At a time when interest in small cars is on a rapid rise, David Thomson gets behind the wheel of the flagship variant of Toyota's prime contender, the new Yaris YRS.
Toyota is expecting to increase Yaris registrations by almost a third with the latest, mark 3 version of its cornerstone supermini. To do so, it will need to boost sales to private, as opposed to fleet, rental and company customers.
The 1.5 YRS Yaris will be a vital variant in this sales push. Listing at $27,490, it is the flagship of the current line-up, featuring five doors, a 1.5-litre engine, automatic transmission and a standard equipment list superior to that of the model it replaces.
As well as the expected small-car bases of air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, and remote locking being covered, the YRS provides standard cruise control and a new audio system that should meet the expectations of younger customers with its iPod/USB inputs, Bluetooth and voice-recognition capability.
It also shows strongly on the safety front, holding the maximum five-star European NCAP safety rating. Features that contribute to its strong safety credentials (and which are standard across the whole range) include electronic stability programming and seven airbags (including a driver's side knee bag).
The Yaris's ancestor, the Echo, was renowned for its bold styling. The Yaris, however, has played a progressively more conservative hand in this regard.
Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much a matter of taste: to my eye, the latest Yaris treads the boundary line between anonymous and quirky pretty well.
The most obvious point of comparison is the car's larger sibling, the Corolla. Alongside the current (and soon to be replaced) Corolla, the latest Yaris exhibits a similarly neat solid look, but with fresher detailing. It doesn't look that much smaller than the Corolla either, in part because the latest Yaris is 100mm longer than the model it replaces.
The natural assumption that the Yaris is Corolla's baby brother is compounded when you enter its remarkably roomy cabin.
Up front, the interior is bright and airy, and the seats comfortable and supportive. Hard plastic surfaces dominate, but that's the norm in this segment of the market, and the quality of fit and finish is very good.
The layout of the centre console, dash and instruments returns to orthodoxy after the digital displays and associated adventures of the previous model. I'm picking at least as many folk will be pleased with this change as are disappointed, and most won't care either way; all I would ask for up front now is a slight angling of the centre binnacles that house the audio and ventilation controls towards the driver.
The rear of the cabin impresses mightily for legroom; this is where the benefit of having half that 100mm extra length coming between the wheels pays the biggest dividends. Rear headroom is fine as well, especially given that, while longer, the new Yaris is also lower than its predecessor.
There's less cleverness in the rear-seat-folding arrangement than before, but part of the payback is increased luggage capacity. The boot is 25% larger and features a "false floor" that can be kept in place to provide a flat loading point from the tailgate and an out-of-sight underfloor storage area, or removed to provide a deeper overall boot cavity.
Small cars such as the Yaris are usually thought of as town cars, but an unexpected need to dash to Southland had the test car spending a fair portion of its time on the open road.
The drivetrain combination of a 1.5-litre engine and four-stage auto gearbox, both of which carry over from the previous model, is tried and true rather than state of the art.
There is, however, sufficient mid-range torque to mask the limitations of just four forward ratios on all but the steepest highway hills. As a result, and aided also by its cruise control and quite low levels of coarse-chip road roar, the test car proved far more adept in the open-road role than many might expect.
The limitations of engine and gearbox are more obvious during press-on driving down winding country roads, as is the fact that the chassis is competent rather than sparkling, and the suspension tuned for comfort rather than razor-sharp responses.
That said, it is hard to imagine anyone buying a Yaris YRS with visions of an enthralling back-road blast top of mind. At least, while it might not entertain hugely on such roads, the new Yaris is well mannered and progressive in its dynamic responses.
Interestingly, the times I most felt an extra forward gear or two would have come in handy were around town: that's because when Dunedin's steeper hills are tackled at city speeds, they can be real power suckers for small cars; the response of a four-speed auto is invariably a somewhat abrupt downshift, followed by a marked rise in engine revs and noise.
Other small cars with engines of similar outputs and four-speed autos (the Suzuki Swift and Kia Rio spring to immediate mind) are similarly exposed on Dunedin hills, whereas those with peppier engines and more advanced transmissions deal with our sharper inclines with less fuss.
Toyota will, most likely, introduce both engine and transmission upgrades to the latest Yaris as part of a mid- or late-life update. In the meantime, while the engine/gearbox combination is something potential buyers might take account of, it is hardly a deal-breaker.
As tested, then, the YRS is a decent-looking, competent-handling, roomy, solidly constructed and well-equipped addition to the small-car market. As such, it has what it takes to play a vital role in Toyota's sales ambitions for this generation of the Yaris.
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