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A decade ago Toyota produced one of the earliest mini-MPVs in the
world. It was called Funcargo at home or Yaris Verso in Europe. In
2005, the Funcargo was replaced with Ractis. Still built on the Vitz
/ Yaris platform, but the new car grew larger and became a standalone
model. It served very well the Japanese domestic market as well as
South East Asian market like Hong Kong (btw, just saw one yesterday on
the street, and it still looks great.) In late 2010, the second
generation Ractis was introduced in Japan. A few months later, it
returns to the European market under the name Verso-S. Is it good
enough to take back the market share it abandoned ? Let's see…
First glance to the car find its exterior styling quite pleasing. It
hits the right balance between cute and smart. Narrow shut lines and
accurate panel fit emphasize its Japanese origin. Sensible size, too.
Measuring just 4 meters long like most superminis, it slips into narrow
streets and tight parking space easily, making it an easy drive
in congested cities. On the other hand, the 2550 mm wheelbase and tall
roof provide lots of space inside. It is genuinely capable of taking
four 6-footers, something superminis struggle to. The sense of
spaciousness can be enhanced further if you take the full-length
panoramic glass roof.
Unfortunately, the cabin is not backed with Japanese quality. Dashboard
is made of cheap hard plastics like the recent Vitz, implying the high
production cost in Japan and unfavourable exchange rate compromise its
choice of materials. Another disappointment is the lack of flexible
seating plan. Its rear seat plays no more tricks than fold and 60/40
split, just like conventional superminis. Therefore you may question
whether it is really a mini-MPV, or just a tall-roof supermini.
On the positive side, the boot is quite large at 429 liters, including
an empty spare wheel well under the flexible boot floor. Although the
cabin does not feel expensive, it is undeniably solid and durable.
The European Verso-S is basically the same as the Japanese Ractis
except minor suspension tweaks and different choices of powertrain.
While the Japanese car offers two petrol engines (1.33-liter Dual-VVT-i
and 1.5-liter VVT-i), European car gets the smaller petrol engine and a
1.4-liter 8-valve turbo diesel (from European Yaris), accompany with
standard 6-speed manual gearbox instead of the Japanese car's 7-step
CVT. The combination of diesel engine and manual gearbox should give
the best real-world performance as well as fuel economy. However, the
cheaper 1.33 petrol will be the best seller.
On the road, the 1.33 engine is eager to rev, but it is also quite
peaky. The use of dual-variable valve timing is not enough to
compensate for its lack of capacity. Acceleration is quite good, but
refinement suffers. The CVT tends to keep the small engine revving high
and noisily under moderate to full throttle. The 6-speed manual
doesn't help with its high gearing, which necessitates high engine rpm
at motorway speed. In town, however, the Ractis / Verso-S feels much
more relaxed. Apparently, the car is designed for intra-city use.
European motoring journalists reported satisfying ride and handling on
the Verso-S. The suspension setting is soft but the damping is well
judged, so it irons out most surface irregularities except high-speed
bumps. The handling is predicable. There is a fair amount of body lean
in corners but it won't spoil your confidence. The steering is light
and vague, but it weighs up progressively in corners. The car feels
agile on B-roads, thanks to quick turn-in and the availability of
lift-off oversteer. High speed refinement is not so good. Apart from
the aforementioned engine noise, wind noise is also a serious problem
at motorway cruising.
That will limit its success in European market. The Ractis / Verso-S is
clearly designed for Tokyo, Osaka or the like, where high percentage of
mileage is spent on urban area. From this perspective, its compact
size, small engine and CVT make sense. Nevertheless, its lack of cabin
flexibility, perceived quality and cruising refinement is still a
disappointment for a people carrier. This make it hard to recommend
over the versatile Citroen C3 Picasso, Opel Meriva and Honda Fit / Jazz.