WHEN you look at the supermini class, you realise how much the motor industry’s norms have changed in the last decade or so.
The list of cars in the segment is long and the majority of them are a worthy buy.
The rebirth of the Mini — as conceived by BMW — changed the segment for evermore by introducing personalisation, radicalising our concept of funky and individualistic.
Replacing the legendary Starlet in 1999, the Yaris is a case in point.
It was initially good enough to win not only a European Car of the Year award, but to appeal to an extremely broad customer base, from precocious youths to codgers of either sex.
Slowly, however, its appeal diminished in an avalanche of opponents as others upped their game and created a bewildering number of niches.
Even though it was faced by Ford, VW, Honda, Renault, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Kia, Skoda, Seat, Peugeot, Suzuki, Citroen, and so on, the Yaris held its own due to excellent reliability and low running costs.
As time went on, these characteristics were not enough and the Yaris’s popularity waned in the face of increasingly funky and youth-oriented competitors.
Last year, Toyota reacted and the latest Yaris was launched across Europe as a re-imagined supermini with a modern twist.
The cross-your-heart ‘X’ face front-end was a variation on the theme that debuted on the Aygo, and it gave the Yaris a new, dynamic personality and an appeal that it had ceded to numerous opponents.
Toyota first got serious about modern, clean exterior styling with the Auris, and now they have filtered that process down to both Aygo and Yaris, displaying a playfulness for which the conservative Japanese manufacturer has not always been noted.
That is a good thing and displays the adventurousness needed to appeal to ever-gestating consumer desires and I certainly applaud Toyota’s newfound willingness to step outside accepted comfort zones.
This zeal is also found in the interior of the Yaris, which is a paragon of modernity and blessed with a far greater premium look and feel than was ever the case.
The Touch 2 multimedia system includes all the stuff you’d expect (Bluetooth, rear-view camera, etc.) to add sophistication, including a soft-touch strip across the dashboard. However, a few lower-level areas are covered with less-than-appealing hard plastics, which lower the tone.
The Touch 2 system means there is no longer a CD player in the Yaris and you’ll have to depend on your iPod for anything other than radio entertainment.
Space is particularly good for driver and front-seat passenger, while an increase in wheelbase has made life a little more bearable for those in the back, particularly for long-haul journeys — the Yaris is among the best in class for passenger comfort.
The Sol engine I tried was fitted with Toyota’s latest, three-cylinder, one-litre petrol, and a fine little unit it is, too.
Although not the most powerful engine, it enjoys hard work and yet remains frugal. Ok, so the 0-100kph dash takes 15 seconds and the top speed won’t smash the sound barrier, but the 4.3 l/100km (65mpg) consumption, and the tax-friendly 99 g/km emission rate, are an added level of appeal.
Some people might reckon that this is solely a town car, but don’t doubt its willingness.
The engine may be diminutive, but no more so than those of several rivals. It will tuck its chin in when required, and even on motorway trips is not fazed. The six-speed gearbox makes driving a lot easier than you might envisage.
The Yaris is not as sharp a handler as the Fiesta, but it is not light years behind. Grip levels are good, handling is very good and while the steering might not be as sharp as the Ford, the overall package is easy-to-live-with.
The Yaris has not died on the vine, as many predicted it would just a few short years ago, and Toyota are to be commended for breathing life into what was becoming an outmoded contender.
Added premium touches have given the car a neat look and a good driving feel, as well as making the interior a pleasant place to be. But it will probably appeal more to the mature driver than to the younger one Toyota might fancy getting on board.
The Yaris’s appeal will be based on the core elements of why people buy Toyotas: bomb-proof reliability, build quality, economy and running costs.
Having added an element of funkiness, Toyota has broadened that appeal, but I suspect that the age profile of buyers will remain towards the higher end.
But, then, maybe that’s a new niche in itself.
The Car: Toyota Yaris
The Cost: from €14,995 - €17,490 as tested in Sol trim.
The Engine: a small but very willing one litre three pot engine.
The Specification: surprisingly good for the money.
The Overall Verdict: much new life has been breathed into the Yaris.
Star Rating: ***
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved