Hands up if you can remember the Toyota Starlet? And no Googling either. Good memory if you can because even hardened car aficionados tend to forget the various iterations of the smallest Toyota offered until the arrival of the Yaris, so yawn-inducing a product it was.

1999 was a watershed for tiny Toyotas because the Yaris was such a leap forward, banishing its comparatively grey predecessor to the annals of best-forgotten history. That well received first generation Yaris was available as a regular hatchback, as well as the Verso, a mini-MPV if you will. In Japan, where it was known as the FunCargo, it was sold as a funky lifestyle vehicle to trendy young families who liked to be just a little bit kooky. Here, it found favour with those with creaky joints and silvered hair permatinged blue – an easy to access vehicle for septuagenarians and beyond.

Sales were so modest that when the second edition of the Yaris hatches arrived in 2005, the new Verso remained at home in Japan, where it was now known as Ractis. One would be forgiven for assuming that that initial offering would be Toyota’s only venture into the small-but-tall market segment, especially with the chunky Urban Cruiser filling a similar role. But now, they’re having another crack at the market, with the new Verso-S, tested here in range topping T Spirit specification.

Although it shares its underpinnings with the all-new, third generation Yaris due on sale at the end of the year, the Verso-S makes no reference in its name to its hatchback sibling. Neither does it fall into the same trap of other Japanese small MPVs resembling unlovely blocks with the hard edges chamfered off.

Toyota has worked hard to bestow the Verso-S with an interesting look and it manages to be quite distinctive without being too weird – much of Toyota’s sales success in making them the world’s largest car manufacturer, is down to not scaring off the typically conservative buyers that many of its ranges attract. The headlamp units stand proud on the snub little bonnet, the window line rises to a high point at the rear (although it hurts rear visibility with that thick rearmost pillar) and there are scallops to the body panels to entice the eyes further, most prominently above the sills and on the bonnet. The overall result is attractive and the silhouette not unlike its primary rival, Honda’s Jazz. Compared with the Yaris Verso before it, the styling is mature and much less off-putting, not trying to be distinctive purely for the sake of it.

Despite 1.4 D-4D common rail diesel and 1.5 petrol engines available in other markets, the UK range is limited to just the 1.33 Dual VVT-i power plant with front wheel drive. Two generously equipped trim levels are offered, in TR and T Spirit guises, each available with a six-speed manual or Multidrive S automated transmission. 

Verso-tile Interior

As with the majority of cars in this sector, interior space is good, those near vertical and tall lines liberating a lot of room within the body. Although the seat trims and plastic mouldings are predominantly dark grey, the full length tinted glass roof ensures the cabin is light and airy. You can, of course, reduce the glare of the sun and use the one touch electric blind to make the interior feel more enclosed.

Toyota has followed the lead of its rivals by venturing into soft touch plastics for some of the dashboard mouldings of the Verso-S, which are welcome and add a dash of tactile delight. There are a few remnants of the harder materials we were used to in places that fall easy to hand, but the build quality on this example was exemplary overall. The dash itself is straightforward in its basic functions with an unusual styling theme which transforms from straight and rectangular around the air vents at the top down to a circular gear lever surround at the base of the console. Both it and the instrument binnacle are topped by a corrugated finish plastic, while the three main dials are bold and easily legible, surrounded by metallic accents. There were certainly no quibbles over the quality of the materials used, their ease of operation or location.

By far the dashboard’s most attractive feature is the colour touch screen, with well chosen graphics in a red colour scheme. As one might expect it plays host to the stereo settings, including iPod/MP3 connection, a very detailed trip computer, optional satnav and the television screen for the reversing camera. The camera itself sits just below the number plate plinth, offering a wide angled view of events going on behind the car. Very effective and an essentially simple thing from which a surprising amount of pleasure can be derived.

Verso by name, reasonably Verso by nature: there are plenty of storage trays and space for oddments to be located. None seemed especially cavernous though, nor did any of them offer any surprise or delight in terms of well damped lids swivelling back to reveal another cubby, but they did the job. Twin gloveboxes offered further accommodation for odds and ends, the upper one being home to the docking point for auxiliary music equipment, meaning they can be used and kept away from prying eyes. It should be a safe place to be too, with seven airbags dotted around the interior, although the Euro NCAP test has yet to take place.

Front seats in the Verso-S were comfortable, holding the driver in place well, and not suggesting any early signs of fatigue in the lumber region would be likely on a much longer journey. The six-way adjusting driver’s seat also featured a fold down arm rest adding to the comfort.

Although the rear bench seat looked flat, it was comfortable and two adults could sit there without getting in each other’s way. Legroom was very generous too, a virtue of the rear seat being higher set than the fronts and not with any detriment to headroom either. The rear seat has three 3-point seatbelts and ISOFIX child seat locaters on the outer ones, but the middle position could prove uncomfortable unless you feature in a Lowry painting as the buckles are very close together, meaning the ‘seat’ area is very slender. Those thick rear pillars and standard privacy glass ensure the rear quarters feel private rather than constricted. The floor in the back is completely flat too, with an absence of a transmission or ancillaries tunnel.

T Spirits have a larger boot than the TR models (429l versus 393l with rear seats up), due to the higher priced models doing away with a spare wheel. This liberation of boot volume allows for a moveable floor to be fitted, providing a deep tray in the lower position and a flat floor flush with the bumper height in the upper. The split rear seat can be folded to provide an almost flat loadspace similar to that of a small van, the folding occurring at the pull of a lever on the inside of the boot walls. A simple system that works well. For buyers trading up from a Yaris Verso, two points of note here – the loading height is not as low as on the older vehicle and the tailgate itself is hinged at the roof, not a side opening door as before.

Standard equipment on the T Spirit line Verso-S is impressive. Besides four electric windows and powered mirrors, customers will also enjoy remote central locking, air conditioning, steering wheel controls for both the stereo and Bluetooth connectivity and traction control among other features. 

Runners and Riders

As with the Urban Cruiser tested recently, Toyota follows the similar path of independent MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle. Whilst body control at both high and low speeds is good, it doesn’t quite soak up urban ruts and bumps with quite the same level of accomplishment as its sibling. It’s not bad – just not quite up to Urban Cruiser standards. On dual carriageways and back roads, even in the slippery conditions of the test, it remained very stable, gusts of wind not having any impact in discouraging the body from behaving.

The 1.33 variable valve timing petrol engine proved to be quiet and refined in urban settings and was a sensible combination with the manual gearbox. Changing ratios between the six cogs is a slick affair, which encourages you to press on but the reality is the Verso-S does not like being harried along, especially in first or second. Driving it precisely and smoothly delivers the best from the light controls of the car. Despite its refinement lower down the rev range, the engine does become noisier than expected at higher speeds, not helped by sitting at 3000rpm in sixth when keeping up with the flow of traffic. The level of noise isn’t off-puttingly raucous, but you get the impression a little more sound deadening materials wouldn’t have gone amiss. Further reminders that this is a car to be driven with consideration are the ‘shift’ lights to indicate whether to go up or down a gear to optimise fuel economy. Official figures of 51.4mpg average seem sensible as the trip computer history showed various journeys well into the mid-40s.

It’s no ball of fire with 106mph top speed and the 0-60 sprint taking over 13 seconds but it performs at a level that won’t leave you embarrassed or being overtaken by caravanners. Like many small petrol engines, outright flexibility is not a particular strong point, requiring the drop of a gear or two to get from 40 to 70mph if you want to do it briskly.

On a similar theme, and combined with those light controls, the driving experience feels uninspired. The steering is accurate, the grip excellent too, but there is a lack of sensation about what the wheels are experiencing on the asphalt as you grip the leather-clad wheel. You wouldn’t rush out early in the morning to take it for a blast around twisty B-roads, although that rather misses the point. If you wanted a car like that, you buy it and generally make your life fit around it. If you’re buying a Verso-S you want it because of what you can get in it, not because you want to feel like you’re tearing up the Nürburgring as you pootle to B&Q. 

Verdict

There is a growing selection of mini-MPVs on the market, but buyers still cross shop them against similarly sized hatchbacks as well as larger MPVs from the size above. Like almost every car buying decision, how it looks for you will be a primary motivator. Amongst its rivals it’s good looking in a safe sort of way and while you’re unlikely to spot anyone mouthing “wow” as you drive past, neither will they be looking in disbelief as they might have if you’d driven the same journey in a Yaris Verso.

Although aimed at different types of buyer, it’s natural to compare the Verso-S with the Urban Cruiser as many will in the showroom. Low speed ride quality apart, the newcomer feels the superior product. More spacious, more practical, better built, arguably better looking and certainly better value. Only really the lack of a diesel engine, and possibly no 4WD option, might make buyers think twice. With Toyota’s legendary build quality and reliability, plus that five year warranty in the mix too, the Verso-S makes a case for itself in the small MPV arena.

Quick Stats 

Model Tested: Toyota Verso-S T Spirit 1.33 Dual VVT-i

Top Speed: 106mph

0-60: 13.3sec

Average fuel consumption: 51.4mpg

CO2 emissions: 127g/km

Engine size: 4/1329cc fuel injection petrol

Power: 98bhp

Torque: 92lb/ft

Price: £15,745 (April 2011)

Many thanks to Garry and Jonathan of Listers Toyota, Lincoln for their excellent levels of service and assistance, as well as supplying the car.

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