Ecocar of choice

Toyota's much-awaited budget hatch is finally out. And when it's the last of the lot, how can it not be impressive?

Thanks to the Thai government's Ecocar project, the B-segment of passenger cars can now be divided into two categories depending on performance and price.

The first group is Ecocar itself, defined by prices in the 450,000-600,000 baht range with power less than 100hp; the other is non-Ecocar with a 550,000-700,000 baht range with outputs ranging from 100-120hp.

While this may still sound confusing for many potential buyers of small cars, it's actually a convenient way of streamlining their choice for a reasonably priced car.

Such distinction in price is naturally caused by the different excise tax rate Ecocars enjoy over their conventionally levied counterparts: 17% versus 30% (minus another 5% if E20-compatible). And the most recent brand to assert this differentiation is Toyota with its all-new Yaris that is now classified as an Ecocar. That's why it's roughly 100,000 baht cheaper than the preceding model.

So, anybody contemplating a Yaris should now solely focus on its low price and running costs rather than how well it could satisfy them in terms of performance.

In place of the previous 109hp 1.5-litre four-cylinder come a smaller 86hp 1.2-litre four-pot to suit Ecocar rules (petrol engines can't exceed 1.3-litre).

And to comply with the 20kpl minimum requirement in fuel economy, the new Yaris has more modern technical features like dual variable-valve timing control and a CVT automatic in place of the conventional four-speeder.

But before getting into the gist of performance matters, the first thing that should really rouse buyers is the spacious package the Yaris boasts over its rivals.

Fascia is straightforward to use and feels upmarket against rivals.

The Yaris has overwhelming dimensions to dwarf all of its Ecocar hatchback rivals, explaining why it has the most commodious cabin. Rear occupants will certainly be pleased by ample levels of both head and legroom, as well as the flat floor design.

Boot space is competitive and can be increased by folding the rear seats down. But like in its rivals, the extended area isn't flat and has a two-tier design instead.

While the positioning of the seatbelt for the centre rear occupant on the ceiling is an eye-sore, the Yaris has the most safety features in its class even if the airbag count stops at an unchallenging two.

Despite the world being in the digital age, the Yaris _ even in top spec G form as tested here _ has minimal gadgets. Don't even expect a navigation system.

Since we're still on the interior part, it's worth mentioning the cabin. Compared to rivals, the Yaris feels most upmarket due to nicer looking plastics and stitching. It's at totally the opposite end of the cheap-ish Brio from Honda.

The seats in the Yaris, particularly those up front, are supportive. The easy-to-use fascia replicates that of the Vios saloon, which shares the same platform but not the more advanced drivetrain of its hatchback cousin. At the moment, Toyota says it has no plans for making a four-door Ecocar (the Vios uses the dated 1.5-litre and four-speed auto of the old Yaris).

One might be inclined to question whether such a comparatively large body has really allowed the Yaris achieve the 20kpl requirement. Well, legally it has, despite the dubious homologation methods carried out by state authorities. In the real-world, however, Life has discovered that the Yaris isn't the most fuel-efficient car in its class. The best figure we got was 18kpl at real-world speeds, which is comparable to a Nissan March or Suzuki Swift but short of the Brio and Mitsubishi Mirage.

Rear accommodation is the best in class.

Performance in the Yaris is very similar to its competitors whereby power delivery is smooth at city speeds and is reluctant to rev to high engine speeds in the interest of economy.

However, the Yaris' CVT gearbox features a Sport mode that proves effective in giving the driver more responsiveness and engine revolutions during enthusiastic driving. Actually, the disparity between S and D modes is usefully more distant than in its rivals' transmissions.

Rounding off the Yaris' gearbox credentials is a B mode to provide engine-braking when driving up and down gradients. It appears that the Yaris has the most rounded CVT gearbox of all Ecocars.

But when it comes to the performance and economy balance, the Brio probably still hits the best chord with its peppy yet frugal 90hp 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine (the Brio is actually the smallest of all Ecocars).

Riding on a platform with generous dimensions has allowed the Yaris to yield a good balance between handling and ride. The chassis feels a touch firmer than in the Vios yet provides for a comfortable low-speed ride and adequately taut driving characteristics on the highway.

The steering is also nicely tailored by being light around town and carrying enough weight and directness elsewhere. Yes, the Yaris scores well in this department when compared to its opponents. Equally as good is cruising refinement which is possibly on par with the Swift.

The Yaris fares well when it comes the driving bit, although the static test drew some debate among the Thai media. While the Yaris looks new and fresh, the tail lights ape those of the Peugeot 208 and the contoured face can look cartoonish, especially on non-silver-coloured cars.Priced at 599,000 baht for the range-topping G spec as driven here, the Yaris is the most expensive car in its class. The good news, though, is that the other three trims all have an automatic gearbox and the same amount of airbags and braking electronics _ minus the G's frivolous features like keyless entry and go, as such.

They include the E priced at 549,000 baht, the J at 519,000 baht and J Eco at 469,000 baht. It's these variants that are competitively priced against rivals.

No manual gearbox is being offered because Toyota says hardly anyone buys it these days.

Which, ultimately, means that the Yaris turns out to be a very attractive car in its class. The only aspect that really prevents it from being an outright winner is average economy _ a crucial thing for many potential buyers of Ecocars.

But, on the contrary, it won't be surprising to see that many other clients may find the spacious package, good driving manners and strong brand image as sufficient compensation for the slight shortfall.

One shouldn't be surprised, either, of the Yaris' success because Toyota, after all, is the last of all brands to roll out an Ecocar (in Phase 1).

AT A GLANCE

Styling ............................... 7/10

The overall appearance feels fresh, but some design details are not for all.

Performance and economy... 7/10

Like in most Ecocar rivals, the engine characteristics lean toward fuel economy.

Handling and ride ................ 8/10

For a car of its nature, the chassis has a good balance between ride and handling.

Practicality ........................ 8/10

By being a proper B-segment hatchback, the Yaris has commodious levels of accommodation.

Safety kit ............................ 7/10

Although not outstanding, the Yaris has the most features in its class.

VERDICT ............................ 8/10

By being the last contender to enter the Ecocar race, the Yaris practically tops the class in overall ability thanks to a spacious package, capable chassis and refined driving manners _ if only was it more fuel-efficient.

Rear seats fold but create a two-tier floor matrix; seat belt for centre occupants hangs on the ceiling.

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About the author

columnist
Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor