units sold. That, by the way, was during a depressed era for SA sales. Browse through the current sales stats and you might be surpirsed to hear that Yaris sales have dropped to 878 units (December 2011) and has been relegated to sixth position. This new contender has a lot of ground to make up on the new segment leaders such as the VW Polo Vivo and Ford’s Figo. So, does the newcomer sit head and shoulders above the competition? Or will Toyota’s hopes rest on the introduction of the Etios to improve its segment sales?
The new Yaris has adopted a sportier styling dameanor in order to attract a male buyer. The changes have gone down well; the front end in particular looks keen and edgy. The back has also taken on a transformation with the lights protruding from the boot line. The whole stance has a more masculine feel to it, thanks to the height of the car being lowered by 20mm and the wheelbase extended by a further 50mm. The model here is the XR which is the top of three trim levels, so you get the nice 15-inch wheels, front foglamps and tinted windows. However on this 1-litre three-cylinder, you get the tiniest exhaust pipe exit ever.
Small cars have a way of engineering interior space by extending the dashboard forward, creating an environment that feels less cramped. The Yaris uses this technique well, so well in fact I reckon the dashboard may actually be attached to the front bumper. Interior space is up, rear legroom in particular is good considering the small nature of the car. The touchables are okay, the plastic throughout the interior looks to have been heated up and then combed into place, it looks a bit like a horse’s mane but whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave up to you to decide. This XR spec comes complete with the touch screen audio system, a nice touch in this segment and unlike some systems the Yaris’ is easy to figure out and the menus can be navigated quickly. The fuel economy history is a cool gimmick as well. The navigation button seems not to be installed but hopefully Toyota brings this in soon, as it will certainly up the value for money aspect of the Yaris. Anyone who has owned or used a three-door car has at some stage had to put people in the back, and the passenger seat in the Yaris slides forward and memorises its position when pushed back. Why this hasn’t been done on the driver’s door I don’t know, as adjusting your driver’s seat every time someone gets in or out is very annoying.
It’s a one-litre, three-cylinder petrol motor, pumping out 51kW and 93Nm of torque. If you’re looking at this, performance is not on your list of must-haves in a car. The engine not does have an interesting off beat canter to it, but rather it sounds a bit like an air cooled Porsche, but without anything like the go that you get from a Porsche. The five-speed manual that accompanies the engine is typical Toyota, you can feel the reliability in the shift but the lever is a little long meaning quick slaps into third cog can be missed. Fuel economy is actually pretty average considering the competition, claimed consumption is 5.1l/100km but in order to achieve that kind of figure you might have to slow up the traffic drastically. Under normal driving conditions on our test route we managed 6.5l/100km. Our route normally favours the extra-urban consumption figure thanks to a fair amount of freeway driving with cars like the Suzuki Swift getting as low as 5.6l/100km.
The most redeeming feature on the Yaris is the handling, and the more powerful variants should be an absolute blast to drive. Even on the 1-litre we were able to have fun with the chassis: the ride is very supple and soaks up bumps fantastically. Driving the Yaris sportily is very rewarding. The chassis rides flat when thrown into a bend and you can really wring its neck without having to be bored by tyre screeching and the early intervention of understeer. Steering is also reactive once in the turn, a slight dead spot in the centre of the wheel is slightly off-putting though. The Yaris is certainly at the top when it comes to a fun-handling baby hatchback but I would recommend one of the bigger engines to fully experience it.
Although an improvement on the previous generation, the Yaris hasn’t moved the game as much as the competitors. Taking into account the 1-litre model we have here in highest trim spec costs R151100, it really would struggle to make a case for its self. Also servicing on the Yaris is required every 15000km where competitors have shifted that to beyond 20000km, whilst maintaining the 100000km warranty as well. The Yaris may have the best chassis in class and be particularly fun to drive, but it can’t really compete with the value of cars like the Figo, Picanto and Vivo, and borders on the price territory of bigger cars like the Kia Rio, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai i20. Brand allegiance will have to be very strong to justify the purchase.