Yaris is the belt and braces choice

 

RoadTest/Toyota Yaris: You have to feel sorry for all the small car manufacturers. For years now they have marketed their diminutive vehicles as flexible and fun, clearly targeted at the youth market.

Weeks are spent honing the marketing message, with various pony-tailed advertising executives mainlining on café mochas deciding which perfect 20-something model should be the face of the latest advertising campaign.

All that time and effort to woo young motorists into small cars. The end results were often admirable efforts. Yet when it came to the crunch, dealers found the greatest interest, and those that came up with the cash, were in their 50s and 60s.

For all the smooth campaigns and marketing spin, the young motorists aspire to luxury and speed, while it takes the more mature motorists to spot the practical benefits of small hatchbacks.

So, amid the undoubted recriminations, the designers are called in and told to make the little cars more "funky" and, of course, "dynamic". In recent years that has led to a host of small car entries burgeoning with sweeping lines and digital read-outs.

What the traditional Toyota Starlet owner would make of the latest Yaris remains to be seen. It does look a little futuristic for the average nun - a popular subset of the Starlet owners' club.

Yet, while the corporate aim may be to get young people into the likes of the Yaris and persuade them of the merits of buying Toyotas throughout their motoring life, there's much to be said for the common sense judgment of the elder motorist.

For once, the young first-timers should listen to what their mother - or even their grandmother - has to say about the practical needs in motoring.

I may be forced to eat my words in the future, but the latest Yaris has managed to cross the age divide. The styling has finally come good: the short snout and sharp curves making it more attractive than previous ultra-bland versions. Even the high-set lights give it a sort of impish charm, sadly lacking on previous mundane models.

Inside, the digital read-out gives it a sense of timeliness, suggesting that just because you're buying a small supermini it doesn't mean you are out of step with developments in more sporting markets.

Then there's the practicality: we're hard-pushed to remember a car of its size with so many cubbyholes and storage spaces. It seems like every panel either flips open or pops out. Hoarders will be delighted with the amount of junk they can carry with them on their trips.

As with the previous version, the speedometer and display is in the centre of the dash, and now there's even a storage box in the dash directly in front of the steering wheel.

There are some ergonomic problems with the digital readout, one that's common with many other models; its location in the centre of the dash means you have to skew your eyes to the left to read the speed. Arguably it takes no more effort than the traditional glance downwards, but it's not intuitive to the traditional motorist.

Heading off for the family festivities, our aptly coloured red chariot performed its duties with aplomb and I could see why you could fall for its charms.

Though it was the entry level version, with great swathes of plastic and none of the fancy gimmicks now available with the luxury pack trim - such as keyless entry and starter buttons - when we were motoring along the country roads it felt spacious, solid and secure. There were no complaints about legroom or elbow space from those in the back, the boot was filled with the usual Christmas clutter of presents and behind the wheel I never got the impression that if it was my everyday car, I would feel I was sacrificing anything for the sake of saving on a new car purchase. The car bounces a little on the back roads, but it feels solid and well set on the road.

The little three-cylinder engine is peppy and pushes along without too much complaint. It's the same engine that's in the smaller Aygo, but Toyota has clearly spent more on sound-proofing here and the tinny whine it emits in the Aygo is now thankfully quelled in the Yaris. While at motorway speeds it still has that constant drone, it's got a sprightly take-off and the well-ratioed gears means it releases a nice little surge of power with every change. It's no racer, but it's peppy enough to get you off the starting blocks at traffic lights.

The steering is light and precise, making the Yaris a breeze to park, and it doesn't have that numb feeling that affects some of its European counterparts, notably the Renault Clio. The seats are comfortable and there's impressive headroom. Back seats can cope with two adults or three children at a push. The large windows and windscreen also help visibility. The Yaris has a new flexible seating arrangement that allows the back row of seats to push forward and/or flip and the boot has a small underfloor storage compartment that's handy for valuables such as laptops, keeping them hidden from prying eyes. Overall, the luggage space is not huge, but respectable compared with rivals.

Toyota is about to become king of the world's car firms next year and its elevation to the throne has come from its concentration on the logical part of motoring: unquestioned reliability and practicality. For all that, it has never quite developed the emotional attachment that European models have.

Certainly the purchase of the early Starlet was a decision of the head ruling the heart. Yet Toyota has been busy addressing this issue and this latest European-designed Yaris is the closest they have come to creating a character-laden little supermini, with a sense of flair.

It's hard to fault anyone for opting for the Yaris. It's rock-solid reliability and practicality ensures a decent resale value. It might not be the sleek sports car you always dreamed off but it's just so user-friendly you can't help but like it. In the supermini sector, it's the most obvious choice.

If the Japanese can add a little personality to their cars, it will steal a great deal of the thunder from European carmakers and force them to compete in an area the Japanese know best; build quality and reliability.

It's closest rival is arguably the Suzuki Swift in terms of value for money. However, though the Yaris costs that little bit extra, it's the obvious sensible buy in the small car market.