I never thought I'd write this, but here goes: The new Toyota Vios is a hell of a lot of fun to drive. Seriously. Toyota's tag line for the Vios campaign is "Start The Fun," but "fun" as we all know means different things to different people. Fun might be stuffing it with all your friends for a night out, preferably one of them as your sober, designated driver. Fun might be a nice little car you can take the family to the beach with. Or something loaded with a dozen and one tech toys that will do everything but make your coffee.
Personally, "fun" should mean "fun to drive...hard." I don't race, but Toyota is even staging a one-make race series for the Vios. Imagine that. Ninety-nine percent of Vios buyers may never set foot on a racetrack, much less wring their car's heart out on it, but that's okay. The car--and I'm talking about the 1.5-liter G, of course--is a bundle of driving goodness that I honestly never thought could happen to their humble little econocar.
A quick recap on the old Vios, and apologies to any owners out there, but here's the simple truth: The past model was a good, reliable commuter car using the KISS approach. It wasn't really something to take out for a fast spin. The driving position was all over the place, the steering was too light, the dashboard with its centrally located instrument panel was confusing, and the suspension didn't inspire confidence at high speed. It just wasn't a driver's car. Credit Toyota's savvy marketing for making it sell even long past its "sell by" date as newer, slicker competitors like the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent arrived.
The new car doesn't come with toys like voice-command stereo or Bluetooth phone connectivity--you'll have to get reverse sensors after you buy the car--but it does come with all-disc brakes, ABS and dual airbags. As well it should, actually. What P812,000 gets you is a nimble driving machine that's so engaging to drive I was actually inspired to take the unit out for a four-hour, 160km joyride to Pico de Loro and back.
Toyota wisely retained the five-speed manual option for the car instead of going automatic-only for the 1.5-liter G, and it is well matched to the engine. It feels a bit notchy to slip into gear, but doesn't wobble in its gate once engaged. Clutch action is light and progressive, and the engine quickly winds up the tach even in 5th. You'll need to keep a close eye on the speedometer as 100kph in 5th is at around 3,000rpm, and just a slight nudge on the throttle will have you 20kph over the speed limit. Could it use a 6th gear? Definitely. The engine is a carryover, and that's actually all right. It revs willingly and smoothly, has a decent amount of torque down low, and easily returns 10km/L. The accelerator travel is fairly short, leading to quick throttle response without making it jumpy. I found myself matching revs just because I could.
The driving position is also much improved, although not quite as sublime as the Fiesta's or the City's. The driver's seat now has a cushion that's long enough to fit taller folks, the cushioning feels firm, and there's a decent amount of side bolstering to keep you from sliding around. Unfortunately, there still isn't enough lumbar support. The steering column still lacks adjustable reach, so finding the best driving position involves a lot of experimentation. The steering wheel itself is a joy to hold, with a fat rim that thickens up at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions; leather stitching; and racy, flattish section at the bottom.
The shifter is also several inches too long to really feel sporty, probably designed that way to be easier to reach for shorter-limbed drivers. Heel-and-toers, you will need especially dexterous feet. The brake pedal is a little too far from the accelerator to make it a natural action.
There's precious little space in the cockpit to place your stuff. Aside from a little tray ahead of the shifter for coins and the tiniest console box I've seen yet, you'll be hard-pressed to find a place for your wallet, sunglasses, and other typical junk. There is a cute little slot beside the handbrake that nicely fits your smartphone. The two cupholders are placed in front of the left and right A/C vents. Even when fully closed, a little cold air still leaks out of the vents, so your steaming latte will quickly run cold after just a few minutes. Not ideal for long trips, although it's big enough for water bottles.
Fortunately, the driving part of the equation overwhelms the debit side. After breaking away from Alabang traffic , I pointed the car down Governor's Drive to stretch its legs. The suspension and steering are firmly planted even above 130kph--a far cry from the eerily light feeling of the old model. I kept pushing the car to go faster and faster.
In the uphill esses going to Nasugbu, the car did a fairly credible impression of a rally car with mild understeer and body roll, a tail that could gently rotate with a little trail braking, and precise, quick steering that had just the right amount of assist. The stock Yokohamas are made for comfort and low rolling resistance over grip, but getting them to break traction is a predictable exercise. Could the car use some more power and grip? Yes, and I suspect many Vios owners will add a few performance mods here and there, but in stock guise this is a car with a high fun-to-drive quotient, especially if you like handling courses more than all-out-power driving routes.
The five-door diesel Hyundai Accent has the edge in raw power and torque, but the suspension is too soft to be much fun in the twisties. The Fiesta still has the best chassis, but its DCT doesn't offer the engaging qualities of a traditional clutch-and-stick. And the City? Still good, but it's gone all-automatic for the 1.5.
Other details quickly charm the jaded buyer. The dashboard design is mature and mildly complex with its multiple ledges like the RAV4's, and the instrument panel is clean and highly legible. The fake brushed steel look of the speedometer is cheesy, but I'm just happy Toyota ditched the odd, cost-cutting, central location from before.
Finally, the car has a little fun even where it saves on some pesos. See that nice, creme-colored door panel? It's not leather or fabric like you'd expect in a Camry or Altis. It's actually plastic all throughout, embellished with some faux stitching. So is the fake stitch pattern on the dash to make you think it's covered in leather.
I actually think the effort is kind of cute. Opening the trunk reveals cheap fuzz carpeting as you'd expect in this class of car, but there's a decent amount of space and underneath is a full-size spare tire. Finally, the backseat neither split-folds nor offers an armrest; instead it compensates with a comfortable cushion and enough legroom for typical Filipinos. Externally, the car has a nice and clean wedge silhouette with "big car" details like the blackout lower grille similar to the RAV4's, a flowing roofline with subtle bumps over the driver and passenger to evoke a sense of movement, and big, crystal-lens head- and taillights.
I just love the artful cutline where the bumper meets the rear taillamps in the shape of a reverse "Z". Yes, the wheels look undersized in those wheel wells, so an upgrade is a worthy investment.
The new Vios may still be an affordable subcompact designed with the KISS principle in mind, but enthusiasts will like its newfound vitality.
Photos by Andy Leuterio