Weird days. Just as other makers of small cars are starting to become adventurous with their designs, the brand that has already "been there, done that" has gone straight again.
We're talking Toyota and the Yaris. The previous two editions pushed boundaries by siting the instruments vertically in the centre of the dashboard, implementing the people-mover feature of a rear seat that could slide or fold flat and wrapping this innovation in quirky body shapes intended to evoke warm memories of cuddly childhood toys.
Even though they sold well, it seems those cars presented concepts that are now deemed too risky. Consider the Mark 3: The main controls are back across the dashboard, in front of the driver, and analogue now. The trick rear seat has gone, and though it still folds (and is split 60/40) it doesn't quite go flat.
Looks-wise, the car is neat and smart but rather more professional; no smiley face and rounded, hug-me lines.
This is "global customer feedback" at work. Buyers of the previous model did not like looking at all that plastic either side of the central instrument panel. They could not get comfy with digital readouts. And they were happy to ditch the slide-and-slip-away rear bench if it meant a bit more space and a bigger boot.
Though some of the character has gone, the new design, again the work of Toyota's styling studio in France, delivers an air of sophistication and there's no doubt this is a solid and finely-finished product. Toyota New Zealand's belief it will set new standards in quality, innovative design and specification seems solidly based.
Its arrival also seems well-timed to take advantage of market developments. The small-car sector in which Toyota has a commanding presence is predicted to grow from 10,000 units a year to 13,500 by 2013. TNZ aims to increase Yaris volume from 100 to 130 units a month, in part through a bigger push to win private buyers.
Available here in hatchback form only (a sedan might follow next year), we see a 1.3-litre in auto-only three-door and manual and auto five-door versions, badged YR, plus a five-door 1.5 auto, the YRS.
Toyota has reset its ideas about what makes a small car. This Yaris is 20mm lower than before, yet has gone up a size, as it's 100mm longer than its predecessor. Half of the extra length has been used to extend the wheelbase, freeing up passenger space, while the rest means that the boot is 25% longer than before. It will swallow a decent 286 litres of luggage, rising to 1500 litres seats down.
Equally importantly, it has more rear legroom than the Corolla. Headroom is pretty fair for tall types, too, though in adults-only scenarios it remains a four-seater.
On the equipment side, there's a new upmarket audio with full iPod/USB integration, Bluetooth and voice command, air conditioning and electric windows and mirrors. It at last takes stability control, and sports up to seven airbags now that a kneebag is standard.
If it comes down to price, then that's a win too. The overall effect of a pricing strategy is to knock $200 off old stickers. With perhaps one exception: The five-door hatch is $1500 cheaper than before, but throwing in a $1700 convenience package - adding display audio, climate air conditioning and auto lights specification - tips it back the other way.
It's interesting that underneath the smart new clobber is pretty much the same hardware that has driven the car for the past six years. The same front strut, beam rear suspension, too.
It is an intriguing move; I would suggest the 1.3 and 1.5 petrols on offer, in marriage to a five-speed manual (1.3) or four-stage automatic, were hardly the best feature of the old car.
While Toyota could argue compatibility with the Swift (70kW/136Nm) and the new Kia Rio (80kW/137Nm), which both retain four-stage autos and have similar outputs to the Yaris engines, it seems not to have noticed that other rivals - the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo and Holden Barina T300, have moved ahead, with superior transmissions and more oomph.
Driving the Yaris YRS reinforced that the 1.5 auto is hardly a powerhouse; progress is not swift or particularly smooth. It was easier to see how the car's steering, dynamics and refinement have improved.
Toyota New Zealand has indicated that the new Yaris may well be offered with new engine and gearbox combinations later in its life, but it expected that the current combinations will be retained for the models' first few years on sale.
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