HAVING cornered the bakkie market with the launch of the new Hilux, Toyota now has its guns aimed at the light car segment, armed with the eagerly anticipated Yaris. Perfectly poised to slot in between the “old faithful” Tazz and the RunX, this newcomer nevertheless has a large number of competitors to contend with in this hotly contested arena. A fully up-to-date design, even with a certain degree of “corporate Toyota” look about it, Yaris manages to stand out from stablemates with its fresh, funky styling.
The appearance is very much in crossover mould, with a high roof and raised seating, which makes for easy entry and exit, and also allows for better visibility in traffic. The swage line that rises rearwards from below the side mirrors adds a sleek and almost racy tone, while both the front and rear end treatments manage to look modern without being too “cute and cuddly”. On our flagship Spirit test unit, colour coded mirrors, door handles and sills, front foglamps, and 15-inch alloys (replacing the 14-inch steel rims), combine to add to the attractive stance.
Interior design is just as modern, the facia featuring a large expanse of hard matt-black plastic, cheapish in appearance but well finished and non-reflective. This blackness is offset by the satin silver centre hang-down section and complemented by a similarly coloured section on the gearknob. Light grey trim flows from the A-pillars, along the doors to create armrests, then up into the headliner in what Toyota calls a “loop style concept”. An odd contrast to the colour scheme is the pair of white central air vents.
The facia layout needs some explanation. Most importantly, the instruments are digital and centrally mounted. There is a magnification lens making the numerals easily visible. Nevertheless, it is difficult to gauge your speed with this type of display. One has to look directly at the numbers and take note, whereas with a needle speedo behind the wheel, it is possible to take a cursory glance to get a fair idea of your speed. No temperature gauge is fitted. Instead, a blue and red light tells you whether the coolant is cold or too hot.
There is an advantage to the adoption of this central display in that both the driver and the passenger have lidded storage bins ahead of them. To further pamper the front passenger, a second, lower glovebox is fitted. As if this weren’t sufficient, a tray beneath the passenger’s seat adds to the stash options. Below each outer air vent is a neat, simple, pulldown drinkholder – easy to reach, and air-conditioned air should help keep drinks cool. The air-con and ventilation controls are vertically stacked below the audio system, and are fully user-friendly.
Seating is rather featureless, but provides both comfort and support, and will accommodate larger frames. However, one tester did complain that he could not get comfortable. The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach, but the latter is restricted. Space to the left of the clutch pedal is not overly generous but, with no footrest fitted, the shape of the floor allows for comfortable foot positioning.
The driver’s seat has height adjustment, but some testers thought the lowest position too high anyway. The rear seat is where the Yaris design comes into its own. Split 60:40, each section can be slid fore and aft to offer varied leg or luggage space, and the backrests are rake-adjustable. Release catches for this operation are mounted on top of the backrest, at either side, where they are easily reached from the rear after opening the tailgate, but not so easy when sitting on the seat.
Having praised the moveable rear seat that enhances the utility space, we were surprised to find wasted space below the boot floor. The full-size spare wheel sits happily in its well, but a couple of centimetres of fresh air fills the gap between it and the floor, which is too small to be used for luggage or shopping. On either side of the well, plastic trays are inserted to locate the floorboard. These can house tools or similar small items, but we feel that the packaging design could have been better executed. Incidentally, the same criticism applies to the RunX. With the back seat in its rearmost position, 136 dm3 of luggage can be accommodated, while pushing the seat forward frees up 192 dm3. With the seats collapsed (via another set of release catches), utility volume rises to 920 dm3.
A safety feature, puzzling at first, is that the clutch pedal must be depressed before starting the engine.The gearshift is a real pleasure to use, and much more forgiving than those of the Yaris’ larger siblings when manhandled during sprint runs.
Performance is quite acceptable for a 1,3-litre, with 100 km/h coming up in 12,5 seconds. It is advisable to keep the revs above 2 000 to get moving, since below that figure there is little oomph. The engine is super quiet at idle, and becomes more raucous only higher up the rev scale. Most testers were somewhat annoyed by the way the revs rise when lifting off the throttle while changing gear. Top speed is more than satisfactory at 173 km/h, and fuel consumption is bound to please owners, with a CAR index figure of 6,89 litres/100 km. Even with the smallish 42-litre tank, a range of over 600 km should be possible.
The ride is top class, exhibiting a suppleness that belies the compact exterior dimensions. A long wheelbase means the wheels are placed close to the corners, which adds to the composure. Steering is electrically assisted, and is easy and pleasant to use at lower speeds. At higher speeds, however, directional stability suffers, and small corrections are needed (especially in windy conditions) to keep the car running straight and true.
First impressions of any car (and indeed with most other items) are usually formed by appearance. With the Yaris sporting seriously appealing looks, this should be enough to convince hordes to signup, while another South African belief that the Toyota name means everything might persuade many more to do likewise. Performance is acceptable, interior space plentiful, and the ride cosseting.
Safety is a vital aspect of this car. With a EuroNCAP rating of five stars, and a heady complement of seven airbags (the odd number being due to the provision of a driver’s knee bag), the Yaris Spirit offers owners class-leading safety and peace of mind.