MARBELLA, Spain - Toyota claims that its new high-roofed Yaris Verso will give it a unique position in Europe's growing small minivan segment.
'Toyota has been a `me-too' company in Europe and we hope to say something different with cars such as the Verso,' said Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz, Toyota Motor Europe's executive vice president for sales and marketing.
Toyota says the Verso will compete in several categories. Its compact exterior dimensions place it in the supermini class, but inside it is as large as a lower-medium model. The Verso also has flexible seating, like a compact minivan.
'We saw the needs of young families weren't being fulfilled,' said Diaz Ruiz. 'Many young families need more space in a car for their children, but they live in apartments and don't have the space to store removable seats. Also, they may not be able to afford the larger vehicles.'
The Verso's key feature is three rear seats that fold flat into the floor. With the seats folded down, the Verso has 2,160 liters of cargo space. Its rear door is side-hinged. The center rear seat can also be partially folded to create a tray, complete with cup holders.
Folding seat system
Currently the only other model to offer a similar folding-seat system is the Opel/Vauxhall Zafira. But the Zafira is larger than the Verso, and more expensive.
The Verso has twin gloveboxes and aircraft-style overhead luggage bins to provide even more storage space.
The Verso uses the same instrument panel layout as the Yaris supermini that went on sale in Europe in March, including the electronic speedometer.
Toyota forecasts annual Eur-opean sales of 35,000 units in 2000, its first full year on the market. The Verso goes on sale in most European countries this month.
Toyota says it can sell up to 50,000 Versos in Europe. But Diaz Ruiz said Toyota is being cautious because 'we have no experience with this type of small car in Europe.'
The Verso will be marketed as 'the real car for the human family,' said Diaz Ruiz. The advertising tag line in Germany will be 'the wonderful space provider.'
The Verso initially will be available with a 1.3-liter engine mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. Antilock brakes, twin front airbags and central locking are standard.
Toyota plans to eventually add four-wheel-drive, diesel and high-performance variants.
Diaz Ruiz said: 'We plan to greatly increase the versatility of the Verso.'
The Verso is based on a Yaris platform lengthened by 130mm. The Yaris range is expected to expand further with a convertible, due to be shown at the Geneva motor show in March, and a cargo van. The cargo van is already on sale in Japan, where it is called the FunCargo.
Yaris order backlog
In Europe, the Yaris has already beaten Toyota's sales predictions. By the end of the year, 140,000 units will have been delivered - 40,000 more than originally forecast, said Diaz Ruiz.
Toyota will still have a backlog of more than 30,000 Yaris orders, he said.
Including the Verso, Toyota expects the Yaris range to account for 200,000 units in Europe next year.
Because of the popularity of the Yaris, some markets, including Italy, have delayed introduction of the Verso until February, said Diaz Ruiz.
Italy is expected to be the second biggest market for the Verso after Germany. Toyota expects to sell 10,000 Versos in Germany next year.