I went to visit my family last weekend with my girlfriend. It's a 230km drive and we did the trip in her 2009 Yaris. Base model, 5spd manual. As with any japanese econobox, the Yaris isn't too bad of a car. It goes forward, stops takes turns and has seats. It takes you where you want to go, when you want to, sips gas, has a rudimentary but simple and easy to maintain powerplant and even alows you to listen to music whilre you're getting from-A-to-B ! It was also the first time I drove a japanese subcompact in 2 years, since I had sold a 2001 Corolla to buy a 2003 SVT Focus.
The Focus being the exclusive car I had driven in a while, I was thinking the Yaris was boring. I even thought it sucked at first. The little SVT is no race car, but it still is decently peppy and engaging in a way most cars aren't. So driving the little Yaris, I was convincing myself "Well, that is not sooo bad. I guess it's just my standards that got higher. It'll get you where you want, won't it ? It'll do so cheaply and reliably, that's really all that a subcompact needs to do.".
So i used that magical box and numbed the pain with some tunes. Near the end of the trip, I eventually came to the conclusion that the Yaris was, in fact, a good subcompact car. It got me from point A to point B without any hassle, sipped gas on my way there, all that for a very low price of purchase.
Sure, the interior was bland, plasticky, lackluster (as evidenced by the above picture). The brakes were mushy, the steering wheel offered no feedback, the shifter throw was worse than on an 18 wheeler and the pedals were designed to keep people from heel and toeing, I swear. But "Hey", I thought, " I guess some things have to be sacrificed when building a car on a budget, right ?".
So, everything was fine and dandy, and I was finally happy driving the Yaris. I had conviced myself that moving was all I really needed that car to do, and that I should enjoy just driving where I wanted.
Or so I thought. Coming home, my parent's asked me to run errands. "Take the new 'Zuk " My dad said. My dad was a long time Suzuki buyer. His first one was a 1993 Sidekick 4dr he bought used in 1996, he owned every style and generation of Vitara (even the 1st Gen XL-7, which died saving his life) and prior to that one, had a first year SX4 Sport, 2wd 5spd manual. His first reflex upon knowing his beloved brand was discontinued was to run to his usual dealership and to trade in his 2009 SX4 for a brand new one before he couldn't to it anymore. So he ended up with a "Subaru blue", 4dr hatchback SX4. AWD, 6spd manual transmission. 4 wheel discs. Sat-nav. It was as loaded as any Suzuki could be... and it cost just a teeny bit more than my girlfriend's Yaris.
So I jump in the little blue wagon's seat. Surprisingly comfy; Good lateral support interesting material. And then place my feet on the pedals; Superb placement, heel-toe seems like a breeze, clutch is soft, but not as soft as I would have expected. Grab the wheel; nice size, comfortable, dare I say, quality feel. Start the car; what a surprisingly lovely exhaust note, quite a bit livelier and stimulating than the tractor noise the little Toyota 1.6L had been making for the past 2 hours. I drove off...
"What a perfect automobile !!" I thought, grinning in excitement after just 800m. It then came to my mind that I had been driving a Yaris for 2,5 hours, and that my Jalop senses might have went numb. So I took a twisty, deserted back road and pushed the little Suzuki a bit harder. It was responsive, commmunicative, predictable, engaging....FUN !
So, for the price of a Yaris, with all of it's body roll and rear drum brakes featuring blandness, my dad had bought a fun, engaging, practical little AWD hatchback with a nice (by class standards) interior. He had bought an enthusiast's car. Not the kind of enthusiast's car that Jalops get wet dreams about, no, the one that anyone who loves driving will recognize and smile while taking the wheel. The kind of car that anyone even not interested in driving might realize that there can be something more to their commute. It was the well executed meatball spaghetti of cars. Not fancy cuisine, but always enjoyable.
So I then started to think " What else could he have got, would Suzuki have been out of business for the past 2 years ? ". Nissan's offering in the segment was pretty similar to the Yaris, Honda's wasn't too bad, but was quite a bit more expensive, Mazda's was nice, but alot less roomy and FWD. Subaru didn't offer a subcompact since the lovely Justy. Mitsubishi's new Mirage is a joke.
And that is when I realized that the second to last true Japanese manufacturer was gone. Suzuki stuck to what made Japanese cars popular when they first arrived on this continent: Simple, well built, enjoyable machines that offered more than the competition, for a similar price....and, ultimately, that is what killed them. Let's just hope Mazda won't suffer the same faith. At least the new Fords and Fiats don't seem too bad.