rolling back the yaris
Published 29/10/2011 | 05:00
I remember a lovely lady once asking me if I thought superminis should be banned. She thought they were too fast and powerful. In reality, she was led astray by the 'super' element of the name. She had concluded they were super-charged or something and that there was awesome power lurking under their bonnets.
She owned a Toyota Starlet.
It was a supermini but she just called it 'my little car'.
It was the forerunner of the Toyota Yaris reviewed this week.
I think most people realise what a supermini is these days. It is a small hatchback that has ferried thousands to work and school for decades.
Yet, I would say the phrase 'super' is more applicable than ever. These cars are so well endowed with technology and equipment nowadays. It is a cliché to mention it but the reality is that they host techno stuff and comfort levels we hailed in our Mercs and Beemers only a few years ago.
The Yaris has been a big favourite of those who want a car of their own or as a second family runabout motor. Simple things matter to these people. The Yaris does simple things well. It is a Toyota, with a heritage of reliability and does exactly what it says on the tin.
The new one is bigger, more spacious with an extraordinary light feel and touch to the likes of the steering (electric), gearshift (slick) and everything with which you come in contact.
The steering wheel, for example, is a classic example of someone making the most tactile element of the car one of the most pleasing. Its thickness varies from top to midriff and I felt someone had made it for me. That is how you make someone want to buy a motor.
Simply put, it is a car you just get into and drive without noticing how good it is. No fuss at all.
I was taking little enough notice until we were heading west one evening and my front-seat passenger remarked a few times on how solid and comfortable it felt over the course of a long, and sometimes sentimental, journey. I had been taking the car for granted. That goes for the quality of materials around the cabin too, such as plastic used on the dash and doors; the seats, upholstery and switch gear all had a touch of that step up in quality we now expect.
My passenger is tall and broad but had good room out front -- rear space is a bit better than it was. The real sense of space comes from the high roof which makes the cabin feel large.
Importantly too, the seats were strong, supportive and big enough to accommodate larger, weary bodies (he dozed off for a while). That isn't as easy as it sounds in a small car. I have criticised some of the rivals here for poor seating.
My Luna (one step up from entry level) version also had this great touch screen that gave control of iPod, Mp3 player, Bluetooth and all sorts of other modern 'essentials'. Among what is a great multimedia system was a reversing camera I found exceptionally useful.
And they have decided to major on safety -- there are so many technological 'controls' on the standard-equipment list it reads like a space launch -- in what is a car that is, and felt, really solid.
So far, so good.
However, there is a real war going on, folks. Probably the most vicious I can remember in this market segment which accounts for one in five of all new-car sales. And it's going to get more intense as we approach the high-sales season in January.
The Yaris has already had a few broadsides unleashed in its direction over the level of what I call its comfort, as opposed to the safety and technical, equipment.
Some rivals point to the absence of the likes of air-con from its initial two- trim versions and electric windows (only front as standard equipment).
Now I have to say, I did miss not having the electric rear windows. Why? Because I'm a devil for letting fresh air into a car that doesn't have air-con. I often open all windows, electronically, at start-up to defog them and as a safety habit to let me hear if there is anything coming. You will hear something before you see it a lot of the time. That's just a personal foible.
Back to the war zone. Where once Toyota and other Far-Eastern makers used to lord it over the Europeans with their three-year warranty, now they are being contrasted with super versions of seven (Kia) and five (Hyundai) years.
There is no doubt the Yaris has built up a loyal ownership. I know a few people with the previous Yaris and they swear by it so it will take a huge effort to winkle them out.
It also had an accomplished finish and feel to it that I think will serve it well against its traditional competitors such as the Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta (an under-rated motor).
But there's a new breed of buyer and seller out there. Not alone is the money scarce but the distraction of a whole new element of sales warfare -- super equipment and warranty levels -- is going to put it up to the giants of the genre.
If that lovely lady were in the market today, she'd know what a supermini really means. Watch this space.