Motoring: Road test - I like Yaris in the springtime...

John Simister admires the French feel of Toyota's latest supermini so much that he could even imagine himself buying one

Forget the manufacturer's badge for a moment. Now, try to imagine where this car comes from. France, maybe? After all, there are shades of Renault Clio-meets-Renault Megane about its stance and its staring eyes.

Then there is the name to consider. Yaris. This might suggest Paris, although the connection had to be pointed out to me. And there's also the knowledge that, from 2001, the Yaris will be made at Valenciennes, a French town. Now remember the manufacturer again. Toyota. This is the only bit that doesn't quite fit the picture.

Ah, but this is not a Toyota created by conventional means. Japan's biggest car company, frustrated at its inability to entice Europeans into driving its earlier super-minis (well, would you want to drive a Starlet?), decided that success would come only if a car was designed mainly in Europe, mainly by Europeans and mainly for Europe. So the Yaris is an epoch-making, and Epoc-made, car. Epoc? Toyota's European Office of Creation, of course.

For the Yaris to be usefully and convincingly different from rival offerings would help its cause, too. So it is. For a start, it's tall, which helps make it roomier than its competitors, and you sit high. The rear seat can slide back or forth over a range of 150mm, which alters the ratio of boot space to rear-passenger space. And it has a one-size-fits-all engine: just under one litre, which is right on cue for Britain's tentative dip into the waters of size-related road tax. You'll pay pounds 100 a year instead of pounds 155.

The interior was designed in Japan, actually. Many Japanese car cabins look as though they were knocked-up by a junior apprentice from a box of standard, grey plastic pieces, but this one is refreshingly, massively different.

There's no fake-leather grain anywhere. Instead, the surfaces resemble stone or hand-made paper. Next, check out the storage spaces: there are shelves and slots all over, most obviously either side of the centre console that forms the base of a giant Y-shape facia moulding.

Best by far, though, is the instrument display. You view this through an oval window set on top of the facia's centre and angled towards your eyes. The digital speedometer, linear rev-counter, fuel gauge and mileometer, luminous displays all, appear to be down a tunnel which terminates somewhere near the Yaris's nose, the idea being to spare your eyes from the strain of regular refocusing.

They are not really so far away, of course; in the words of the conjuror, it's all done by mirrors. Is it better than a standard set of dials? Not especially, but it helps make the Yaris an engaging companion. Your front passenger can't see the display, though, which could sometimes be a blessing.

There are four trim levels (S, GS, GLS, CDX), a choice of three- or five- door bodystyles, and prices start at a keen pounds 7,495. The top version requires pounds 10,995 of your money, but has air-conditioning, alloy wheels and a CD player, while the base model alone lacks power steering, central locking, electric windows and a passenger airbag, as did every small car just a few years ago.

You can have a "Freetronic" clutchless transmission for an extra pounds 250, but it's jerkier than the best rival systems (the Fiat Seicento Citymatic's, for example). Personally, I'd rather control my own clutch.

This sounds all very fine, but is a 1-litre engine really enough? Well, it's a vigorous little motor, which produces both a remarkable 68bhp and credible low-speed pulling power thanks to its 16 valves and variable valve timing. You have to exercise it quite hard to make speedy progress, but 70mph up a motorway hill is no problem at all.

Changing gear is quick and easy, and the Yaris is a precise, confident steerer. Here comes that Frenchness once again: this car rolls along the road, lollops almost, as a small Peugeot or Renault does. Today's French way is to make a car supple over bumps but sharp in its responses to your steering inputs, and the Yaris conforms to the norm of its soon-to-be- adopted home.

Yet, despite the suspension's apparent softness, the Yaris clings gamely to the road and is fun to drive in the way a properly-designed small car always is. It's a happy, friendly car with a big personality, fun to look at and fun to be in. That it's also cheaper, roomier and more innovatively conceived than its mainstream rivals means that it will surely sell in squillions. If you think a 1-litre engine is too tiny, you could wait for the upcoming 1.3-litre petrol or 1.5-litre diesel. But I find the 1-litre's efficient minimalism rather appealing. I could even contemplate buying one myself.

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Toyota Yaris GS three-door; price: pounds 8,495;

engine: 998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 68bhp at 6,000rpm;

transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive; performance: 95mph, 0-60 in 13.7sec, 45-50mpg

Ford Fiesta 1.3 Finesse: pounds 8,550. Less power than the Yaris, from an ancient engine design; little space, but fun.

Peugeot 206 1.1 LX: pounds 9,095. Again out-powered by the Toyota, but the 206 comes closest for space, comfort and design.

Renault Clio 1.2 RN: pounds 8,950. Here, too, we find a power deficit, and the Clio is neither as roomy nor as entertaining.

Volkswagen Polo 1.0L: pounds 8,290. It's cheap, but relatively sparsely equipped and very lacking in vigour. A facelift comes soon.

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