Small cars are more likely to have a strong personality than a larger one.
A good one can be cute, nippy, frisky and other such adjectives. You are more likely to "bond" with a small car, because it becomes more a part of you.
Capitalising on this, the most interesting small cars have a strong identity of their own which transcends that of the company which made them. The first Toyota Yaris, launched in 1999, had the might of a huge Japanese company behind it but it didn't look much like a typical Toyota. It was far too cute, too rounded, too minimalist. It was its own car, and its cabin shouted that fact by featuring a dashboard unlike any other, with a central digital speedometer viewed via a mirror.
Now there is a new Yaris, the third generation of the breed. Outside, it looks like a typical modern Toyota shrunken into a smaller package, with an overwrought front end and no Yaris-specific identity. Inside, the Yaris-unique dashboard has gone and a generic instrument cluster sits directly ahead of the driver. And despite claims of improved perceived quality, the cabin is once again furnished with acres of hard, unyielding plastic.
The costcutters have been in, it seems, because the previous car's "Easy Flat" folding mechanism for the rear seats has also gone. That means the backrests simply fold onto the fixed cushions, creating a higher load floor which is no longer flat. The way the steering wheel crashes into your lap when the adjustment handle is released smacks of penny-pinching, too, as does the flimsy feel and grinding action of the seat-height adjuster. However, today's ready availability of cheap electronics rescues the new Yaris from austerity, with all models apart from the basic T2 featuring a large display touch-screen, built-in Bluetooth, and a reversing camera.
This "Toyota Touch" multimedia system can be rendered even more multi for an extra £500 – the upgrade is included as standard for the first few months of sale – to create "Touch and Go". This is a sat nav/text message/Google Local Search/Facebook/etc interface which uses your mobile phone as the gateway to the airwaves. And it works well once you have got to grips with the menus.
This Yaris has more interior space than the last one, thanks to thinner seatbacks and tailgate, and it has shed 20kg. The engine range, however, is much as before, which means a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder unit of 68bhp; a 1.33-litre with 98bhp; and a 1.4-litre turbodiesel with 89bhp. The latter two have a six-speed gearbox, with a CVT (continuously variable automatic).
How, then, do these initial new Yarises (prices range from £11,170 to £15,385) – available as TR, slightly sporty SR and highly equipped, panoramic-roof T Spirit, as well as base T2 – feel to drive? The diesel feels the punchiest and has the lowest CO2 output at 104g/km, but it's quite gruff and, like the 1.33, has a clunky, imprecise gearchange. At the other extreme, the little three-cylinder engine has a smooth, deep note, is matched to a sweet-shifting transmission and has a crispness and eagerness which belie its modest performance.
Which leaves the 1.33, core of the range and likely to be the most popular. It is spoilt by a mushy response to the accelerator but is very quiet. I am not normally a fan of automatics but in this case the optional CVT is a better bet, with smooth and responsive ratio-changing, an effective seven-speed manual mode and the potential for better economy.
All the Yarises ride smoothly and quietly over bumps, and have quick, accurate and stodge-free electric power steering.
All in all, then, the new Yaris is a competent-enough car with some features sure to appeal to the youth market that Toyota is desperate to capture (the current average age of Yaris buyers is 60). But the spark of individuality has deserted it, and that's a pity. Toyota can be individual if it tries, as the tiny iQ proves. Next to that clever little car, the Yaris seems a bit half-hearted.
Ford Fiesta 1.4 Zetec: £13,395, 96bhp, 133g/km
It's highly stylish, comfortable, good fun to drive, and has a quality interior. Deservedly popular.
Kia Rio 2 1.4: £13,095, 107bhp, 128g/km
Impressive newcomer looks good outside but bland inside. Very quiet. As good as anything from Japan or Europe. (Next week's test drive.)
Volkswagen Polo 1.4 Match: £13,225, 85bhp, 139g/km
Today's Polos are good value and have the most natural-feeling steering in this class. Rather dour cabin, though.