The name Toyota is synonymous with value for money and reliability; cars that just keep on going. The family-sized Corolla has been South Africa’s best-selling car for decades, and the company’s rugged Hilux bakkie has also been topping the sales charts in its segment for yonks. In fact, I can think of very few Toyotas that have not been a sales success. Locally, the Tazz has become the first step into the Toyota family with the next rung up being a Corolla or RunX.

But, the gap between these two is gigantic, and it’s this so-called B-segment that is the fastest growing segment in the motor industry – traditionally with no Toyota to be found in it. Now that’s begun to change since Toyota introduced its spunky new Yaris super-mini late last year. Initially only available with one engine size, but different trim levels, the Toyota Yaris T3 Spirit is the eighth and last finalist in the 2006 South African Car of the Year contest.

The Yaris that’s been introduced here is the second generation, and is significantly bigger than its predecessor in order to set it apart from the new Aygo – a nippy little city-car not available locally. The Yaris is also Toyota’s third-biggest global seller; behind the Corolla and the Camry. When it comes to buying a car, most people look at the exterior design first, and in his department the Yaris is bound to impress. Appearing small from the outside, the front end features big headlamps and a striking radiator-grille with prominent Toyota badge. There’s a neat line on the side of the car that runs from below the exterior mirrors all the way to the back where the funky taillights contribute to the car’s cheeky exterior. It’s a cross-over design with the typical high-roof and raised seating, but in Spirit guise the Yaris looks funky and sporty instead of cute or girly – helped by the colour coded mirrors, door-handles, bumpers, fog lights and sporty alloy wheels.

However, the Yaris shines even brighter when you get to the interior. Once seated inside, all pre-conceptions about cramped space disappear. The driving position is high and when you look over your shoulder you’ll be amazed at the rear-passengers space. The rear seat can actually be moved forward and backwards to suit your specific needs, so when you need to accommodate luggage in the boot you can move the seat forward or backward when you’ve not cleaned out the shopping mall. The plastic hang-down section looks a bit cheap – especially with the satin-silver finish – but upon closer inspection you’ll see that it’s high quality and that there is nothing wrong with fit and finish in general. All instruments are digital and centrally mounted, clearing up space in front of the steering wheel where both driver and passenger have a lidded storage bin. There is also a traditional glove box and a tray beneath the passenger seat if your car becomes your office.

Cup-holders are situated just below the air-vents and the air-conditioning even keeps it cool under the scorching summer sun. The Yaris comes standard with electric power steering, a sound system with front-loading CD-player and a multi-function information display. Remote central locking, electrically adjustable windows and mirrors, ABS brakes with EBD and Brake Assist, seatbelt pre-tensioners and force limiters, a total of seven airbags and a 4 year/ 60 000km ToyotaCare service plan are also standard.

The Yaris has an all-aluminium 1.3-litre engine with Toyota’s intelligent variable valve timing system. It produces an impressive 63kW at 6 000rpm and 121Nm of torque at 4400 rpm. It will go from 0 to 100km/h in 12,5 seconds before clocking a top-speed of 173km/h. Some publications have mentioned that one should keep the revolutions above 2000 to avoid sluggish performance, but in general the Yaris performs well with a top-class and surprisingly supple ride – despite its compact dimensions. Fuel consumption is approximately 6,9-litres per 100km.

The Toyota Yaris T3 Spirit retails for R137 320 and fights a fierce battle against competitors from Volkswagen (Polo), Ford (Fiesta), Hyundai (Getz), Renault (Clio/ Modus), Kia (Rio), Opel (Corsa) and Honda (Jazz). The Polo is probably the most important competitor as it has often topped the monthly sales charts, but even after its recent revamp it looks old and conservative. Clio and Corsa are aging in terms of looks while the Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Getz recently received a facelift. Kia’s new Rio is another 2006 COTY finalist, and the Honda Jazz has been rated the best buy in the segment for two years running. So, what sets the Yaris apart from the rest?

It offers a stylish and funky package, which is most often a deciding factor when buying in this segment. While it’s only available in one engine size (for now), it has acceptable performance. It has more interior space than even I thought to be possible, and has a total of seven airbags. Combined with its 5-star EuroNCAP-rating and standard service plan, the Yaris is not only incredibly well spec’d but also one of the safest buys you can make. And it’s a Toyota.

To me there is simply no doubt that Toyota will again be topping the sales chart with the Yaris. And when compared to its competitors, it’s very hard to beat in terms of absolute peace-of-mind, value-for-money driving. The Toyota Yaris T3 Spirit is my choice for the 2006 South African Car of the Year.

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