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For as long as I could remember, the B-segment sedan market was the epicentre of the Malaysian automotive industry – it was the segment that commanded the most attention and one that had the greatest impact on our buying habits. And while plenty of segment players have come and gone, two titans remain etched in consumers’ minds – the Honda City and the Toyota Vios.

Both cars battled it out for decades as king of this hotly-contested segment, each taking turns to deal blows with every passing generation, and each seemingly unwilling to back down. In recent years, it was the more modern, more competent City that secured the lead, helping Honda break Toyota’s stranglehold on the non-national sales title, as well as becoming the second most popular brand overall.

Not a moment too soon, the new Vios was introduced just last month, here to reclaim the ground it lost. This time, however, there’s more to the battle than just its arch nemesis – in case you haven’t heard, the SUV is the new “in” thing, and with the emergence of the ever-popular Honda HR-V and with models from Proton and Perodua encroaching into the segment’s price range, it’s getting very crowded indeed.

So, seconds out, round four – is the new Vios good enough not just to overcome its bitter rival, but also fend off the more desirable crossovers in the periphery – and make buyers overlook that enormous front grille? Toyota was eager for us to find out, so it got us to drive the latest heavyweight contender all the way to Desaru and back for a proper test.

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Toyota may bill this Vios as all new, but it actually rides on the same platform as before, dating back to the second-gen model from 2007. It doesn’t even have a new model code – instead, it continues the same NSP151 designation as its predecessor. Not to matter, because pretty much everything you can see and feel (except the engine and transmission, which we’ll get to later) has been revamped in one way or another.

Not least of which are the looks, and it’s here that the company decided to throw caution to the wind, its Keen Look design language reaching cartoonish levels. It’s the front end that is divisive, with a humongous lower grille giving the car an absolutely massive grin, and a slim central inlet acting as a “moustache”. The effect is amplified by the vertical fog light surrounds that sit at the far corners of the bumper, flanking the grille.

The rest of the design is pretty straightforward, with broader, slimmer and sharper head- and tail lights contributing to a wider look. Along the side, a new shoulder line sweeps upwards aft from the front wheels and stretches towards the rear doors, and there’s also a second line that crosses the door handles on its way towards the tail lights. The beltline also sweeps up more elegantly than before.

Instead of offering a tarted-up TRD Sportivo model at the top of the range, UMW Toyota Motor is providing a bodykit as a standalone option on all models. I never liked these kits as they always added a lot of visual bulk, but I’ll admit that the front grille garnish on this one does disguise the size of that grille somewhat.

The interior is more conventional, with the only controversial bit being the Lexus NX-esque protruding centre console. The fake stitching on the hard plastic dashboard is just as offensive as ever, but the presentation is at least a little more tasteful here, and it’s all screwed together in typical Toyota bombproof fashion.

A new feature is the standard-fit automatic air-conditioning, which was previously only offered in other markets, although you still don’t get rear vents. Corolla Altis owners will be familiar with the redesigned three-spoke steering wheel, which loses the outgoing model’s slightly flattened bottom but still has a rim that is just a touch too thick for my liking, and which still doesn’t adjust for reach.

Behind it sit a pair of clear, legible dials (somewhat obscured by reflections) that do a fancy sweeping motion on startup, as well as a new 4.2-inch colour multi-info display that has been seen on everything from the Camry to the 86. At the back, the rear cupholders (there are now two of them) have been moved into the rear armrest, and the new USB charging ports are a godsend – even if they look like complete afterthoughts.

Don’t expect any miracles in terms of cabin space, as the exterior dimensions remain largely identical. Sure, at 4,425 mm long and 1,730 mm wide, the new car is 15 mm longer and 30 mm wider, but it retains the old car’s 1,475 mm height and 2,550 mm wheelbase, so no packaging breakthroughs here.

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Indeed, you’re not gonna find rear legroom that would put D-segment sedans to shame – that’s still the City’s party trick – and rear headroom is also a little tight due to the sloping roofline. But it’s not what you’d call cramped by any stretch of the imagination, and you’ll still fit four adults comfortably.

The boot, which measures the same 506 litres as before, is likewise not class leading but it’s plenty for groceries and luggage. Do bear in mind, however, that the 60:40-split rear seats do not fold completely flat, the resulting bump making loading longer items a pain; the pews are also fixed on the base J variant.

One area that sees a much-needed improvement is safety. All models now get seven airbags as standard (up from just two before), joining stability control that was introduced across the range in 2016. What’s more, the top G model receives blind spot monitoring, but unfortunately you still don’t get autonomous emergency braking. Come on, Toyota – you can get a Perodua Myvi with this kind of technology!

The engine remains unchanged for 2019, retaining the 2NR-FE 1.5 litre Dual VVT-i naturally-aspirated four-cylinder mill that makes the same outputs as before – 107 PS at 6,000 rpm and 140 Nm of torque at 4,200 rpm. It’s now paired exclusively to a continuously variable transmission with a seven-speed mode (and new paddle shifters for the G), meaning that, for the first time, there won’t be a manual option, not even on the J.

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Yes, before you rush into the comments, it’s yet another carryover engine and gearbox for the Vios, but at least here they are both fairly up-to-date, being only three years old. Indeed, the powertrain doesn’t feel at all outdated – it’s responsive and creamy smooth, and I’m pretty sure it will deliver the kind of fuel efficiency that buyers have come to expect in this segment.

What it does feel is underpowered. Sure, a deficit of 13 PS and 5 Nm over the City may not seem like much, but when both power and torque outputs are barely into triple figures, you’re going to notice the difference. Especially if you compare the two cars back-to-back, like what Toyota let us do during the drive.

Whereas the Honda will almost leap off the line, the Toyota struggles to get up to highway speeds, even though the engine itself is perky and willing to rev. It needs all the help it can get, and thankfully the CVT has been retuned to mitigate the relative lack of pace.

I’ve previously criticised the transmission for being sluggish, and it the recalibration goes some way towards addressing that, the CVT responding noticeably quicker to throttle inputs. The City is quicker still but at times it feels a little overeager, so it can be a bit difficult to drive smoothly. The Vios counters by reacting in more gradual and progressive manner, which is a benefit in stop-start traffic.

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Of course, you can play around with the new Sport mode (conversely, an Eco mode is also available), which actually does a commendable job in making the car feel more sprightly, keeping the engine at higher revs and operating more like a stepped automatic transmission.

The snappy seven-speed function also does a better job of mimicking actual gears compared to other similar systems – even though the paddles themselves feel disappointingly cheap. I’d leave it as it is, however; this is still a family car, after all, and there’s only so much the CVT can do to mask the shortfall in power.

It’s just as well, then, that Toyota has not tried to chase a sportier driving experience, and instead sought to improve the Vios’ already impressive ride comfort and refinement. To that end, torsional rigidity has been increased thanks to a greater number of spot welding points and the use of underbody reinforcement, and spring and damper rates have also been updated.

The car’s deputy chief engineer Akira Kasamatsu told us Toyota not only benchmarked the new Vios against the City but also larger, more sophisticated C-segment models – and it clearly shows. Next to the Honda, this is a much more relaxing car to cruise in on the highway, with much lower road and wind noise even at speeds well over triple figures – undoubtedly helped by the acoustic windscreen found on the E and G models.

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It also has the more absorbent ride, with soft springs and reasonable damping helping to iron out much of our pockmarked roads, even though it can’t quite shake off the cheap, hollow feel of most Japanese B-segment models. The result is a calmer drive, whether you’re just pootling along or travelling at a faster pace.

Out on the open road, the City’s sharper steering makes an immediate first impression, but a lack of body control also means that it feels more nervous as speeds climb, an unfortunate Honda trait in recent years. The Vios, meanwhile, is more composed and stable – but two things count against it.

Firstly, the car oddly tends to get affected by crosswinds, even at the national speed limit, causing it to meander around in its own lane. Correcting its trajectory isn’t such a straightforward task, either, no thanks to the steering that is so slow and vague as to give you no sense of connection to the front wheels.

As you’d expect, this also counts against the Vios when it comes to going around corners, with the numb helm and excessive body roll discouraging you from driving in a more spirited manner, even though the chassis itself is more than capable of coping. Despite its sporting pretensions, this is a car whose comfort-oriented character nudges you into taking things slow in order to appreciate its strengths.

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Don’t let the stylistic overhaul fool you – the new Vios isn’t a wholesale revolution. Rather, it’s a surprisingly nuanced rejuvenation that leans heavily on the things that made this segment stalwart such a favourite for family buyers in the first place. However (and this is a personal thing), I’ve always felt that UMW Toyota’s practice of offering bodykits and its insistence of turning it into an amateur race car sends mixed signals.

For this is no longer the sportiest offering in this segment, neither possessing the most powerful engine nor the most dynamic of handling characteristics. For better or for worse, it’s the City that will give you what little enjoyment that can be had in this price range. But then, if performance and driver involvement is what you’re looking for, what on earth are you doing shopping for a B-segment sedan?

More worrying for Toyota is the emerging brigade of crossovers looking to steal its lunch money, and we’ll have to wait and see if the market will shift away from the humble four-door. Be in no doubt, however, that the Vios has never been better equipped to take them all head on. But you’ll have to get over that big mouth first.

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