Is bigger really better? We get to grips with the larger, new-to-SA Toyota Yaris...

Toyota has jumped aboard the automotive upsizing bandwagon, giving its Yaris a considerable stretch in all dimensions while adopting a sharper look that it hopes will draw a younger crowd. But with the increased space comes a marked increase in price. Therefore, does the new car possess the distinctiveness and virtues to meet the challenge presented by the capable, similarly priced rivals against which it will compete?

Toyota’s stylists have moved away from the X-face design that’s a staple of many of its compact products, instead adopting a more purposeful look. There are definite visual ties between this model and the Auris above it, such as prominent sheetmetal creases on the bonnet and flanks, the swept-back headlamps that flow into a narrow, louvered grille and a profile that’s more elongated than that of its taller predecessor. The Sport model adds a number of cosmetic additions into the mix, with LED taillamps, front and rear spoilers, and side skirts among the number.

It’s a palpably larger car than its predecessor, being about 200 mm longer, 35 mm wider and boasting a wheelbase that’s grown by 40 mm. The latter is especially evident when climbing into the back seats, where the 690 mm of kneeroom (some 46 mm up on the previous model we tested last year) is among the best in its class. Boot space has similarly benefited from these lengthened underpinnings, with increases of 72 litres with the 60:40-split rear backrest in place and by 224 litres in overall utility space.

It’s something of a mixed bag elsewhere in the Yaris’ cabin. In terms of ergonomics, finding an ideal driving position is manageable despite no reach adjustment on the steering column, and the leather seats are supportive and the facia design clean and reasonably sporty. The climate control system, with its large, legible buttons and crisp display, is a cinch to operate on the move and, as is often the case with cars from humid locales such as Thailand, does a decent job of cooling the cabin. Conversely, the touchscreen infotainment system’s interface isn’t as user-friendly, with many of the sub-menus being represented by small icons that are difficult to accurately locate and press. It is, however, satisfyingly feature-rich, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, and Bluetooth joining a capable sat-nav system.

Where things begin to go awry is on the perceived-quality front. Hard plastics abound in the cabin but, thankfully, Toyota has placed soft-touch leather and cushioned doorcard armrests at most of the driver’s touch points, plus most trim surfaces feel solidly screwed together. Things fall flat in the boot, however, where low-rent carpeting and a parcel shelf of seriously poor construction sully what’s otherwise a pleasant cabin.

The previous car’s NZ engine series unit, which was widely utilised by a number of Toyota’s Asia-Pacific market compact models, has made way for Toyota’s 1,5-litre NR7-FE powerplant, which sits in the same series family as the engine doing service in the Etios. This unit was introduced with the third-generation XP150 Chinese-market Yaris and, although it shares the previous engine’s 1 496 cm3 displacement, its 79 kW and 140 N.m of torque places it 3 kW down and 4 N.m up on the NZ unit.

In addition to being marginally less powerful, it’s also tasked with moving a car that’s 32 kg heavier and utilises a gearbox with a close-knit gear ratio array very similar to that of the previous powertrain. It’s a setup often used by manufacturers to usefully harness as much as possible from modestly powered units at low to mid speeds, often in the bid to lend their cars an extra degree of urban nippiness. But, whereas the previous Yaris made use of a six-speed manual gearbox, the new car makes do with a five-speed item that, although snappy in its shift action and allied with an easily modulated clutch, impacts on this car’s motorway manners.

Sure enough, the Yaris Sport feels punchy round town but the powerplant sounds strained as speeds climb. With 120 km/h accompanied by an engine that drones somewhat at 3 500 r/min, you can’t help feel that a nice, tall sixth ratio would make proceedings decidedly more pleasant. Nonetheless, the Yaris returned a par-for-the-segment 7,4 L/100 km on our fuel run.

While the gearing isn’t particularly well calibrated, the same cannot be said of the Yaris’s ride comfort; the 50-profile tyres combine with a supple MacPherson front/beam rear arrangement to do a good job of insulating you from most of what our patchwork of road surfaces throws your way.

That said, the vehicle does not major in directional stability. The steering is vague, with brisk driver inputs often met with less, or palpably delayed, response from the front wheels than you’d initially anticipate. It’s not a life-or-death sticking point – you will no doubt eventually tailor your driving style to incorporate a more measured approach – but it takes a spot of sheen off what’s otherwise a pleasant, if predictable, driving experience, while also sitting at odds with the car’s Sport suffix.



TEST SUMMARY

This particular iteration of the new Yaris can be somewhat frustrating to sample, as it’s by no means a mediocre car per se, but from a manufacturer with Toyota’s high standards and impressive portfolio, we were expecting a bigger leap over the model it replaces.

That said, in the context of the Yaris’ evolution, there’s a palpable improvement in many respects. It’s far more spacious, looks less po-faced and the ride is better damped than that of its forebear. The numb steering and close-set gear ratios that strain the engine at motorway speeds disappoint, though.

Perhaps the biggest challenge the Sport faces is a sticker price that lands it firmly in the same territory as some very popular and capable B-segment rivals, such as the Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo. You could even look into some C-segment offerings, with certain Ford Focus and Renault Mégane models available for similar money. In all honesty, the Xs model - which concedes only a number of less-important aesthetic features, climate control and leather seats to the Sport - is where the smart money lies. At that more palatable price, the Yaris looks a strong proposition in its field.