Makeover with knobs on revs up the Verso

The new 2014 Toyota Verso. Picture: Contributed

The new 2014 Toyota Verso. Picture: Contributed

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A YEAR after it launched a face-lifted Verso, Toyota is at it again with the 2014 model. Huh? Annual updates are trending at Toyota. How can you tell? Look inside and you’ll see the new gear knob. Really? Yep, a new gear knob, flat topped this time and said to be, well, nicer to use. Apparently we (not me, but maybe you) touch the gear knob 100,000 times or more in a year’s motoring.

I tried to add up a morning’s usage on a route behind Cannes this week. There was plenty of lever action on the rush-hour crawl towards Monaco, then more as the road switch-backed inland and up into hills and hairpins towards Grasse and perfume country. I lost count of GK contact.

The day had started in brilliant sunshine with the breaking news that Toyota had yet another major recall under way for its Prius. The world’s best-selling hybrid (now more than six million) was now facing another embarrassing fix.

Onward and along and up and down we sped in the Verso, taking care on treacherous ice-melt slicked across the route through the halcyon Cote d’Azur. Under the bonnet was the real news for 2014, a transplant of a BMW 1.6 diesel which replaces a Toyota 2-litre grinder and brings new economy, more flexible performance and gets in line with popular engine sizes in this medium mpv sector – like the brand new Nissan Qashqai and ­Citröen C4 Picasso. Steyr makes the engine for BMW in ­ Austria.

The Verso is an mpv cum estate, not as lofty as most mpvs and immune from body roll; in the corners. It is the first Toyota wholly developed and built in Europe. It just happens to look Japanese. It is made in Turkey, developed at Toyota R&D in its European centre near Brussels (hence the Belgian plates in the pictures), and led by the Europe Design Development team (ED2) in the hills behind Antibes.

This modern stylists’ lab is in gorgeous coastal scenery, silky pines and inspiring views towards the oh too blue Mediterranean winking at us watery Brits. How, I wondered, can such a location bring us cars which look so normal and conventional? The Impressionists and Cubists and many other ists found their minds opening and expanding in this scenery. True, a measure of absinthe and opiates may have influenced their paintings and poetry.

Design is a matter of personal taste. I do not care much for the current beaky, chunky Toyota mood. Fortunately for Toyota it makes good cars and sales are rising. Last year’s world units were up 2 per cent to 9.98 million, retaining top spot. Sales in Europe rose 4.7 per cent to 847,540. In Britain they reached 105,731, of which 24,626 were hybrid engined.

Verso is a steady seller, shifting around 3,500 last year in the UK, with 4,000 expected this year on the back of that BMW power pack. Since the first in 2002 the world total stands at 700,000.

Its forte is seats. Most models have seven, laid out 2-3-2. The centre three slide and all back five fold flat. Don’t expect to get comfy in the last pair. Leg room is skimpy and the backs are low and have not got safety headrests. You may twist a sprocket clambering in unless you are little and lithe.

The folding action is not fingertip light, either. Man up to it, ladies. With all seven seats up there is still room for luggage: not a lot, maybe enough. Most owners will run it as a five-seater estate, with decent headroom, and two seats in reserve.

The BMW engine was revised to fit the Verso, and some tweaks were made to innards, such as the dual mass flywheel to reduce vibration. There was also re-tuning (aka software changes) to give it the torquey flexibility to make driving ­easier.

It certainly hauled us smoothly enough, with all the pace I’d expect for a family hack. Third gear is good for 70mph, while in sixth it is a quiet cruiser on 2,000rpm at 70mph.

There’s good news on economy. Stop-start ignition makes its debut on Verso. The official CO2 rating is 119g/km and average economy is quoted at 62.8mpg.

Our meander in the hills on a lengthy test route suggested by Toyota was not ideal for optimum economy. There was plenty of climbing, plenty of stop/go in the hill towns and villages. At the end the trip computer read 46.3 miles a gallon. I’d predict most of us would get nearer 50mpg – and hopefully more – on flatter routes.

Updates on the 2014 Verso include a new generation of multimedia with a brighter screen and the option of Google Street View which shows a picture of the road you are on to help find a destination. There are some new cabin fabrics, paint colours and wheel patterns and a new Trend grade. It retains a 
conventional lever handbrake and key ignition – old school stuff but workable.

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