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PORT ELIZABETH, Eastern Cape – Many Toyotas are best-sellers in their respective segments, but when a model comes in at below R200 000 (in these times of stratospherically lofty prices) we all take note, hoping to be able to obtain reliable transport that we can possibly even pay off over some years.

The Etios is a prime example. It may not have quite the finish or features of a Corolla, but you do get an impressive package. And the latest "Sprint" version is far more distinctive looking than the base Xi model. The top model, incidentally, remains the Etios Cross.

While some prefer the butch looks of the Cross, the new Spint that replaces the outgoing Xs derivatives will also garner wide appeal with its enhanced grille and large lower airdams. Foglamps are fitted into the new airdam areas and where we drove in the Eastern Cape, rain and mist had us putting them to good use.

Not too much has changed at the rear. Perhaps a tweak to the taillamps would have made the Sprint more distinguishable from the other variants. While the Xi makes do with steel wheels, the Sprint offers 15-inch alloys.

Also added are electric windows, remote central locking and a height adjustable steering wheel. Add air-con and a sound system, and you have all the basic creature comforts. Side-mirrors, however, are still manually adjusted, although subtle improvements have been made over the years to increase the interior quality.

The best part of the package, in hatch or sedan form, is the driving appeal. For a budget runabout, the Etios delivers a surprisingly sporty willingness to punch above its weight. A slick gearbox and good low- and mid-range torque make you want to forget fuel economy and have some fun.

Knowing this, the Toyota team even let us loose on the East London Grand Prix racetrack. Only for one lap, mind you, but the Sprint handled the classic circuit very well. As for the rest of the journey to Port Elizabeth via Port Alfred, the ride quality offered typical Toyota compliance and handled the occasional pothole with ease. Even the steering feel is acceptable for an electrical setup.

The central instrumentation, however, is not the most pleasing on the eye, but at least it stands out from the norm, while the cloth seats are great for long-distance comfort. Rear space is superior to that of most rivals, although the boot is fairly small. Take note that the sedan’s rear seats do not fold down. If it is utility space that you need, rather opt for the hatch.

Dual airbags and ABS are present and correct, and we noticed that Isofix points – a safety feature of increasing importance to dads and moms – are now standard, too. A two-year or 30 000 km service plan is also part of the deal, giving you three services at 10 000 km intervals.

Overall, the Etios Sprint builds on the solid foundation laid by the base models, and there’s no question this will continue to be a top-seller for the local arm of the Japanese brand.

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