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March 8, 2011updated 08 Apr 2021 8:12am

PRODUCT EYE: Toyota returns to an abandoned segment

Toyota was one of the originators of the B-MPV (mini-mini-minivan) segment in Europe about a decade ago with the original Yaris Verso (called the Fun CarGo in Japan). And then abandoned it.

Toyota was one of the originators of the B-MPV (mini-mini-minivan) segment in Europe about a decade ago with the original Yaris Verso (called the Fun CarGo in Japan). And then abandoned it.

The Yaris-based little-but-tall runabout was a hit with retirees in particular – high hip point for easy entry and exit, available ‘proper’ torque converter automatic (instead of the jerky automated manuals many automakers were starting to use in Europe to keep CO2 emissions down), a side-opening rear door (hinged correctly to open from the kerbside in right hand drive Britain) and a low boot floor for easy loading at the supermarket or garden centre.

It was also a hit with customers of Motability – the huge fleet buyer that leases vehicles, adapted if necessary, to disabled drivers. A wheelchair would Fit in the back, y’see.

So what did Toyota do? After selling around 150,000 in Europe from 2000 to 2005, it dropped the line entirely, leaving the field to newer rivals like GM’s Meriva, the Honda Jazz (Fit ), Citroen C3 Picasso and KIA Venga.

Reason: The second generation Yaris grew in size and G2 Yaris Verso , called Ractis in Japan, shrank and the difference between the two wasn’t enough to justify homologating two model lines. Even in a B segment that grew from 32% of total Europe sales in ’02 to 36% last year.

Last year, Toyota introduced a new Ractis in Japan, sharing it with new partner Subaru which calls it the Trezia, and it’s now come to Europe as the Verso S; the ‘S for “small, spacious and smart”, according to to Toyota marketing people: “A return to a growing segment where we have heritage”.

Its key appeal points are a versatile interior offering front seat headroom, rear seat space and luggage capacity closer to cars in the C segment, that higher seating again, flip fold rear seatbacks that can be released from the boot using Mazda 6-like levers therein and an adjustable height load floor – plus frugal fuel economy and low CO2 emissions.

The car has Toyota ’s latest 1,329cc DOHC, 16-valve Dual VVT-I (variable valve timing) petrol engine for 90bhp at 6,000 rpm and 125Nm of torque at a high 4,000rpm. Just as well it has a smooth shifting six-speed manual gearbox as standard because you need to use it a lot to maintain momentum, particularly on hilly motorways.

The upside is great economy. Like the Honda Jazz, the Verso S actually does better with its optional CVT automatic (which operates as a seven-step ‘box in ‘manual’ mode complete with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters so even granny can play F1 driver) – combined mpg on the EU test cycle is 54.3mpg with the auto and 51.4 with the manual.

Those all-important CO2 emissions, on which we are increasingly taxed here in Europe, are 120g for the CVT (meaning a GBP30 annual road tax charge versus GBP160 average) and 127g for the manual. Penny-conscious pensioners will love that.

Toyota attributes the economy to powertrain design and weight-saving measures such as an aluminium wiring loom and the T Spirit version’s frameless, glued-in sunroof in place of a traditional framed panel that imposes only 10kg of weight penalty over the steel roof.

British buyers will get just the one petrol engine although a 1.4-litre turbo diesel will be offered in Europe and automatic stop-start will be an extra with both manual and automatic petrol engines.

Toyota (GB) ran the numbers and concluded the extra cost (GBP1,000-1,500) would take most buyers – low mileage, private owners – far too long to recover given the higher cost of diesel and the relatively good economy of the petrol versions. A similar argument applied to stop-start – the fuel savings, perhaps 2-3mpg, hardly justify the extra cost but could be added if tax rules change.

A strong yen has made the UK price high – GBP14,465 and GBP15,745 for the two trim levels with GBP500 and GBP800 off – the margin cut split between TGB and its dealers – for the launch. So the equipment levels are high – seven airbags, stability control, a new touch screen media system, reversing camera, MP3 and USB audio inputs, manual a/c (some European versions get climate control) and alarm system standard on the ‘base’ TR while the T Spirit adds rear electric windows, alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof with electric blind, rear privacy glass and swaps a tyre repair kit in place of a space saver.

Port of entry fitted leather upholstery, ‘protection’ and ‘style’ packs are optional and, from May, GBP500 will add touch-screen navigation with Google Local Search facility (through a mobile phone) to the multimedia system.

Toyota says the Verso S is too expensive and there is no margin wiggle room for high volume fleet sales so it’s going after the private buyer – “active empty nesters” and “mature families”. It should also appeal to young families though I wonder if the Roberts Inc tandem double buggy will go in behind my two littlies in their child seats held in place by the standard ISOFIX mounts.

Toyota Europe expects to shift 25,000 in 2011 and 30,000 in a full year with 25% of those having the optional CVT gearbox.

Of those, Toyota (GB) is after 3,000 sales this year and 3,120 in a full year and expects a higher proportion of buyers than in Europe will go for the automatic transmission, as was the case with the Yaris Verso .

It also expects most buyers will be what execs tactfully referred to as “more mature” and that 75% of volume will be retail sales. TGB is targeting 4.7% of the now rather crowded B-MPV sector and 8% of the segment’s retail sales.

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