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Fast and frugal

Amid heated competition, Toyota refreshes its subcompact with a BOLD NEW LOOK AND A SPORTIER DRIVE

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BROSSARD, Que. -- At the very least, we now know Toyota Canada's strategy for combating even the peskiest of challengers.

Nissan, if you've been shopping subcompacts at all, upset the competitive apple cart most recently with the pricing of its all-new Micra subcompact at $9,998. The result was immediate and, as they say in the advertising business, loud.

Much tut-tutting was heard from public relations types belittling Nissan's de-contenting strategy and decrying Nissan's price shopping as both market-destroying and self-inflicted profit-bashing (essentially, all far and wide wondered how the Japanese company could generate a profit with such a bargain-basement price point).

Man the ramparts, went the official battle-cry, not to mention we-shall-stand-by-our-quality-even-if-it-costs-more being proclaimed by one and all. And then a few -- Hyundai and Mitsubishi chief among them -- quietly slashed their subcompact pricing to match, or closely emulate, the Micra's.

Not Toyota, it would seem. Indeed, the bold-faced headline trumpeting the company's new(ish)-for-2015 Yaris's news release screamed, "No stripped-down subcompacts here!" emphasis added to the bold face with an exclamation point to make absolutely sure that we were getting the message that the largest auto maker in the entire world would not be deigning to react to Nissan's pricing challenge (unsurprisingly, of course, there is absolutely no mention of the Micra anywhere in the Yaris's marketing missives).

And so, while the Micra can be had for that incredible $9,998, the cheapest you can get into a Yaris is $14,545. Now, before you shake your head in wonder at Toyota's lack of competitiveness, know that even the Yaris's entry-level trim, the CE, comes with power windows, a 6.1-inch LCD Display Audio system and a host of other features not available on the stripped-down (no, Toyota Canada did not pay me for that reference) base Micra.

Toyota also notes that while this does represent a price increase of $270 from last year's base model, it suspects that the CE will only account for two per cent of Yaris sales here in Canada (down from five per cent perhaps, a cynic might postulate, because of that Nissan Micra effect) but that the top-of-the-line SE (which accounts for 15 per cent of sales) has dropped its MSRP to $17,665 from $19,255. Likewise, the mid-range LE, which used to be $15,995, is now $15,965, Toyota taking pains to note that all three trims feature more standard equipment than previous versions.

That's obvious as soon as you sit in any new Yaris, regardless of trim. Though the 2015 refresh is technically a mid-cycle makeover, the Yaris' interior looks all new, the buttonry now more sophisticated, the dash materials now appropriately soft touch and the seats more plush. Where the previous Yaris interior looked cheap, the 2015 interior looks inexpensive, that seemingly fine distinction not lost on those who shop the subcompact segment.

If there is a place where Toyota has cut corners, however, it is in the driveline department. Not only is the Yaris' 1.5-litre the same ole, same ole 106-horsepower four, but the transmission's gears remain resolutely at five (for the manual) and four (for the automatic), the powertrain not matching the interior's more-for-the-same (or lower) price motif.

Indeed, perhaps the Yaris' most significant weakness is a motor that, when revved, is more than a little buzzy; one doesn't have to take the little four-banger much above 3,000 rpm to realize that there are much more sophisticated engines out there, even in the subcompact ranks. Oddly, the Yaris is staunchly quiet on the highway, road noise well subdued and the engine relatively quiet because, at legal speeds, it's spinning at less than 3,000 rpm.

At least part of the reason for the new-found calm is a chassis more rigid than ever. Normally, this would take an entirely new platform. But that wasn't in Toyota's plans quite yet for the Yaris. So, instead, the company just upped the number of welding points throughout the entire body with special attention paid to affixing the joints surrounding the cabin. The more rigid the superstructure, the calmer the surroundings.

Toyota also claims said chassis rigidity helped make the Yaris' handling sportier. That and a complete re-tuning of the suspension including stiffer springs, dampers and torsion bars all around (and in all the models, not just the sporty SE).

As well, all trims, even the lowly CE, get the quicker-ratio steering box that used to be the sole purview of the SE. The result is much steadier handling than in Toyota econoboxes of old and, more surprisingly, a more controlled ride.

That Toyota's little subcompact finally handles like the sporty hatchback it has always pretended to be comes as less of a surprise with the even bigger announcement that all Yarises will now be built in France. You may remember that part of the company's recent Prius unintended acceleration scandal was the insular response from Toyota's head office in Japan where almost all important corporate decisions used to be made. As a result of the tardiness and short-sightedness of their response, CEO Akio Toyoda has been placing more emphasis on regional expertise and farming out design and development of models to the specific regions where they are most popular.

Just like Camry is now very much a North American designed and produced vehicle, the Yaris is now styled, tuned and built in Europe, where the small car market is not only competitive, but vibrant. And so, while only 26,000 cars -- barely 12 per cent of the Valenciennes plant's production -- will be headed to North America (a disproportionate amount, to be sure, to Canada and especially cost-conscious Quebec), they benefit from the hugely competitive arena that is the European subcompact segment.

And one can see the result of this Eurofication of the Yaris without even driving it. The styling is aggressive by any standards and positively steroidal for Toyota. The huge front grille looks like the gaping maw of a Great White about to swallow unsuspecting Kias and Hondas whole. There are flares where Toyota would previously dare not crease, angles sharper than Toyota Japan would ever pen and even some of the colour selections somehow look just a tad brighter and in-your-face.

Toyota's recent decentralization of production means the Yaris is finally being built by the Toyota employees with the most expertise in small cars. If you're looking for the silk purse from what was the Prius scandal's sow's ear, this is it.

--Postmedia Network Inc. 2014

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