Toyota Yaris Hybrid Extended

A few extra details for the mechanically minded folks.

My first sight of the new Yaris Hybrid was on the bus transfer from Amsterdam airport. We were pulling up to a private hotel bar, and as I looked up the gravel driveway there were more than fifty brand new cars, all in the same colours (either white or silver) with their doors open, the bodies spotless, and the wheels and tyres cleaned to absolute perfection (yes, the tyres had been washed free of gravel once parked). You get the feeling that no one there had a “that’ll do” attitude.

We were escorted into the hotel and onto the first floor, where we were greeted by buckets of ice-chilled drinks, platters covered in all sorts of wonderful foods, and to top it off as many complementary Mars bars as you could stuff your pockets with.

After eating on the balcony and being given keys, we were all given our first chance to take a proper close up look at the car, and you have to say it’s certainly something. Quite apart from being blown away by the identical, delivery mileage cars all sitting next to each other in spaces measured to the millimetre, this is by far and away the best looking Yaris when you compare it to the previous generation models, the first from 1999 and the second from 2005. It looks fantastically aggressive, supposedly because it not only cuts through the air more decisively than the standard car, but as the Chief Engineer of the project Hirofumi Yamamoto said “We also wanted to make the design more aspirational whilst incorporating the new Toyota design direction”. So as part of the ‘under priority frontal design’, as it is known, the car has a much larger, chiselled looking lower grille, much better defined lower vents (smoother, and less aggressive looking that the ones on the standard car to reduce drag), a slimmer upper grille, Toyota’s ‘Hybrid Blue Badge’, 15 or 16 inch alloy wheels, and LED daytime running lights. The LEDs were particularly impressive, as was the whole front light assembly – it just brought the car to life, and really made it look like a modern car, not just a slightly redesigned version of the previous generation model.

Looking around the car, from the side you really can see it’s a Yaris. The wheelbase is exactly the same as the standard car, measuring in at 2,510 mm (60 mm more than the previous gen car), but the body is 20 mm longer at the front to make it a tad more aerodynamic (the car has a drag coefficient of 0.286), but on a practical level to make room for various extra bits and bobs hidden under the bonnet. At the back is where things really look interesting; as with the front lights, the rear lights are all new and look fantastic, and much more modern than those on cars like the Ford Fiesta. All this extra design goodness comes mostly from the LEDs, which remind me of the old McLaren Mercedes SLR. Very tidy.

On the inside, it’s all very trendy. Quite apart from the funky blue-mesh looking CVT drive-selector, everything is very nicely put together and feels sturdy, and there are a few attempts to make the interior look a bit brighter, like the silver dash, chromed instrument surrounds and coloured dour linings. Also, depending on the specification, you get leather seats, a leather steering wheel, leather handbrake, electric wing mirrors, an electric fuel filler cap, and a whole host of other interesting bits of tech. If you go for the higher cars (the specs run from T3 to T4 and T Spirit) you get rain sensing wipers, automatic lights, a starter button (a fun little button that makes it feel more like an Aston Martin than a city car), a rear view camera which appears on the ‘Touch and Go’ satnav, and cruise control. Cruise control was an excellent feature on the motorway, and if anything a little distracting, as I kept trying not to break when the car in front did, but press buttons instead to brake the car for me.

What I found most interesting was the blue lighting behind all of the instruments and on the when you go through a tunnel or drive when it’s dark. Of course it’s only cosmetic, but it looks great combined with the blue stitching laced throughout the cabin, and reminds you of the instruments in the epic Lexus LFA hypercar. On the subject of dials, a feature that encourages smooth driving is the leftmost dial which shows ‘CHG’, ‘ECO’, and ‘PWR. When the petrol engine is engaged and you’re accelerating, the dial will leap to somewhere in the power region; If you have a steady foot or are driving on the batteries the needle will hover over Eco; According to Toyota GB’s boss Jon Williams, the hybrid “powertrain efficiency puts less wear through on brake pads and discs, as the electric motor acts as an engine brake, providing up to a half of all braking requirements.” Perhaps most interestingly, when you brake or back off the throttle, the eclectic motor spins up to charge the batteries.

One last word on the interior was the Touch & Go system that you might have seen advertised extensively on TV and various other places. Intuitive and useful, it didn’t go wrong (well it did once, but every journalist on the trip made the wrong turning so it must have been an error with the postcode) and it always told you the speed limits and where speed cameras were.

The list of safety features on the car is comprehensive – if you can think of a safety feature or system, the Yaris Hybrid will have it, regardless of spec. The steering column, for example, can deform in an accident, as can the pedals, and to prevent your knees being bruised in a crash you can count on the airbags under the steering wheel to provide complete protection.

First things first when it comes to driving is the CVT gearbox. At first, you don’t notice it, as you spend most of your time trying to listen out for when the engine comes in and when the electric motor is solely powering the car. But when you put your foot down or go  above 40 mph, it’s disconcerting not hearing the car change gear – the revs stay high and the speed just keeps climbing; it’s like one gear that has the ability to do any speed and any revs It’s very, very smooth, as the revs remain almost constant as the speed climbs, but it does feel unnatural. Good, but it is odd to begin with.

The nickel-metal hydride battery and the electric motor make the system feel strong at low speeds (the system and car engineered by Hirofumi Yamamoto, pictured right), because as with any electric motor all the torque is available from any speed, so zipping between lanes in silence is no problem at all, except for the billions of cyclists who were in Amsterdam when I was driving, as they had no way of telling I was overtaking. Jon Williams also added that because of the way the system has been mapped (technology perfected by more than 200 people for the Yaris Hybrid) “we estimate a Yaris Hybrid will save around 12% versus a conventional Yaris 1.33 petrol over 60,000 miles.” Fuel economy is quoted at 80 mpg, but I managed 76 mpg without even trying, revving the engine when I felt the need or wanted a bit of fun, but also driving on electric power only to enjoy the silence.

The electric motor is fun, perhaps most of all because you just zip around from here to there in town and never need ‘more’. It is also massively better on fuel economy. You hear journalists all the time criticising diesel, saying it’s lumpy, gutless and just a little bit rubbish when compared with petrol, but when discussing hybrids, to make hybrids sound like the bad choice’, they say “diesels are amazing – they get more than 60 miles to the gallon!”. But with the Yaris Hybrid, you get to have the fun and responsiveness of petrol and fuel economy figures bettering anything a diesel could ever hope for and near silent driving. I drove along not violently but giving the engine the beans every now and then, braking, accelerating, braking, accelerating, and I easily managed 74 mpg; if I drove like Pope Benedict, more than 80 mpg, the quoted combined cycle, would be an absolute doddle.

Speaking of the engine, it’s pretty strong. It’s a 1.5 litre inline-4 with 73bhp (98 bhp with the electric motor) at 4,800 rpm and 82 lb/ft of torque between 3,600 rpm and 4,400 rpm. It’s an interesting engine that pulls well, with 0-60 mph coming up in 11.8 seconds (ok, that’s slow, but it feels quicker) and a top speed of 103 mph. What’s fascinating to me is how 70% of the engine parts have either been redesigned or are new components compared to the system in the Auris. And as a result, it all weighs 42 kg (20%) less than the engine in the Auris.

After a while I got bored with driving like a saint, and I was pleasantly surprised how the car handled when you drive a bit like someone chasing you down with a stick. The car has MacPherson Strut front suspension and Torsion Beam rear suspension, and it also has a 63:37 front/rear weight distribution and a 550 mm centre of gravity, both average figures for a car of this type, but the car feels settled and composed.

Driving along in town or on the motor way, the ride is excellent, and not everything has been dampened out, so you still get the ‘feel’ of the road coming up through the suspension. To do what every journalist does and talk about steering feel is a bit boring as the car hasn’t been designed to be a track monster (obviously), but none the less the steering is direct – even if there isn’t tons of feel, you know where it’s going and what it’s about to do.

The driving position, however, is a little strange. You can adjust the seats up or down, but in doing so it moves forwards or backwards a little bit too, so if you get the right distance between you and the peddles but then decide to lower the seat you end up changing your position. Also, I found that if I was a comfortable distance from the steering wheel my legs would be too close to the pedals, but that’s probably more to do with the fact that I have freakishly long legs than anything else.

Drivers have the option of selecting two drive modes when out and about in the car. ‘EV’ mode and ‘ECO’ mode. EV mode, as you might expect, means that up to about 30 mph only the electric motor will power the vehicle, even if you put your foot down. ECO mode dampens out the finer details of the driver’s inputs, so small movement in the steering will not be sent to the wheels and poking the throttle won’t change the engine’s revs, all meaning better fuel economy. I spent a good 10 minutes feathering the throttle completely unnecessarily, and yet the fuel economy remained very respectable.

The brakes were solid and powerful (vented discs at the front, solid at the back), so despite this being a brand new car the brakes should stay strong right up until the end of their life. Whenever you do use the brakes, much of the energy that would normally go to waste is used to charge the Nickel Hydride batteries, so even if you’ve been using EV mode for a while, you’ll have plenty of go left when you need to set off again. Think KERS in Formula 1 and you’ll get some idea of what the system does. And because the batteries are almost always charged to some extent, the engine is turned off for a considerable amount of your time on the road. At the launch, Toyota took data from the computers onboard and showed that we drove with the engine off almost 50% of the time. Zero emissions for 50% of the time is pretty incredible.

One last thing to mention is how quiet it is. When the original Prius was introduced, one of its main selling points was just how quiet it was, and now it’s even quieter you can have a chat with passengers, listen to birds chirp in approval as you drive by, and listen for the time when the petrol motor does cut in. I took it as a personal challenge to drive around on electric power only, and as you can see from a video of Richard (my co driver and Toyota’s technical PR man) it was jolly good fun trying to see who had the fastest Yaris Hybrid.

Should you buy one?

Well, put it this way. It’s a city car you can drive outside the city with ease, you get cheaper fuel, you don’t have a car that sounds like a tractor, the electric motor is great in town and superbly quiet, the ride is great, the seats comfortable, the interior interesting, the brakes good and the looks… Well, they’re pretty decent.

The only provisos are that prices start at £14,995 and rise all the way to £16,995, so it’s expensive compared to, for example, a basic Ford Fiesta (although fuel prices and running costs after purchase will be much cheaper than in the Ford), and if you’re not sure about the CVT gearbox take one for a test drive before you sign on the dotted line, because as quiet as it is, it might not be the right thing for you.

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