DURBAN, KwaZulu-Natal – The year may still be young, but it's shaping up to be a busy one for the light hatchback segment. The new, sixth-generation Volkswagen Polo has only just hit the market, and the latest Ford Fiesta will arrive in the coming months. Not to be outdone, Toyota has now launched a Yaris that's new to South African buyers.

So, what’s new?

Although this specific version of the little hatchback is already available in countries in Asia and the Middle East, it's new to South Africa. And it runs on a different platform and is significantly larger than the outgoing Euro-spec model, too, which is immediately noticeable when you walk up to the car.

As such, this latest model looks nothing like the Yaris with which South Africans have become familiar. The front of the car features plenty of sharp lines, with the headlamps, foglamps, LED daytime running lights and plastic inserts all jostling for position.

This top-of-the-range Sport model also offers a number of additional items of equipment, including leather seats, a rear spoiler, a shark-fin antenna and side-skirts, to name but a few.

Climb inside and you'll be greeted by familiar Toyota controls. The Sport derivative boasts a climate control system, while the infotainment arrangement offers Apple Car Play as well as Android Auto functionality. Ease of use is something we'll have to evaluate when we have the car on test in the near future.

Once I had set my ideal driving position, I clambered in the rear and was pleasantly surprised by the space on offer. Despite standing 1,87 metres tall, I found plenty of space in front of my knees and enough shoulder- and head-room, too.

Toyota claims an increase in luggage space of 8 percent over the outgoing model, which seems plausible when inspecting the fairly roomy boot. That said, the thin, felt-like material used on the boot floor is a slight letdown.

Behind the wheel

All models use the 1,5-litre engine. We drove one connected to the five-speed manual and the other mated to the CVT transmission. The latter model was very slow off the line, even taking into account the near-200 kg total that my co-driver and I added to the mix. Once up to speed, though, its reaction time improves slightly. Not an ideal gearbox for the open road, but in heavy traffic this will be the more relaxing car of the two. The five-speed manual felt marginally brisker, happily revving up to the 6 000 r/min redline. As before, this gearbox offers easy, smooth shifting.

Through KZN’s back roads, with several road imperfections presenting themselves, the ride quality was very good, with the car’s suspension system doing a fair job of ironing out bumps and keeping the car settled.

The perceived quality of the cabin, however, is a little disappointing, with large pieces of the door trim and dashboard being the worst suspects. Another small, but important, feature is the positioning of the USB and 12V sockets. The former is part of the infotainment system, meaning it is next to the screen, while the latter is close to the handbrake. These days, we’ve become used to these being sited either in the storage unit below the facia or in the centre console – both for safety and convenience reasons.

Summary

According to Toyota, local customers have asked for a larger Yaris, and that is exactly what the Japanese brand has delivered. This is a spacious car and will trump several of its competitors in that department. Cabin quality is not quite on par with a car like the new Polo, while the engine, and at times its combination with the transmission, isn't quite as pleasing to use as those of some competitors.

However, this version of the Yaris hatchback looks significantly more modern (the front almost Lexus-like) to some eyes, which could, together with what is a comprehensive infotainment system, help to lure young buyers towards this product.