“The calm before the storm” is a time-worn cliché, but it’s an apt description for a relatively quiet, even dormant period in Toyota, Lexus and Scion new product release cadence that started last year and continued into 2010. The latter reported the launch of the 2nd-generation Scion tC and Lexus CT 200h, plus mid-life facelifts for Toyota Corolla and Lexus IS as the only notable North American news. The 2011-2012 period, on the other hand, promises to be far more active, with expected new releases that include the Toyota Plug-in Prius, a full-electric derivative of the Scion iQ, 7 all-new hybrid models, 4 next-generation versions of current hybrids, plus new next-generation versions of 4 of Toyota’s core, mainstream model lines: Camry, RAV4, Tacoma and Yaris. For the latter, however, Toyota jumped the gun a bit and officially released its third generation in Japan on 22 December, under the Vitz nameplate.
Not that this was a surprise, given that images were leaked as far back as mid-October from not one, but two different sources, camouflaged test mules appeared in early November and, about a month later, Toyota itself got into the teaser image game with the original iteration of the official Toyota Vitz microsite.
Toyota Japan issued a fairly-detailed English language press release on the newest Vitz, but, nevertheless, we’ll review the most important points. Debuting strictly as a 5-door hatchback with styling that foregoes the rounded, jellybean look of the previous two generations for a more angular style reminiscent of the Peugeot 308, the new Vitz/Yaris is also, in old-school Detroit parlance, longer-lower-wider than its predecessor. The graphic below informs us of a 50 mm longer wheelbase, 100 mm increase in overall length and 20 mm lower height. That translates into an almost 2″ longer wheelbase (from 2460 mm/96.9″ to 2510 mm/98.8″), 4″ longer overall length (from 3785 mm/149″ to 3885 mm/153″ outside North America) and ¾” lower (from 1525 mm/60″ to 1505 mm/59.25″).
In Japan, the new Vitz is available in four different trim levels: the base F model; mid-grade U (which adds a leather-covered steering wheel and shift knob, plus heated seats); a new Jewela grade with exclusive interior and exterior trim options, plus silver-finish accents; and the sporty RS with its own front and rear bumper design, a roof spoiler, sports seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel with dimple stitching. And no, the terminally angry and defiant among you cannot combine trim levels to create an FU model, nor add the C package… Toyota proudly touts the availability of 17 exterior and four interior colors for the Vitz in Japan, including the Ford Fiesta-esque magenta shown at the top of this story and a chocolate brown shade shown below that can’t help but remind us of the Lexus CT 200h’s Fire Agate Pearl.
Insofar as powertrain possibilities, the latest Vitz is an evolutionary proposition. At launch, the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) version offers a trio of 4-cylinder engine options that carry over from its predecessor: the 1-liter 1KR-FE, 1.3-liter 1NR-FE and 1.5 liter 1NZ-FE, the latter being the only engine available in North America. In Japan, it’s also the only one, in RS guise, to offer a 5-speed manual transmission. The two smaller engines come standard with what Toyota calls its Super CVT-i transmission, and this is also available with the 1.5-liter engine. On CVT-equipped RS models, it becomes the seven-speed Sports Sequential Shiftmatic transmission with a paddle shift-type shift lever that provides manual-transmission feel. Thus, this joins JDM versions of the Lexus CT 200h in attempting to instill a manumatic, “stepped-gears” feel into what are essentially continuously variable, gearless transmissions.
The intermediate 1.3-liter engine also offers a couple of notable options. For one, it’s the only engine that can be paired with all-wheel-drive. Also, somewhat counterintuitively, this is actually the most fuel-economical option when equipped with the optional Smart Stop package. That is Toyota’s take on the micro-hybrid start-stop systems so popular throughout Europe that shut down the engine when stopped at a light and restarts it (in just 0.35 seconds) when pressing the accelerator. So equipped, the new Vitz is rated at 26.5 km/L (62 mpg) on the Japanese 10-15 test cycle.
And what about a full-on hybrid version? We earlier discounted the possibility for North America and, quite surprisingly, the Japanese Car Design Corner blog quotes 3rd-generation Vitz Chief Engineer Yamamoto Hirobumi as stating that there won’t be a hybrid version available. Yet, recalling reports from earlier this year, we conclude that a hybrid version of the new Yaris will be offered, albeit only in Europe. The Old Continent should also expect a diesel-powered Yaris, presumably keeping the current 1ND-TV 1.4-liter engine.
While the more angular exterior has received a somewhat mixed reception from Internet commenters, the new interior and, especially, the instrument panel has been widely lauded as a vast improvement over the previous center-mounted instrument cluster. Granted, photographs don’t allow for a clear appreciation of the quality of materials used, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction. And the improvements go beyond improved aesthetics. The interior as a whole is 35 mm (almost 1.4″) longer than before, with all this extra length dedicated to additional rear-seat legroom. Yet, the cargo area has not been neglected, with a notable 5.7″ increase in total depth. And the Lexus CT 200h obsession with driving position and comfort has carried over to its baby cousin, with a vertical adjustment range of the driver’s seat now at 60 mm/2.4″ (15 mm/0.6″ more than the previous model) and the seat slide adjustment range is 10 mm/0.4″ with 24 steps (8 steps more than the previous model). Also, to keep things cool and comfortable, the new Vitz is the first vehicle in the world to use UV-reducing glass in the front-door glass. This reduces 99% of incoming ultraviolet light, providing the same level of UV protection as wearing gloves!
What about a 3-door version?
Upon reading that the 3rd-generation Vitz has launched exclusively as a 5-door hatchback, fans of the 3-door version may well be wondering if that body style is now history. After all, the larger C-segment has recently seen a massive move away from a single door per side. In the smaller B-segment where the Yaris/Vitz competes, however, there is a much larger presence of the 3-door hatch body among its rivals. That’s not to say, though, that this is a universal trend. Honda, for one, has never seen fit to offer a 3-door Fit/Jazz, and the Nissan Micra launched its 4th generation just over a year ago exclusively as a 5-door hatchback. And, quite notably, the current Toyota Yaris is one of just a handful of B-segment 3-door hatchbacks sold in North America (along with the soon-to-be-replaced Hyundai Accent, the upcoming Fiat 500 and, arguably, the much pricier BMW MINI). Thus, it’s anybody’s guess whether the North American Yaris will or won’t offer a 3-door hatchback variant.
In Europe, on the other hand, we predict the continuation of this body style for the 3rd-generation Yaris. After all, the 3-door hatchback variants of the current Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and Chevrolet Aveo that are absent from North America are available in Europe, and other Old World rivals such as the VW Polo and Opel/Vauxhall Corsa also offer this model. The likeliest venue for the debut of the French-built European version of the 3rd-generation Yaris is the 2011 Geneva Auto Show in early March.
Will there be a 4-door sedan?
In stark contrast to the 3-door hatchback, the 4-door sedan version of the Yaris is absent from the European market, and will surely remain so for the upcoming 3rd-generation. In fact, a 4-door sedan Yaris per se only exists in the Americas and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). Throughout Asia, it is considered a separate model line from the Yaris, known as Belta in Japan and Vios in Southeast Asia, including China. The debut of the next-generation version should occur shortly, no later than at some point in early-to-mid 2011. Given the abundance of B-segment 4-door sedans sold in North America, such as Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet
Aveo Sonic, Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent, the new Yaris sedan should certainly make its way here.
Might the new Yaris for North America be notably larger than Japan and Europe’s version?
Early last month, an article from the United Kingdom’s Autocar contained several predictions on the new Yaris’ future, some of them dubious and puzzling, such as a passage stating that “The forthcoming Yaris is likely to mark a split in small-car policy between Europe and the US. Toyota North America is said to have been lobbying for the car to move up in size, but this has been resisted. Instead, the US arm will unveil its own concept at January’s Detroit motor show, pointing towards a slightly larger B-segment model.” Color us skeptical for a couple of reasons. For one, Toyota has subsequently revealed that its planned 2011 Detroit Auto Show debuts revolve around the expanding Prius family. Also, while the larger-for-North America sizing plan is quite common for mid-sized/D-segment cars (Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda6 and Mitsubishi Galant all are or have been larger here than in Japan and Europe), it has rarely if ever been done in the smaller, less profitable B-segment. And if any vehicles in the latter size class are longer in North America than in other markets (such as the current Yaris hatchback’s 3785 mm/ 149″ length outside North America versus its 3825 mm/150.6″ here, or the Honda Fit’s 3900 mm/153.5″ length outside North America versus its 4105 mm/161.6″ here), it’s due to our more stringent crash safety and bumper impact laws.
Also notable is Autocar‘s claim that “a small concept pointing to the European version of the car is due at next spring’s Geneva motor show”. Would this make sense, given that the world has already seen the Japanese version?
So what’s this Hecho en México business?
Those of you that started reading this article expecting to find an answer to the title’s question have had to wade through quite a bit of information and speculation on the new Vitz/Yaris before we even begin to address that issue, but here, finally, comes your payoff.
It is no secret that the current strong yen/weak U.S. dollar relation has strongly hit the profitability of Japan’s automakers, not just Toyota. Unlike previous times when this has occurred, the Japanese government has not intervened to weaken its currency in order to make the country’s exports more competitive. And, the smaller and less profitable the vehicle, the less sense it makes to build it in Japan. Already, Nissan has taken the historical decision to stop building its smallest model (rebadged kei-cars excepted), the Micra in Japan altogether. Indeed, “JDM” Nissan Micras will be built in Thailand, with India, China and Mexico being the alternate sources for this model. Also, numerous press reports have stated that Toyota is considering a broadly similar move with the Corolla, discontinuing its export from Japanese plants. If this turns out to be the case, wouldn’t a similar plan also make sense for the even smaller and likely less profitable Vitz/Yaris?
Adding to the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” aura of this speculation, an Asahi via Reuters story from mid-October claims that “Toyota… is considering building its second car plant in Mexico to boost local output due to the yen’s strength…Toyota, which makes pickup trucks (the Tacoma) mainly for the U.S. market in Mexico, plans to produce compact cars for North America at the new factory from around 2013…The paper also said Toyota will respond to growing demand for low-cost compact cars in Mexico with the new plant.” Sure, the low-cost compact in question could be yet another North American site (after Ontario, Canada and the upcoming Mississippi site in the U.S.) for Corolla, but, with the lowest labor costs in North America, Mexico would be a natural venue for Yaris production, thus joining the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa and Sentra, Volkswagen Jetta, the upcoming Chevrolet Spark and Fiat 500 and, possibly, the Mazda2 and/or Mazda3 as compact and sub-compact models bearing the Hecho en México imprint.