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It seems strange to think of classic compacts like the Corolla and Civic playing big brother to a range of even thriftier super-compacts, but with running expenses continuing to crunch hard on car owners, the era of the city car starts to make a whole lot of sense.
It’s not like you need to go without any of the usual mod cons just because you’re downsizing. The days when air conditioning and in-car sound systems were expensive optional extras are long gone.
Take our top-spec Toyota Yaris YRX hatch. It costs $21,390, but its impressive roll call of standard features include automatic transmission, climate control air-conditioning, satellite navigation with a 6.1-inch touch screen, a premium sound system, full smartphone connectivity with Bluetooth streaming and automatic headlamps.
And that’s just the highlights - the complete inventory of creature comforts and safety kit on board the Yaris is as extensive as those found in many of the larger, more expensive players.
But it’s not like Toyota has sewn up the light car game with Toyota Yaris. There are more than a few all-stars competing in this ever-growing segment. Models such as the Mazda 2, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio and Suzuki Swift all offer exceptionally good packages at the budget end of the spectrum.
To give the Toyota its credit, Yaris sales still trump the competition, with March sales results showed it to be the clear favourite with a market share of 13.5 per cent, well ahead of second place Mazda 2 with 11.7 per cent.
The Yaris range offers two four-cylinder petrol engines – a 1.3-litre and 1.5-litre – and either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
While there’s no fuel-saving direct injection technology, the 1.5-litre engine under the bonnet of the YRX is good for 80kW and 141Nm. That’s more than the Mazda 2 and Hyundai i20. As the top-spec, automatic model in the Yaris range, it’s also the heaviest fuel user, rated at 6.3L/100km - but that’s still pretty good by today’s petrol city car standards.
Despite the relatively small output engine, progress is more than sufficient and is assisted by the car’s relatively light, 1025kg weight. Acceleration from a standing start certainly won’t have you lagging behind the rest of the traffic, and freeway travel at 110km/h is effortless for the Yaris.
It’s quiet, too - especially for a four-speed auto, which tend to become rowdy at mid to high revs. Even when accelerating hard up a steep incline, the cabin remains relatively noise-free.
Unfortunately, four-speed automatic transmissions are still very much favoured by the majority of manufacturers in this segment, including Toyota. And while Yaris doesn’t suffer unduly from the overall driving experience, Toyota would do well to follow the lead taken by Volkswagen, which offers a seven-speed DSG transmission on several of its Volkswagen Polo variants. Ford is another exception to the practice, also offering a dual-clutch gearbox (with six speeds) with its Ford Fiesta models.
Right from the outset, Toyota was keen to improve the driveability of the third-generation Yaris, with particular attention paid to Australian roads and conditions. That meant increased body rigidity, a larger footprint, more responsive steering and locally tuned suspension settings. The result is a car that is sure-footed enough in the handling department without challenging the most fun city cars to drive, the Fiesta, Polo and Mazda2.
The ride is also an improvement over the previous-generation car, with the Yaris able to comfortably absorb the worst of our local roads.
Previous generations of Yaris were always high on ‘cute appeal’ and were thus heavily skewed towards female buyers. Not so with the latest edition, which falls in line with Toyota’s current corporate face and provides a bolder on-road presence.
The highlights are the deep front and rear bumpers that effectively give Yaris a nice, low stance.
You’ll also notice the tricky single-blade windscreen wiper - (like Mercedes-Benz once employed).
Climb aboard and you’ll immediately notice the fresh design with special attention paid to the look and feel of the plastics. However, there are no soft-touch materials used on the dash, but the mix of textures and colours is nonetheless appealing.
We don’t mind the fabric seats, either; they’re well bolstered and comfortable. The overall driving position has also improved with a lower steering column mount and a three-spoke, thick-rimmed leather steering wheel making for a decidedly sporty feel behind the wheel of the Yaris.
The instrument cluster and switchgear is well laid out (unlike on the previous model Yaris) and very clean thanks to integrated touch screen, which controls a variety of functions including satellite navigation and an excellent sound system with what must surely be the fastest responding Bluetooth system we’ve yet to encounter on any model we have tested this year.
Both the YZR and ZR Yaris get live traffic updates via SUNA traffic channel, split screen with 3D graphics and DivX player via USB port.
It might be a member of the light car class, but rear seat leg and headroom is sufficient for adult passengers and there’s room for large feet to slide under the front pews.
The longer wheelbase (up 50mm) has meant an increase in rear cargo space to 286 litres – bigger boot space than that offered by the Fiesta, Mazda2 and Polo. That includes a clever compartment under the cargo floor, helped, however, by the inclusion of a space-saver rather than full-size spare wheel.
While the Yaris misses out on a centre console bin, there are 24 individual storage compartments in the cabin.
There’s no compromise on safety features on board either, with a full suite of active and passive features including seven airbags, vehicle stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes with brake assist.
Dynamically, the Toyoya Yaris is still not quite at the same level as it’s main rivals, but as an overall package, with the added benefit of Toyota’s brand strength in reliability, the Yaris presents a strong case in the light car segment.