FRANKFURT -- Toyota Motor Corp. is re-entering Europe's fast-growing small minivan segment with a new model that offers a lower starting price and better fuel economy than top rivals from Opel and Citroen.
The struggling Japanese automaker needs a lift as a backlash from its massive safety recalls and a lack of new products have led to a sharp decline in European new-car sales.
The Verso-S, which will launch in March, gives Toyota a car in the segment for the first time since it stopped selling the Yaris Verso in 2006.
Toyota is pricing the Verso-S 1,200 euros (about $1,590) below the segment leading Opel/Vauxhall Meriva and 200 euros under Citroen C3 Picasso's starting price. (See chart, below)
The small minivan's two engines, a 1.3-liter gasoline powerplant and a 1.4-liter diesel, provide better fuel economy and lower CO2 output than comparable units in the Meriva and C3 Picasso.
The Verso-S will have fuel-saving start-stop technology and Toyota's Optimal Drive, which helps reduce engine friction and increases engine efficiency.
The Verso-S will be the smallest minivan in the segment at 3990mm long, with 1,388 liters of load-space.
Aimed at young families
Didier Leroy, Toyota Motor Europe president, said at the Paris auto show in October that the Verso-S will appeal to young families switching from conventional hatchbacks and also to customers downsizing from upper segments.
Toyota wants the Verso-S to provide a lift in Europe, where the company's new-car sales fell 20 percent to 44,670 vehicles last month, according to industry association ACEA. Through November the automaker's sales were down 17 percent to 556,342 units.
One reason for the decline is that Toyota has recalled more than 15 million vehicles worldwide in the past year to fix problems. In Europe, the recall has effected more than 1.8 million cars, including its top-selling Auris, Avensis, Aygo and Yaris model lines, primarily to check accelerator pedals.
Europe's small minivan segment is led by the Meriva, with 83,746 units sold in 2009, ahead the C3 Picasso, whose sales were 75,723 units, and the Renault Modus/Grand Modus with sales of 71,054 units, according to JATO Dynamics.