Let me confess: I’ve never liked the Toyota Vitz. Until last weekend, I’d only driven two variants. One was the forgettable and deeply uninteresting 1.0-litre first gen base model, which churns out a measly 68 horsepower, looks too girlish and drives poorly.
Then was the second generation, this time served in peppery RS trim. I liked it a lot and it feels like you’re driving a little rocket that’s both comfortable and outrageously efficient.
Unfortunately, once you stop driving and get out, it still looks girly. So I wrote my reviews, where I heaped praise upon the RS, chose the 1.3-litre over the 1.0 and recommended them exclusively to college girls. Then last week I saw the 2011 model, which we shall refer to as new shape due to the peculiarity of our local car market!
Fundamentally, it’s a bone structure. There’s no escaping that. Yet, something has changed
drastically. The lines are decidedly crispier and sharper. The headlights are more elegant and aggressive, unlike previous models, which resemble a delirious Pokemon character. The wheel arches are more pronounced and it even looks rally racerish from the back. I recall diving in and out of the previous cars when I was sure nobody was looking but on this test, I had no problem with the looks. Its 3 inches longer, sits lower and looks burlier than the old-shape does. The sloping beltline gives it an aggressive stance from the side.
It will still look at home in the hands of a girly college damsel with frilly hair but works just as well in the hands of an unshaved man’s man in torn jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves. The third-gen Vitz is gender fluid and will work if you’re either, or even transgender.
The same politically correct neutrality continues into the cabin where the driver instruments are back to analogue gauges after a disastrous dalliance with the centre-mounted digital gauges in the old shape.
Coupled with the childish air vents the Vitz interiors felt a bit more cramped than the new shape, which is traditionally set up with the dials rightfully in front of the driver. The materials feel better with large swaths of grey accent trim setting off the asymmetrical dash design. The seat fabrics, the only soft-touch surfaces in the cabin, are better too.
A CD player with USB connectivity comes as standard, as does air conditioning, stability control, 9 airbags and power windows. It’s properly kitted and with the longer seats a more comfortable place to be for taller people. Legroom, as usual, is surprisingly generous even in the back but headroom is a bit cramped.
This is where the models really make a difference. Ignoring the 1.5-litre supercharged version, which should be quite fun you’re left with the 1-litre, which should be no fun and the 1.3 litre which is as interesting as a compromise can be. It’s good for about 100 horsepower for a 10-second sprint to 100 kph from standstill if you have the 5-speed manual. But nobody buys a manual city car unless they’re a bit off-key and car dealers know this. You’ll be pressed to find one. All you’re left with is a choice between CVT if your car was imported from Japan or a 4-speed auto. Weaving through the city the 4-speed auto is faultless. Accelerating fast enough to cut off the matatus and whizzing out of low-speed corners effortlessly. It doesn’t gasp desperately for gears as higher transmission gears tend to do. However, on open highways, anything above 70kph is a tall order. It takes too long to shift down into second to get more power when accelerating and then almost instantaneously pops back into third, leaving it feeling constantly underpowered and relegating me to the slow lane while others whizzed by.
The steering is responsive and gives a good feel of what the front tires are up to while the suspension does a great job of dampening the uneven roads of Nairobi. Wind noise is at a minimum and the cabin is a comfortable place to be in. It’s a clear improvement over the previous generation on driveability and while it will be competitive among rivals like the Nissan Versa and Mazda Demio, the 4 speed auto simply lacks the grunt to keep up.
It looks much better than the previous model as well as the new one currently lighting up the rally stages with its gaping grille. When it was launched, Toyota marketed it as “just a car” and this is what you get. It won’t make your heart flutter with excitement nor will you spend an inordinate amount of time taking pictures of it. It has the personality of a stapler but it will get you from point A to B economically, which is what Toyota does best. Prices? Around Sh750, 000 for the 2011 new shape.