Toyota, one of the last into the car-based MPV segment in South Africa, turned to Europe to source its new contender, the Corolla Verso - and it was a great choice, for it gives MPV buyers superb variety, at highly competitive pricing, with a seating system that is, in my opinion, the best currently available.
While MPVs are much of a muchness when it comes to design and space, the Verso stands out from the rest with the ease with which the seats can be swopped around - Toyota claims no fewer than 32 different options - as well as its car-like ride and handling.
Its system, which allows one-handed fold-down or raising of all the rear seats (there are seven in all), and a totally flat floor when all are folded, is called "Easy Flat-7".
Toyota is also the first local manufacturer to offer a semi-automatic gearbox option, the M-MT, which uses an electrically-operated clutch and electric gear changes to give either clutchless manual gear changes or a full auto option without the need for a power-sapping torque converter, resulting in acceleration and top speed - plus the important fuel economy - on a par with the manual versions.
Although its bigger - longer, wider and higher than the Corolla on which it is based, as well as 240 kg heavier - the Verso has a 1.8-litre VVTi engine that pushes out a solid 95 kW of power coupled with 142 Nm of torque to give superb acceleration of the order of 10.8 seconds for the zero to 100 km/h sprint.
Using our comparitor tool you'll see that compares to acknowledged quick station wagons such as the Alfa 156 2.0 Sportwagon or Rover 75 2.5 Tourer, as well as hot hatches such as Opel's Corsa 1.8 GSi and Ford Fiesta 1.6i.
Toyota is expecting to sell of the order of 500 Versos a month in the initial stage, and then to settle down to an average of 150 a month for the full year, which is I believe a target which it will attain with ease.
The car is fully imported from a brand-new "green fields" factory in Turkey, and the cars we drove at the launch were extremely well-finished, tribute to the factory's claim to be "zero defect" in terms of Toyota Japan's build quality standards.
South Africa is the only country outside Europe to get the Corolla Verso.
There are currently four models available, all fitted with the same 1.8-litre VVTi engine.
However there is no likelihood of a diesel version until the whole of South Africa can get freely available "clean" (500 parts/million sulphur) diesel fuel, which is not expected until 2006.
The four current models are the Corolla Verso 180, priced at R209 400; the Verso 180 SX, at R227 400; the Verso 180 SX M-MT at R235 000; and the Verso 180 TX M-MT at R249 000. The latter will not be available until June.
All models in the range feature the Easy Flat-7 fold flat interior.
A key-card entry system, an electronic steering lock, and a high level of intrusion protection are standard. Added to this is a focus on both low maintenance costs - the Corolla Verso is sold with Toyota's 5 year/90 000 km ToyotaCare Service Plan - and low accident repair costs. Service intervals are 15 000 km.
A reduction in repair costs, particularly those resulting from lower speed accidents, is achieved by the use of replaceable crushable structures that isolate the main chassis structure from damage by absorbing crash energy in lower speed impacts.
A number of crash sensitive parts, including the headlights, are also designed to break away from their mountings at pre-determined points to inhibit the level of damage and lower the cost of replacement parts.
The "entry level" model in the four model range, the Corolla Verso 180, boasts a high level of specification including:
Disc brakes all round with ABS and EBD (Electronic Brake Force Distribution.
205/55 R16 91V tyres mounted on 6.5JX16 steel wheels.
Air conditioner with clean air filter.
Rear heater ducts.
Tinted widows all round with sound absorbing acoustic windscreen.
Power windows at the front.
Power side mirrors.
Illuminated entry system.
Map reading lights.
Optitron instrumentation with multi-function display.
Steering wheel adjustment for rake and reach.
Front and rear cup holders
Auxiliary power point.
RDS Radio with front-loading CD player.
Satellite audio controls on steering wheel.
Dual stage driver and passenger airbags with passenger airbag on/off switch.
Driver side knee airbag and side airbags for both front seats.
3-point seat belts for all seven seats.
ISO-FIX rear child seat anchors with top tethers.
Headlamp levelling device.
Rear fog light.
Remote control central locking including tailgate.
Luggage compartment cover.
Headlamp on and seat belt fastened warning buzzers.
5 storage compartments.
Height adjustable front sports seats.
Daytona cloth trim
On the Corolla Verso SX the M-MT (Manual-mode Manual Transmission) is available as an option and the following specification items are added as standard:
Brake assist system (Assists in optimising braking effort in emergencies).
Full airbag protection with 7-airbags including curtain side airbags on all four passenger doors.
205/55 R16 91V tyres mounted on 6.5JX16 alloy wheels.
Automatic climate control air conditioning.
Automatic rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
Power windows front and rear.
Electrochromatic rear view mirror.
Illumination for vanity mirror in sunvisor.
RDS Radio with in-dash 6 CD shuttle.
Driver and passenger centre armrests.
Leather steering wheel and gear knob covers.
Vehicle stability control and traction control.
Double lock system.
Front and rear fog lights.
Estoril cloth trim.
Moving up to the top of the range Corolla Verso 180 TX the M-MT transmission is standard and the following additional specification items are added:
Front and rear ultrasonic park assist.
The Corolla Verso has a 60 litre fuel tank.
Towing weights are 450 kg for an unbraked trailer and 1 300 kg for a trailer with overrun brakes.
Click here to read what it's like on the road.