Halfway into a three-day rental, I'm zipping along Al Falah Street in a 1.3-litre Yaris and my eldest son chirps up from the comfort of the back seat with his own critical appraisal of the Toyota: "Can we get this car?," he asks me. Which, in terms of praise, is about as good as it get from an 11-year-old boy whose head is usually only turned by supercars and, sometimes, souped-up saloons. I had picked up the Yaris the day before from one of the many car rental shops that litter the streets of Abu Dhabi and wasn't expecting anything more than a pre-teenage grunt from my boy when I took him for a drive in the Toyota. The Yaris is, after all, a workhorse, a grafter. It's not flashy, it's not special and it's not exotic. It is though, along with Georgia's Tiida, a hardy perennial of the rental scene. Chances are if you walked into a rental shop tomorrow and asked to hire a budget car, you'd be given either the Toyota or the Nissan.
I was glad to get the Yaris though. For a run-of-the-mill subcompact it looks more than a little interesting with its cheeky, perky European looks (the hatchback version of the car was designed at the car maker's European studio) and its high sides. And for a Toyota, a company not often known for producing cars with looks that get under your skin, it looked mildly cool. My working relationship with the Yaris did not begin particularly well though: the car the rental shop gave me was more bashed up than beautiful. The Yaris was only 18,000 kilometres into its, most likely, long life but it was already showing all the signs of a battle-hardened existence: a ding in the driver's door, a scrape down the passenger's side, heavily scratched hub caps and worst of all, an odd, unmentionable smell in the cabin, which was, I hoped, a mix of driver's sweat and tobacco, although I feared it might have been something altogether more sinister. Then there was the price of the car too. Keen readers of The National will know the paper has reported sharp increases in the prices of rental cars in recent months and this was confirmed by my hire car, which was priced at a staggering Dh131 a day. At these rates, I calculated, I could afford to buy my own brand new Yaris in under a year. Clambering into the driver's seat for the first time I was hit by nothing (except that awful smell). The dash of the Yaris reminded me of a Shania Twain song. You know the one: That Don't Impress Me Much. The main problem is - and let's leave alone for the moment the multitude of different grades of plastic on display - that the Yaris is fitted with a centrally mounted speedometer, just like the permanently cool Mini. Now, on the Mini, one of those central speedometers looks funky, urbane. It's a piece of British retro chic that has been crafted by hip designers in their cosmopolitan studio. In a go-anywhere city car like the Yaris though the speedo just looks silly, especially when the dial is so much more functional than funky. And while a Mini hides the void behind the steering wheel with a rev counter and other such kit and caboodle (depending on your options pack), the Yaris puts nothing in the space except some of the cheapest plastics you could find this side of a toy given away in a box of breakfast cereal. Otherwise, the cabin was generally attractive if a little dull. Once my distaste for the dash dissolved I found a central console clad with nice-to-the-touch, sturdy metal. The console housed dials for the air conditioning and the in-car entertainment system. There was also plenty of storage space dotted around the cabin; Toyota claims more than 18 litres of space in the car's dual glove boxes. The interior was roomy too, with more than enough legroom and back seats that recline, although you wouldn't necessarily want to do a round-the-emirates in the back seat. You couldn't, in fact, unless you only took a couple of handkerchiefs as luggage, as the boot is much smaller than you might imagine. Big enough to squeeze a small weekly supermarket shop into, but not really appropriate for the airport run or a longer tour. On the road, the Yaris was equipped with a four-speed automatic box married to a punchy 1.3-litre engine. I had heard some gossip suggesting this combination was seriously underpowered but, from the first set of traffic lights I accelerated away from, to the time I handed the keys back in, I found the Yaris more than up to the job of thrashing around town. Sure, I had to work it a little to get the most out of the engine, but the transitions were smooth and the ride was perfectly pleasant and, dare I say it, fun. It was neat and tidy through corners, with very little body roll, sharp under braking and, thankfully, visibility was good too. I mention visibility because when you drive the Yaris, or any other subcompact for that matter, you are considered slightly inferior on Abu Dhabi's roads. Other drivers treat you as fair game to jostle into a slower lane. So, as another high-powered BMW bared down on my rear bumper I was able to marvel at the relative delicacy of the Yaris' C-pillars, which gave me an excellent view of the trouble behind me. I was also mildly comforted by Toyota's Minimal Intrusion Cabin System which ensures that should I have had a knock, the car's body has been designed to absorb the worst of the impact without pushing the metalwork too far out of shape, or rather too much further out of kilter given the rental Yaris' slightly world weary look of scrapes and knocks. So, if you want a knockout runabout for not very much cash, I'd recommend the Yaris. After a rocky start, the car finished well. firstname.lastname@example.org