The empire fights back
It was like being back in the good old days. There I was, behind the wheel of a new, sensible, practical people carrier with a -- wait for it -- petrol engine under the bonnet. And it was a Toyota to boot.
Not only that, but there were plenty of people to put into the new Verso and plenty of work for it to show its abilities and flaws.
Ah! It was a strange week all right, touched by sadness and bitter-sweet rearward glances prompted by a sad passing on the one hand and the celebration of two 30th birthdays on the other. God, when I come to think about it, 30 years ago, I was driving an old Ford Cortina.
Yet by a strange coincidence, I was honoured to have some of the same friends on board on this new Toyota as I often had in that old banger.
Funny how travelling to and from events, both sad and happy, crisscrosses our lives and always seems to stir memories en route.
This new Verso is a people carrier in the true sense of the word. You can deploy all seven seats or as few as you need and bung in a fair old welter of luggage, gym bags, hockey sticks, 10 bales of briquettes (sorry that was the Cortina) or whatever other accoutrements come with family activities these days. The previous version of this was called the Corolla Verso, which led to some confusion, I think. It was, or is, a fine motor. The cousin has one and swears by it. Not a minute's trouble.
This is a bit bigger, a bit roomier and a bit better overall, especially on fuel consumption and general equipment. But I wouldn't go putting the U-21 midfield pairing in the third-row seats.
They are, as we have come to expect, expendable when you have five on board but functional for the extra toddlers. How you mix and match depends on your circumstances and requirements but with what they call the Easy Flat-7 seating system, you can use or flatten seats to create a lot of luggage space.
It is important that doing so is easy and straightforward. In my experience, it was.
There are a lot of things right about this and a few that are wrong. Let me get a few of the gripes off my chest first. The car itself looks fine but the interior, especially if you're sitting in the middle row, is dull and largely functional. From a driver's point of view, the rear pillars provoke blind spots, especially when you are parking, and the rear-wash wipe encircles far too small an arc. Do they not realise how mucky and dirty rear screens get in our weather and on our roads?
And those three-across-the-middle individual seats were, well, not that big, really. I had one or two complaints from that department. A bench seat may be your best option.
These are important caveats for anyone thinking of spending the sort of money this will set you back. You simply have to be comfortable with what you get and it really has to work for you. I mean, €30,000 or so is a lot of money these days. It did work for me, however, on a number of levels.
First of all -- and you may not notice this normally -- it has the slickest, easiest gear change I've come across in many a day.
To drive it, especially on a motorway with five of us on board, showed just how smooth a car like this one can be.
We slipped through the night, mostly in a reasonably flexible sixth gear, to the midlands. Even I was surprised at how quickly the Kilbeggan sign loomed into view.
Toyota may have had its share of bad publicity over the past few weeks, but this is testament to how well it can make a car go and feel.
Part of the reason for that is the electric-assisted steering, which is light to the touch and direction, without losing the feel of feedback.
There are several useful nooks and crannies scattered throughout the cabin, as well as bigger storage areas (under the front seat and boot floor). These all come in handy for a family on the move, while the ability to flatten the two third-row seats is especially handy.
The other surprising thing was how decent the 1.6-litre petrol engine was on fuel. It wasn't bad on power, either. They claim that it is 20pc more efficient. I think I'm inclined to believe them, although you still have to pay 24pc VRT and €447 road tax because the emissions creep up to the 160s.
The nice thing about the Verso is that is remains compact in dimension, is relatively easy to park and doesn't bulk up the driveway.
So if you were to ask me if I'd buy it, I'd have to say yes. It is not, perhaps, as stylish or 'modern' as some of the rivals. And nearly €30,000 is a steep ask. As well as that, it lacks a bit of joie de vivre in the cabin. But it is undoubtedly a class leader when it comes to simple, straightforward everyday driving. In this case, I think it's fair to say the people carrier marginally in front is the Verso.