Car reviews - Toyota - Yaris - YRS 3-dr hatch
Clever packaging, potential safety, quality on-road dynamics
Room for improvement
Annoying engine characteristics, ground-breaking safety must be paid for
17 Feb 2006
By CHRIS HARRIS
TOYOTA turned the corner on light-car credibility when it launched the Echo in October 1999.
A long-time dilettante at the bottom end of the market, the Japanese company never really had a credible product – or, it seems, even the will – to combat territory well and truly in the hands of the Koreans.
The neatly styled (in Brussels by a team led by Sotiris Kovos, a 33-year-old Greek) and cleverly packaged Echo changed all that, even though the initial price of entry was still a bit above the drive away deals offered by light car king Hyundai.
Subsequent price adjustments made the Echo thing more attractive, and eventually led to the light Toyota becoming the dominant presence among light cars as the ill-fated Hyundai Excel exited ingloriously and the Getz was yet to debut.
Eventually the Getz – launched here in 2002 - hunted the Toyota down, catching it and then striding to the front in 2005.
But by then the Echo had had its day and was about to give way to the Yaris in October the same year.
To most of us, the Yaris – which the Echo is known as in Japan anyway - is little more than a new Echo.
Naturally, it inherits a lot of the yardstick light car’s hardware, packaging savvy and style (this time from Toyota’s studio in Nice, France) all stepped up with the aim to take market leadership away from the impressive Hyundai Getz.
In a nutshell, the Yaris is a slightly bigger, slightly heavier, slightly safer and more financially available Echo.
The opening price of just under $15,000 for the three-door YR version still places it above the entry-level Getz but you do get ABS – which only comes as part of the bigger-engined and more expensive 1.6-litre Getz package – as standard across the range, along with competitive standard gear that includes dual front airbags, air-conditioning, MP3 compatible single-CD sound system, power front windows and remote central locking.
On top of that there’s an optional safety pack that throws in full-length curtain bags, along with side bags and driver’s side knee bags - which Toyota proudly trumpets as the first in a light car. Good stuff, although it’s arguable that any technological safety upgrades like these should simply be part of the standard package.
The Echo was a cheeky, individually-styled light car, and so is the Yaris.
The fact it’s slightly larger helps it look a little more proportionally balanced too. Yaris is 135mm longer, 35mm wider, 30mm higher and weighs in substantially 150kg or so heavier than a comparable Echo. Hyundai’s Getz is a bit longer, a bit lower, a bit heavier, but otherwise dimensionally very similar to the Yaris.
The baby Toyota’s engines and transmissions are essentially the same, with 1.3-litre and 1.5-litre VVT powerplants available in both three and five-door versions, and the choice of five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmissions.
Power outputs are within a whisker of the Echo – both identical in kW, but slightly down on torque – which suggests a little less punch on the road, but Toyota partly offsets this with improvements to low and mid-range torque.
The chassis is said to be completely new, but it’s hard to spot any significant differences MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam axle at the rear.
Toyota says the use of new dampers and a general fiddle that includes new, minimum stiction front springs, plus a new road-speed sensitive rack and pinion steering system, make for subtle improvements in ride and handling – further helped by wider front and rear tracks, by 30mm and 40mmn respectively.
Toyota says Yaris is a light car that takes in all the company’s accrued knowledge. Certainly it’s a neat design, and very nicely packaged.
Of course there are plenty of Echo clues to be found, particularly in the central digital instrument display (digital speed readout great, bar-graph tacho awful), and the way the back seat can be slid forward to maximise the boot.
But there’s plenty of new-age stuff too, such as the un-pleated cloth trim on the seats that somehow doesn’t suggest great durability (the cloth on the driver’s seat in the YRS test car was already showing signs of scuffing up), the steering wheel radio controls and the neat simulated-aluminium accents on the steering wheel, dash and door armrests.
But the space is excellent, particularly up front, with no hemmed-in feeling and quite decent comfort from the short-cushioned front seats – which adjust for cushion height – and the provision of a two-way adjustable steering column (YRS and YRX) to help the driver’s search for a comfortable seating position.
And, in the rear, even though the sliding seat enables you to choose, to a certain extent, how much legroom you’d like, it’s about what you’d expect of such a compact package. At least the floor is flat.
The rear seat folding arrangement is reasonably easy to grapple with and, of course, the headrests are intelligently designed so they can be pushed down to allow the backrests to be folded without need for their removal. The only shoddy aspect is the Velcroed-on flaps of carpet that cover the luggage area.
It’s easy to fling a bike into the back of a Yaris, provided one wheel is removed, although, as with the Echo, the rear seat cushion is one-piece which means some compromise sharing load-carrying with one or two passengers. But the load area opens up from 272 litres, to 363 litres, and then to a total everything-folded 737 litres.
On the road, the Yaris YRS test car showed Toyota has some justification claiming it’s a light car that drives like a big one.
Noise levels are surprisingly low, and the ride is indeed very nicely controlled with nary a sign of impact harshness and better than average ability to absorb large bumps and potholes.
The electric power steering, like most such systems, has a touch of artificiality to it but it’s pleasant enough to live with and helps the Yaris wiggle into the tightest of parking spots. The turning circle is an appropriately tight 9.4 metres – sharper than a Getz and sharper than the Echo despite the Yaris having a longer wheelbase. That’s important stuff in a light car.
Even though the YRS wears only steel wheels with 185/60 tyres, it handles in a quite tidy manner with the steering going from lock to lock in just three turns. There’s not a lot a road feel as such, but the steering isn’t too light and gives some impression of solidity.
The ABS brakes – with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist – are nice to have, but there’s only a shoddy pair of rear drums to assist the ventilated front discs.
As for the 1.5-litre YRS engine, its only downside is that it suffers from a malady seen in some European cars and described as the electronic flywheel effect. What it means is that the engine is slow to respond to a lifting of the accelerator pedal, meaning it’s almost impossible to smoothly match engine rpm when changing gears.
This is coupled with the variable valve timing engine’s tendency to feel quite flat and unresponsive across its torque band. It performs well enough – in acceleration and fuel economy – but, as in the Echo, it’s a dull engine to drive.
On the open road it’s helped by a quite high fifth-gear that spins the engine at just 2800rpm cruising at 100km/h but, while stopping short of being annoying, it still sounds quite buzzy.
But the Yaris is somewhat more special than any of its contemporaries, including the Getz, and has that air of Toyota unbreakability – and strong resale value - that instils plenty of owner confidence.
It might be possible to find a cheaper light car, but it’s doubtful there’s a better one.
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