Verso gets new Toyota corporate nose as seen on Auris and RAV4

Verso gets new Toyota 'corporate' nose as seen on Auris and RAV4

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Toyota Europe went to rather a lot of trouble to launch what is essentially just a mid-life facelift of its Europe-only Verso seven-seat MPV, local-speak for minivan. The Japanese new model pattern is a redesigned body and interior, and maybe new mechancials, every four years or so, with a mid-life facelift after two years that brings a new nose and tail, new dashboard and interior trim and perhaps a new engine or transmission option.

So why take the media to Europe's ED2 design studio in the south of France just for a facelift model? Because this is the first project designed there and developed in Europe since command of A-, B- and C-segment design and development was handed over by the  Japanese mother ship a couple of years ago. You'll maybe recall Toyota's promise, after the disastrous 2010 recalls worldwide, that more responsibility for product design and development would be handed to the regions, shortening decision times and lessening long-range management from Toyota City.

With the design studio nestled in the hills above Nice and an engineering centre at European HQ in Brussels plus its own plants in the UK, France and Turkey (where the Verso is made), Toyota Europe is well able to completely design its own models, rather than taking a car done largely in Japan and simply adapting it to meet local requirements for engines, emissions and equipment. So it has cut its teeth by making the Verso much more 'European' for its 2013 revamp.

The company cites 407 parts changes, “60% visible”, and the new nose, in line with the styling of the just-launched redesigned Auris, and the new RAV4 due out in March is, of course, most noticeable. But it's the interior, which after all is what owners and passengers see most of, that's really been transformed and very cleverly so.

Overall style and layout is all but unchanged so expensive moulds for the plastics did not have to be much changed; instead the engineers and suppliers have focused on appearance and tactile feel.

Most models now have a leather-rimmed steering wheel and virtually every surface, of what was previously a uniformly dull, monotone, battleship grey cabin, has a new coating and feels warmer and nicer to the touch. Combine that with new upholstery patterns and materials and some bright silver highlights across doors and dash and around the vents and centrally-mounted dials, and add in new white instrument backlighting with orange for the switchgear, and you have a transformed cabin that, if not yet in the same league, approaches the latest from the likes of Volkswagen, Ford, Vauxhall/Opel, PSA and Renault, most of whom field a competitor for the Verso.

This is the fourth re-do since the first generation (five-seat) Verso was launched in 2002, followed by a redesigned, seven-seat second generation in 2004 and the third generation in 2009. Over 650,000 have been sold in Europe; and more than 52,000 here in the UK.

Apart from the new nose job and interior, there's new tail lights you'll have to look closely at to spot, a chrome strip tailgate highlight and new wheels.

Under the skin, driving dynamics have been refined with attention to spring and damper settings, electric power steering settings have been tweaked, engine and wind noise reduced (the popular two-litre diesel has reduced combustion clatter; the A-pillar has been smoothed and there are reshaped door mirrors), extra welds around front door and tailgate opening increase body rigidity, while reduced friction in the diesel engine lowers fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Driven in driving rain and strong winds, the updated car handled and rode well, with a noticeably quieter diesel engine (the 1.6 manual and 1.8CVT automatic petrol options carry over with tweaks to make the CVT feel more like a conventional step-change autobox) and the strong mid-range power of the two-litre D4-D was also impressive along with the change quality of its six-speed gearbox.

C-segment MPVs accounted for over 1m sales in Europe in 2011 and 935,000 last year and Toyota is after a 5% slice – roughly 40-45,000. It expects 40% of sales to come from current Toyota owners and a sizeable 60% conquest rate.

Europe-wide specification and pricing has been 'realigned' to offer a seven-seater for a five-seater price against models such as Ford's C-Max, Renault's Scenic and Opel's Zafira.

Toyota GB has introduced new Active, Icon and Excel grades, replacing T2, TR and T-Spirit, and has lowered the entry-level car GBP555 to GBP17,495 though it is now a five-seater. But it expects this model to take only 5% of the targeted 3,300 sales this year. The GBP19,945 Icon, which will sell primarily as a diesel, will be the volume seller with 85% leaving the top GBP23,445 Excel with 10%. Key options are Toyota Go smartphone integrated navigation upgrades and a glass sunroof with electric sunshade.

A warranty of five years and 100,000 miles applies in the UK where 72% of private Toyota sales are on PCP plans. Verso monthly payments will start at GBP199 with 'easy' GBP10-30 'steps up' to the diesel engine option or higher trim levels.

According to Toyota (GB) chief Jon Williams, the targets are “conservative” and the company will be “focusing outside deep-discount segments” such as Motability fleet sales.

He expects the new five-seat version to appeal to a new set of customers who don't need seven chairs and will appreciate the lower entry-level price.