Theme: Japan – The Best Ever Toyota Design?

Toyota made their reputation (and the bulk of their profits) on serious (if occasionally dull) cars. The Yaris however was different. 


This month’s theme has brought to mind, for the first time, that I don’t really think about the nationality of the cars that I buy – with the possible exception of German ones (I seem to pathologically avoid them for being too obvious a choice). I arrived at this via the realisation that, in the S.V. Robinson car buying nationality stakes, Japan stands second only to France. And I found myself rather discombobulated at this.

For the record, I have owned five Japanese cars: a Honda Integra, a Yaris, two Subaru Legacys, and now a Mazda 3, and I’m blown if I can think of a single (other) thing that they have in common. Perhaps surprisingly, though, with the exception of the Honda, design was one of the main attractions to these cars.

Among them, I think the Yaris stands out for design integrity, unity, and originality. I am, I think most of you know, no expert or anything like it in terms of design. One of my claims to fame is that I failed “O-Level” Art twice (D, both times), which I think confirms all you need to know. However, I intuitively know what I like and so will take a few lines to justify my high praise of the original Yaris.

The Yaris was actually called the Vitz (developed under the exciting code name of XP10 – just like a McLaren) in Japan and replaced its completely forgettable predecessor (give me a few minutes). Launched in 1998, stylistically, it was a different kind of Toyota, styled by Toyota’s European Office of Creation in Brussels and was followed by a Corolla (which was a fine car with a nice interior) and Avensis (which was a less successful application, if I’m honest) that shared similar design genes.

I do recall an interview in Autocar with the accredited designer at the time, but I can’t recall or find that person’s name; sorry. In some respects, I think the Yaris owed quite a lot to the Uno (another fine piece of design), in that it was deliberately tall to help package the car to overcome its appealing shortness, which I think in turn led to one of its areas of dynamic weakness, that being a lot of ‘stiction’ in the chassis to keep roll in check.

I doubt that it is true, but I always liked to think that both interior and exterior were designed by one person. I can only think of one other car (the Mk3 Micra – another likeable design) where I have felt that the interior and exterior seemed in true empathy with each other. The overall impression given inside was of soft-edged, rounded , organic and friendly forms. The one I owned was in light and dark grey, but I seem to recall that it could be bought in hues of blue (or did I dream that?). The focal feature was a broad central console of the facia, topped off by a pod in which was fairly crude digital display for the speedo, tacho and fuel level.

This was actually projected onto a screen in the pod, rather like Head Up Displays are in some cars today – which makes one wonder why they did not just do that and give the car a bit of a USP in the sector. Anyway, the look was really rather funky, and functional, with storage cubbies positioned in symmetry either side of the centre console and upper and lower glove compartments in front of the passenger.

Quite original, and very much all of a piece. It was constructed from hard plastic, but the novel texture meant that one didn’t mind (well, I didn’t). The seats were a little small and upright, like sitting on a bar stool, but, because it was clearly all done in the name of packaging, it was forgivable for short to medium haul journeys.

The exterior enjoyed a nice – if tall – stance, on what, today, look like tiny wheels (13”, I think). On my original Mk1, everything was simple with no unresolved or stray lines that offended my eyes (the face lifted car was, inevitably, worse for being fussy – what they did to the lower inside corner of the headlamps is especially grating, even today).

Like the interior, the forms are fundamentally soft, rounded and friendly, but held in tension in a way that prevents the effect from being cutesy. I particularly like the way that, from the rear three-quarter view, there is a crease/ feature-line that starts at the bottom edge of the rear screen pulls around the rear wing and doors and ends up at the side indicator repeater (which itself is nicely shaped).

It’s a confident feature-line that serves real purpose in tightening the look of the whole car. I also like the way that the rear tailgate, lamps and bumper all lock together – it seems to accentuate the function of the tailgate and boot itself, but again managing to keep with the overall fun and friendly theme. Lower specification versions of the car came with unpainted bumpers, which do not age well (the grey plastic seems to fade with age), but probably contribute to a thought that I have had that this Toyota also owes something to the Ka launched a few years earlier.

So, given my admiration of the Yaris, I bought a new, 02-reg, 1.3 CDX version in a nice dark metallic blue as a replacement for a fast-dissolving 2CV (actually, strictly speaking, my wife’s car). I bought it from Trade Sales in Slough, which at the time was able to import RHD, UK spec cars from Germany for about 30% off the retail sale price. I had never driven one before, but had been assured by consistently positive press reviews.

And I remember being quite happy with my purchase on the drive home. It was, perhaps, a little noisier on the motorway than I had expected, but that was sorted by turning up the stereo (this was the first car I bought that had an integrated CD player). Its intended purpose was to serve as a second car for when I needed it for work purposes. At the time that was to get me to and from the nearest train station and the occasional visits to places like Hastings, Birmingham, Poole and Coventry. It was very fit for such purposes.

A change of job and, thereby, role for the Yaris started to highlight some of its less attractive qualities. I was travelling to Bristol 2-3 days a week (a 260 mile round trip) in all weathers, and NVH, stability and comfort levels all started to become wearing. I originally put it down to being the type of car, but, as mentioned elsewhere, a one-off trip to Christchurch (England!) in a Fabia revealed that it need not be the case.

At that point, the short service intervals (9k miles) became an issue, as did the disappointingly high maintenance bills as various suspension parts wore out. By the time the car was three years old and had done 35k miles, it felt quite old and creaky – which is not what I had expected of a Toyota.

My favourite aspect – that bold pressing-line from the rear window down to the side indicator repeater. (c) DTW

The nail in the coffin came on Valentine’s Day in 2006, when I lost control of the car on sheet black ice when travelling to a conference in Cheltenham. That had never happened to me before, nor has it since. I was very lucky; having spun round twice on a near-empty dual carriage way (it was 06.30), I ended up inches from the barrier on the central reservation facing the oncoming traffic. Although I did not consider that this was the Yaris’s fault, I had lost confidence in the little car; it just no longer felt up to the demands I was making on it. It was swiftly replaced by a Subaru Legacy.

That I still hold the design of the Yaris in such high regard – the title of this piece is only in small part a device to spark interest and debate – after the uncomfortable denouement of my ownership experience, speaks volumes. I also like the Mk2; it was necessarily larger to be able to compete with the Jazz and make room from the Aygo, but is still recognisably a Yaris. The current car, though, is an anti-Yaris, inside and out, and should have been given a different model name. Perhaps they should have gone back to calling it … erm … ah, yes, … Starlet.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

17 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – The Best Ever Toyota Design?”

  1. Nice article. I too quite like the look of the first Yaris. However as a driving instructor I have sat in this particular model hundreds of times. Despite the reliability issues you had with yours there are still loads left on the roads here in Dublin. They seem almost indestructible. This is one of the few cars I dread getting into for a lesson. The engine (Even though it’s a four cylinder) sounds and feels like a poorly balanced 3 pot even with 1.3l. The one litre makes a non stop unforgettable straining, whining and incredibly irritating noise as soon as the revs climb above about 1200. The seats are uncomfortable and not terribly well positioned either. I never felt that it was terribly well put together either-the doors close with a tinny ring and there seems to be no soundproofing. I’m sure you don’t miss driving it and maybe you get a pleasant surprise the occasional time you see one on the road.

    1. I recognise all the points your raise – the 1.3 was a little thrashy. It is amazing how many of the cars I have seen around over the weekend since I wrote the article; I guess they have just become a bit of background.

  2. I personally think the Mk 2 Yaris is better looking than the Mk 1; it looks solid and resolved. Most Japanese cars to my eyes look slab-sided and often seem to contain various du jour styling elements which don’t hang together as a whole and tend to date quickly. No doubt producing cars with the subtle curves of an Alfa 156 would upset the bean counters.

    1. Hi, I do appreciate the Mk2, it was a nice development of themes created in the Mk1, it just lacks the originality of the – erm – original.

  3. I remember that the Yaris I test drove was a bit thrashy. Since we were thinking of it as a London work runabout, that didn’t worry me, in fact it was quite fun, but for long country runs that could be a problem.

    I’m impressed at the number of cars you’ve had SV. I can really only claim proper custody of 9 vehicles in my long motoring life, partly because I foolishly hung on to a Renault Espace for 12 years, far longer than good sense dictates, though I have shared work vehicles from time to time.

    Mostly the cars I’ve had were French and until five years ago I’d never had, nor thought I would have, a German or a Japanese car. No reason other that I didn’t think the ones I could afford would suit me. Now I’ve had an Audi and a Nissan in succession. The Cube incidentally, is pleasant enough on motorway journeys, though with a 1.5 litre engine and brick aerodynamics, the consumption is hardly class leading.

    1. Aaah. Nogaro Blue on a sunny day. I had to go out to the car park to check mine was still there Kris. Yes it is, still with the flat tyre and still impossible to get into (a story I might air elsewhere sometime).

    2. It’s a genuinely appealing car, this. Just like that yellow Volvo 850 R that’s seemed to have joined the neighbourhood. Those bright ’90s colours are lovely, as long as they don’t include magenta or turquoise in any sort of way.

      Has Audi abandoned alcantara for good? They used to handle this material very capably, but maybe Peter Schreyer took that kind of knowhow with him when he departed from Ingolstadt. Can the Kia K9 be ordered with alcantara accents?

    3. Kris. So glad to hear that. Like mine, it looks mercifully unmolested, unlike most you find for sale with inappropriate alloys, etc. Although my S2 is parked at my workplace (for which I get simmering complaints) I’ve grown a bit blind to it over the past few months. Seeing your photos reminds me how fond I am of it. I really must sort out its problems and find a new owner for it. And go for a drive in it before I do.

      An Alcantara centre with leather sides is a very good compromise for comfort and durability. I don’t know why it isn’t more common.

  4. A (female of course) friend of mine is still driving a dark metallic blue 2001 Yaris and she is still very satisfied with her car. And ist still looks modern (extremely modern compared with a fiesta or Polo of this age). The 1.0 litre machine is frugal and nippy.
    I am always noticing two aspects, when i am sitting in her car. It is quite roomy – enough for four adults. And the different greys of the dashboard are a mixture of the ugliest greys – to my eyes…..

  5. The accredited designer is Sotiris Kovos, who also designed the Lexus SC430, Although I actually have a secret liking for the Lexus, the phrase ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ is hovering around in my mind.

    1. Is it true that Chris Bird, Dirk van Braeckel and Andreas Zapatinas are playing poker in David Bache’s old office at the abandoned Longbridge site every second thursday a month?

  6. All too many car designers break into the public eye for a short time in their mid to late 30s and then vanish. They get named for one or two cars before… what exactly? I suppose some go on to manage studios and others fall off the carousel. It’s a cruel business: some great rewards but a sky high rate of attrition.

    1. Kris,

      It’s bridge they play, and Bache makes up the foursome, channelled through Lord “Doris” Stokes. Roy Axe stands in for Bache on Thursdays when there’s a full moon, as he’s ontherwise engaged.

      And Vicki Vlachakis now designs handbags…

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