Toyota Verso-S Multidrive S

David Wilkins takes a look at the new model from Toyota

Top speed: 103 mph

Acceleration: 0-62 mph in 13.7 seconds

Fuel consumption: 54.3 mpg

CO2 emissions: 120g/km

Price: Verso-S range from £13,995 (special launch price)

In 2001, Toyota created the market for mini-MPVs with the Yaris Verso. That model was dropped without replacement (in Europe although not in Japan) in 2006 but the company has returned to this now crowded sector with the new Verso-S. The Verso-S scores strongly on comfort, economy and practicality but the economical engine/gearbox combinations offered on UK-bound models will have limited appeal for keener drivers.

Toyota is selling the Verso-S under the tag “Small, Spacious and Smart” - and it is all of those things. First the small bit. It's under four metres long and in industry jargon is classified as a B-segment, or Fiesta/Polo class car, which gives an idea of the small amount of space it takes up on the road. Strictly speaking, it's a member of a sub-class of B-sized small MPVs that also includes the Vauxhall Meriva, with its unusual rear-hinged back doors, the Nissan Note, Citroen's C3 Picasso and the Kia Venga. The Honda Jazz is another close competitor.

But when Toyota says it's spacious, that's something of an understatement. Subjectively, at least, it feels enormous, perhaps as big as most MPVs from the class above; the rear seat in particular is easily big enough to allow adults to travel in comfort, and there's space for a lot of luggage as well. My guess is that when the company developed the tiny iQ, probably the smallest four-seat car on the market, it learnt a few space-saving tricks that have now been applied to the Verso-S too.

And the Verso-S is mostly pretty smart as well – that's smart as in handsome and smart as in clever. The new car's good-looking body has some unusually sharp creases, which present something of a contrast to the curvy organic shapes we see on most cars today; the interior is understated and stylish, and the finishes are first-rate.

When it comes to cleverness, it's a slightly more mixed picture, at least where the seat folding arrangements – the core of the mini-MPV concept - are concerned. These are fairly standard, with few of the clever touches seen on some competitors; for example, the rear seat doesn't slide backwards and forwards. There is, though a neat false floor that can easily be folded away to increase the already generous boot space. Personally, I think the Verso-S's outright roominess outweighs the absence of more complicated features; the rear seat space and load area are both so generous, for example, that there's less need for a sliding rear seat to juggle space between them. One piece of undoubted cleverness is the new Toyota Touch Multimedia System, a touch-screen interface for the car's entertainment and other systems of the sort that is usually only found on more expensive models; it will be upgradable to include sat-nav from May (including retrospectively on early cars as well).

The Verso-S's drivetrain is pretty smart, as in clever, too, if you opt to pair its standard 1.33-litre petrol engine with the optional Multidrive automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT). This is actually more economical on official fuel consumption tests than the standard manual because the infinitely variable gearing allows the car to use the correct ratio all the time. The theory is sometimes better than the practice, though. CVTs are very popular in Japan where they are ideal for driving in heavy traffic, and UK drivers who mainly stick to urban areas will probably find the CVT a good choice too. Where it all comes slightly unstuck is in open road work, where the constant engine note of a relatively slow CVT-equipped car can make things feel rather laboured, upsetting the sense of calm that otherwise characterises comfortable progress in the Verso-S. The CVT can also be shifted manually via steering-wheel mounted paddles. In this mode, it is artificially “stepped” and shifts between seven fixed ratios, which does improve things a bit.

The manual makes more sense for drivers who expect to do a lot of long journeys, but it still has rather short gearing which makes it feel slightly busy at motorway speeds. If Toyota were to offer the Verso-S with a diesel (available in some European markets) or a small turbocharged petrol engine along the lines of Ford's EcoBoost or VW's TSI ranges, it would probably open up its appeal to a much wider range of customers.

Toyota argues that private owners of small cars who don't cover large mileages will find it difficult to recoup the typical “diesel premium” it would have to charge of about £1,000. The company is certainly right on the sums, but I can't help feeling that the torque, as much as the economy, of a diesel engine would make it an attractive choice for the Verso-S, which, because of its very roominess and practicality, is much more likely to be loaded up with people and stuff, and used on long journeys, than other small cars. And the Verso-S is pretty sharp dynamically, so it would have no difficulty accommodating a bit more power anyway.