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The Toyota Aygo promises Japanese reliability and French charm, but does it deliver?

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This was the bottom line as peddled at the Toyota Aygo's launch in 2005: if every UK motorist ditched their current cars and bought a Toyota Aygo, CO2 emissions would be cut by nearly 50 percent.

The relative cost of running the car would leave us all with more disposable income, the environment would benefit, and so would the economy.

The promise of Japanese reliability and French charm should make for an alluring combination

All very worthy stuff, and since then there have been many other cars able to approach, match or even outscore the Aygo on CO2 minimalism. But the question remains, now as then: how would someone with a passion for cars cope with using an Aygo as everyday transport?

It’s a question we have to ask, because in many ways the Aygo signalled a new future of mass-produced, affordable motoring in intelligently downsized cars, an approach most recently adopted with the Volkswagen Up whose architecture is closer to that of the Aygo and its cousins than people might care to remember.

These cars are much more than small-volume curios intended to appeal to urban sophisticates. Designed and built in conjunction with the PSA Group, and therefore mechanically identical to (and bodily minimally different from) both the Citroën C1 and Peugeot 107 which go down the same production line in the Czech Republic, the Aygo is Toyota’s first attempt at a Euro-specific budget car.

Prices start from around £7500 for the cheapest three-door. The promise of Japanese reliability and French charm should make for an alluring combination.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota Aygo fornt side profile

Within a very compact, snub-nosed mini-car there isn't too much scope for differentiating between three brands, but the Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107/Citroen C1 trio achieves it.

The nose/bumper moulding is the obvious brand focus, and the Aygo's has a more conventional face than those of its open-mouthed cousins. It is also the most modern looking of the triumvirate.

These are very compact cars with an overall length of just 3.4 metres

The Toyota also eschews the scope for minimalism at the rear corners, rather than embracing it as the PSA cars do.

It has a separate rear-quarter body panel between a conventional door-shut line and the tailgate, whereas the five-door C1 and 107's rear doors include the wheelarch and extend right up to the vertical, wraparound tail lights so there's no external quarter panel at all.

Either way, these are very compact cars with an overall length of just 3.4 metres and almost no rear overhang. The deep rear window forms a one-piece tailgate in another clever piece of parts-count reduction.

That's important, but not only has the Aygo et al been conceived to be sold as a cheap car, it has also been designed to be cheap to repair too.

INTERIOR

Toyota Aygo dashboard

Quasi-MPV is the best way to describe the Toyota Aygo’s driving position. The driver is helpfully elevated a few inches above the level of a regular-hatchback driver, providing a better viewing platform for those small gaps the car will doubtless find itself being threaded through.

Safety requirements compromise the Aygo’s cabin space, however. Frontal impact performance dictates that the front occupants sit so far back in the cabin that the rest of the package suffers. Head, leg and shoulder room are fine in the front, but rear passenger room is limited to the extent that six-footers won’t fit behind people of similar size.

Trim and build are slightly better than you’d expect for the money

It doesn’t quite relegate the Aygo to two-plus-two status, but it does limit the Aygo’s appeal as the only car in the family.

Boot space is equally marginal, and the high lip makes loading a touch tricky. The basic car makes do with a single slab of back seat, but all over models have a 50:50 split for extra versatility.

It’s a cheery cabin though. Trim and build are slightly better than you’d expect for the money, and the car doesn’t cloak its budget roots entirely. There’s a sparseness to the controls and instrument binnacle that somehow suit its role well, although the lack of a glovebox means there's nowhere to hide cameras, phones, CDs, iPods etc.

All but the entry-level Aygo gives you front side airbags in addition to the driver and passenger ’bags standard which are standard on the basic model, likewise ISOFIX points for the rear seats. But perhaps the most important aspect of the Aygo’s active safety measures is the strength of the car itself: over 50 percent of the shell is made from high-tensile steel. Should make it strong in a knock.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Toyota Aygo side profile

As DaimlerChrysler proved with the Smart, to design and build a small car profitably, conventional engineering is the only viable option. There is nothing in the Toyota Aygo’s specification that will excite or titillate: it uses a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine bolted into a two-box monocoque.

The gearbox is a conventional five-speed manual and, despite offering a claimed 65.7mpg on the combined cycle, the car does so through low mass and keen aerodynamics rather than any kind of revolution in the engine bay, although Toyota has claimed that this is the lightest internal combustion engine on sale, at just 67kg. From 998cc it produces 67bhp at 6000rpm and a numerical nick more torque, 69lb ft, at a usefully relaxed 3600rpm. These figures would appear fatal for any type of enjoyment were the Aygo not a genuine featherweight, amassing just 790kg at the kerb.

Through-the-gears pace is a touch disappointing

Engines containing cylinders in multiples of three are among the best sounding, most enjoyable type around. Why this is the case is mainly a matter of harmonic sweet-spots, but it’s the unavoidable conclusion you arrive at the first time you prod the Aygo’s throttle and feel it shimmy. However, character counts for nothing if push-bikes pose a straight-line threat, and thankfully there’s enough performance for the car not to feel ponderous on the road. From rest it fidgets to 62mph in a 14.7sec and in fourth gear our test car just missed out on a 100mph mean maximum on the high-speed bowl, reaching 98mph. In fifth that number dropped to 95mph.

Through-the-gears pace was a touch disappointing though, with 30-70mph taking 12.7sec. Keep it spinning and the Aygo will sustain a decent lick and, from an enjoyment perspective, there’s much to be gleaned. As mentioned, much of this is simply down to the sound of the engine. Unlike some other three-cylinder units, it revs quite quickly and doesn’t suffer at the hands of a recalcitrant flywheel. Perhaps the biggest problem with the way it performs is that using all of the available 6000rpm isn’t an optional indulgence, it’s a necessity.

Gearchange quality has long been a small-car prerogative simply because the gears are small and light, and the Aygo is another great exponent of the art. Interestingly, there is very little about the Aygo that feels Toyota-generic, but the shift quality certainly has that slick, low-inertia feel we’ve come to expect from Toyota transmissions. The long, spindly lever can be yanked about with brutal speed and, again in the small car tradition, there’s a wonderful dichotomy between the subjective experience and the reality displayed on the speedometer.

Toyota offers a semi-automatic ’box called MMT (multi-mode transmission) but with the manual being this much fun, we can’t see the point in spending the extra cash required. It might be one of the few new cars still with drum rear brakes as standard, but the Aygo is so light this never becomes a problem. Pedal weight is optimised for town use, so they can feel a little over-servoed at speed. Fade is never an issue and anti-lock is standard.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Aygo cornering

If you could identify the perfect application for electric power steering, the Toyota Aygo would be high up the list. Its intended role is predominantly urban, involving many tight manoeuvres, and the engine hasn’t the luxury of surplus power to spare on hydraulic ancillaries.

So it comes as no surprise that the Aygo’s electric rack is largely lifeless at speed because it’s a twirling dervish in town: fast and little-finger light. Combined with small overhangs and a good but not exceptional turning circle it makes for a supremely manoeuvrable car.

The Aygo’s electric rack is largely lifeless at speed

Again, the chassis – featuring front suspension by struts and a torsion beam at the rear, as you’d expect – has sensibly been optimised for low-speed town work and the result is a pleasantly compliant ride.

The car bobs around a little, evidence that there’s a reasonable amount of suspension in the tyre sidewalls, but it’s also obvious once you crash into one of Britain’s ever-subsiding drainage covers that the Aygo has an extremely stiff bodyshell.

Clear of town there is less to enjoy about the Aygo. It has moderate grip levels, consistent but ultimately limited damping and a particular lean angle that ex-owners of Renault 4s will find familiar.

The only way to elevate the Aygo from being a perfectly serviceable but uninspiring car on the open road is to inject some energy into the proceedings yourself. Then it responds faithfully, even if the tyres tend to protest quite a lot.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota Aygo 2005-2014

The promise of smaller fuel costs will doubtless be a deciding factor purchasing a Toyota Aygo. Even at the test track the tiny three-cylinder motor returned 45.4mpg and that was the expensive side to an overall figure of 60.1mpg.

Once moving, it recorded a stunning 69.3mpg on the touring route. By comparision, the official figure is rated at 61.4mpg on the combined cycle.

We recorded a stunning 69.3mpg on our touring route

Such is its lack of thirst, we suggest that there should be a special-edition model in the range be called the Aygo Camel. But given the amount of thought that has clearly gone into its design, two aspects of the Aygo leave us a touch perplexed.

The first is the price. The base car looks good value, but the reality is slightly different once you add the air conditioning, metallic paint and other enhancements of our test car. At that point the outlay doesn’t automatically square with the car’s budget status.

Furthermore, just as Toyota and PSA have invested heavily in Czech labour with the factory that produces the Aygo, Renault has underwritten the Dacia Logan project in Romania and is somehow managing to produce a much bigger, if less fuel efficient, vehicle for nearly half the money.

VERDICT

3 star Toyota Aygo

The essence of a good cheap car is a perpetual feeling of having stolen it off the forecourt every time you drive it, and that is sadly missing from the Toyota Aygo.

Space is another issue. Whereas a Fiat Panda can carry five and a decent chunk of luggage, the Aygo simply won’t.

The Aygo has plenty of the infectious appeal we all expect from small cars

Yet there is so much about the Aygo that we admire and respect. Its environmental credentials are beyond dispute.

It’s a car whose engineering and abilities sit more comfortably with the reality of our petroleum-based resources than most others: as such, it strikes a good balance between responsibility and enjoyment.

The Aygo has plenty of the infectious appeal we all expect from small cars — most notably an excellent engine — but we'd hoped for more ingenuity and flexibility in the cabin.

In the end it’s high on price and low on space, so not quite the product it could have been.

Toyota Aygo 2005-2014 First drives