The latest Yaris hatchback, Toyota’s greatest Ford Fiesta rival, is a prime example of mainstream might tackling mass market appeal and Iain Robertson believes that it is a vastly improved model.


We are immensely impressed with the superminis that international manufacturing giants heft upon local markets. Ford’s Fiesta has always seemed to capture the motoring zeitgeist, since the Mark One’s introduction in the late-1970s. It took Toyota a couple of decades more, before its Yaris core introduction was slipped onto the scene, to command as significant a chunk of international sales.


However, just as Ford’s stake in the world motoring scene was growing in some areas, it was also tailing off in others, whereas Toyota, the manufacturer of consummate ‘bland-mobiles’, had hopped onto an up-escalator and would soon be commanding the Number One post in global terms. The first generation front-wheel-drive Yaris of 1999 looked determinedly European (most critics suggesting that it was a Renault Clio rip-off). It replaced the Starlet, which had been stoically rear-driven and, thus, suffered from poor space utilisation until 1985, when a front-driven platform was developed almost a decade after Ford had invested in front-driven technology for its supermini.


Toyota has seldom been quick off the blocks with its new models. A determined ‘follower’, rather than market-leading with its introductions, the original Yaris needed to take the supermini by the scruff of its neck and square up to a fast-developing sub-compact demand. Yet, it was also playing a somewhat different game and its worldwide production was based in both France (at Valenciennes) and Japan. As a European-built model, its sales took off.


However, while its delivery could be called ’sluggish’, Toyota is not a slow learner and its uncanny ability to serve markets with unswervingly strong model dependability (apart from a few recall ‘glitches’ of recent years) has been its greatest benefit. While motoring enthusiasts will feel empowered and drawn to the first-rate on-road talents of the Fiesta, the Yaris is significantly less dynamically gifted. Yet, not every motorist wants to hare around the back doubles like a Finnish rally driver.


Instead, the Yaris brand has become a repository for blue-rinsers and buyers desiring basic transportation that was as undemanding of them, as they would be of it. Of course, that is not to suggest that the Yaris is any less capable than its key European rival but, rather, that it possesses a softer and a less engaging dynamic appeal. As it happens, the market also needs models like the Yaris.


The latest version of its 1.33-litre, four cylinder twin-cam engine is no less than a little gem. It uses a keyless start system. Running at normal speeds it is refined and unflustered. Bury the throttle pedal into the carpet and the Yaris gathers pace at a modest rate. Fairly tall gearing gifts it a top speed nudging 110mph, after it has despatched the 0-60mph benchmark in around 11.4 seconds. While not exactly a flying machine, it is market competitive and can boast the benefit of a six-speed manual transmission, which makes the best use of its meagre 98bhp.


Its handling is well-resolved, with a decent ride quality for such a compact hatchback. The power steering is pleasantly weighted and effortless while parking and for low speed manoeuvres. It weights up slightly more for higher speeds, remaining well-geared and positive in its reactions. Body roll is kept in check, while grip levels are high from the 175/65R15 tyres. The ventilated front discs shave off speed strongly, aided capably by the rear drums.


Boasting an Official Combined fuel economy figure of 57.6mpg is a measure of its primary attraction and, while it proved difficult to match the government figure, the car settling into a comfortable 50mpg mode on longer trips, punting around town can soon drop the number into the mid-40s. Yet, it remains sweet enough to drive and offers enough mid-range punch to mix it happily in the rush hour melee. It only flounders a touch, when driving along motorways. However, buyers of small cars tend to be reluctant to put too much cash into the Exchequer’s coffers and, emitting 114g/km of CO2, an annual VED charge of £30, while hardly breaking the bank, is a downside of the larger capacity engine. If buyers want less than 100g/km, they can settle on a Yaris 1.0-litre, or the even better Yaris Hybrid (75g/km), should they wish to polish up their eco-warrior halos.


Although I feel personally that small car prices have crept up inexorably to become ‘too expensive’ of late, those of the Yaris are in-line with the Fiesta, so, to be fair, it must be regarded as market-competitive. In Icon trim, this model costs a moderate £14,745, which includes the excellent iPhone mirroring capabilities of the Touch2 6.1-inch monitor, that incorporates the £650 optional sat-nav and Google Search connectivity, which is truly excellent and represents good value.


Taking a styling lead from its ‘X-factor’ little brother, the Aygo, a bold radiator grille at the front is flanked by a pair of fog lamps and the small LED daytime running lamps’ array sits neatly above and within the angular headlamps to create maximum impact. Unlike the first generation, organically rounded Yaris, this one is altogether more sharply angular but it does offer a tremendous amount of space within the cabin and not just up-front, as the flat rear floor is also more accommodating for a third rear seat occupant.


The driver is well catered for, with a useful range of adjustment of both steering column and seat. It is a pity, therefore, that the boot is just average in carrying capacity. Once the rear seats are folded forwards to increase the load space, which is really only just big enough for a child’s pushchair otherwise, unfortunately they leave a hefty step-up in the load area, which is an increasing issue for small cars, as they have to comply with seat rigidity legislation to meet crash requirements.


The rest of the interior is pleasant enough, with soft-touch plastics on the dashboard and an uncluttered feel to the cockpit. Fortunately, the HVAC (heating and ventilation controls) is located separately, below the touch-screen, in a more intuitive centre-dash position. The Yaris is satisfyingly well-equipped, with air-con, electric windows, heated door mirrors and 15-inch alloy wheels among a host of other useful features.


Conclusions:  Although it might be perceived that Toyota needs to take the fight to Ford, the reality is that it can produce models that can reach into competitive territory, without all the bickering rivalry. The Yaris is already a great car, made better in its recent iteration. Like Fiesta, it is sold around the world in various guises and it satisfies buyers on all major counts. If solid, dependable transport is all that a buyer really desires, then a Yaris fits the bill to perfection but do not be fooled into thinking that it is an ‘ordinary’ small hatch, because Yaris possesses qualities that make it de rigueur for a very broad customer base and that hikes it into SUPERmini status.