Johannesburg - There seems to be a general impression out there that this is “the new Toyota Yaris”, but I must admit that I find that a touch misleading. At a push, you might correctly call it “a new Toyota Yaris”, as in “new to South Africa”, but perhaps the most accurate description would be “a different Yaris”.
Here’s the thing. The Yaris that we’ve had until now was the same one that most of the world got, although it was designed in Europe, predominantly with European tastes in mind. The new one that we see here is a facelifted version of a completely different Asian-market Yaris that was first introduced in 2013, and aimed at countries such as China, Indonesia and Thailand, the latter country being where our cars are now assembled.
In many ways it’s easy to see why Toyota SA made the switch. Notwithstanding that the previous one wasn’t exactly selling, the Asian-market Yaris that we have now is significantly bigger and has a more grown-up look about it, as if it’s trying to be a slightly-scaled-down-Auris, although we’d stop short of actually calling it stylish.
But we’re not kidding around when we say it’s bigger - this hatch is a good 165mm longer than the previous Yaris, albeit only 5mm wider. It’s by far the biggest hatch in the B-segment right now, even stretching 92mm beyond the latest Volkswagen Polo.
But does this translate to more cabin space? Though the 310 litre boot is still among the biggest in class, it’s still outclassed by the new Polo (350 litres) and Kia Rio (325).
Yet it’s in the cabin itself where this Yaris really wins the space race, with exceptional rear legroom that would even seem generous in classes above this. Headroom is fairly average though, given that this car is quite low at 1205mm - which is fine for a normal-sized adult or teen, but taller folk might feel the squeeze.
If all you really care about is having a spacious hatchback with that legendary Toyota peace of mind, then you can stop reading right here. If you demand a little more than that (and you should at this price point), then this is where the Yaris starts to fall short.
Let’s start with the pricing, which starts at R233 100 for the rental-spec 1.5 Xi, rising to R288 700 for the range-topping 1.5 Sport on test here, with leather seats, auto climate control, roof spoiler, side skirts and the like.
That’s two-and-a-half grand more than a new Polo 1.0 TSI Highline and 20 grand more than a Renault Clio 1.2T GT-Line. Not only do both cars offer far superior performance than the Yaris, but better overall interior quality too, which we’ll get to shortly. First let’s look under the bonnet.
All Yarises (or is that Yari?) are powered by Toyota’s familiar 1.5-litre normally aspirated VVT-i petrol engine, rated at 79kW and 140Nm. In most models including the S, drive is through a five-speed manual gearbox, but the mid-range Xs can be had with a CVT.
Problem is, this 1.5-litre engine just can’t hold a candle to its turbocharged price rivals in performance or outright driveability.
It’s not particularly perky in the lower reaches of the rev range, meaning you need to stir that gearbox to get the best out of it and even then performance is adequate at best. It’ll keep up with fast paced traffic, but there’s really nothing effortless or even remotely spirited about the overall experience.
It’s also a bit under-geared for highway journeys, revving to 3500rpm at 120km/h, and at this point you hear the motor more than you’d ideally want to, meaning cabin insulation is perhaps not as good as it could be.
Consumption is not too bad, however, generally settling around six litres per 100km on the highway, while the week’s average consumption (which entailed mostly urban driving) amounted to 8.5 l /100km.
Aside from the performance deficit, the Yaris is actually quite painless to pilot around town, the clutch and gearbox operating with smooth precision, and the ride is fairly comfortable.
There’s not much feel to the steering and it’s reluctant to self centre, but what could prove most irksome is the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel - and it’s set quite close to the dashboard.
There aren’t really any other major ergonomic setbacks, except perhaps for the lack of a rotary knob for changing volume, although there is at least a control for this on the steering wheel.
All but the base Yaris get a Display Audio touchscreen infotainment system with navigation as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, although the latter is not yet available locally. The unit is user-friendly enough and syncs easily with modern smartphones, but the graphics do look a little dated.
Which brings us to the other area where this Yaris starts to feel shortchanged. Though overall build quality is sound, it really falls short of its competition when it comes to perceived quality - it just looks so much cheaper. The dashboard surfaces are all hard to the touch and Toyota has unsuccessfully tried to disguise this with imitation stitching in places.
The devil is in the small details here.
Even the boot will make you feel like you’ve bought a cheap car, with a thin layer of carpeting loosely placed on a thin board above the spare wheel. At least the latter is a full-sized alloy, which many buyers will appreciate.
Practical and solid as this Yaris may be, it simply doesn’t offer the performance, refinement or perceived quality that one would expect at this price point - it is competing at the premium end of its segment in price terms, but it really doesn’t feel like a premium product.
Priced closer to the Polo Vivo it would start to make some sense, but as it stands now, it’s really not worth buying the new Yaris unless you get a very significant discount.