At first glance, the Vista saloon looks like a hurried design job, with its short bonnet and stubby boot flanking a passenger cell gift-wrapped in an acre of glass and sheet metal, but the looks tend to grow on you.
The navy blue that our unwitting test vehicle came in does justice to its lines, and coupled with that chrome nose, it lends the car a regal appearance.
The coverless stock rims (ignore that single remaining wheel cap that you see in the photos) in black, the chrome nose, and the rear light clusters, along with the length of the car and the dark paint do make it look somewhat like one of those undercover FBI Ford Crown Victorias that we always see in Hollywood movies, don’t they?
It’s a Victorian mansion once you pop inside, and issues like leg-room, head-room, and elbow-room are foregone conclusions.
The interior is massive, while at the same time cossetting, (at least for the driver), if there is such a thing.
Sliding the front seats forward or backward leaves the rear passengers unaffected. There is an armrest between the driver and the front passenger, which conceals a cubby hole big enough to stash away two-and-a-half beer bottles (don’t ask how we found that out).
The armrest allows the driver to lean left and rest his elbow on it with his right wrist resting on the top of the steering wheel.
Combine this with a laid back seating position and this rapper-style driving posture attracts looks of lust, envy, and the unwelcome look of the law.
This car does have a few foibles. One thing I do not, and have never liked, is the positioning of the instrument cluster — dead centre, in the middle of the dashboard.
The figures the driver generates on the various displays (especially numbers showing instantaneous velocity) are nobody’s business but his/hers, and comments like “You are going too fast” and “You’d better fuel or else we’ll stop in the middle of traffic,” will ring the air more often than not… as if I don’t know.
The instrument cluster itself is a paradox of sorts. It is a Blackpool-Illuminations-type digital display that shows the speed in very large font (all the easier for jittery passengers to read), and the fuel gauge is a single vertical bar graph hidden in the right hand corner of the screen.
Starting the car brings a welcome screen that says “Welcome” with a sort of star-burst, and displays the Toyota logo, before settling on the standard display.
There are indicators for instantaneous and average fuel consumption. The latter is a horizontal bar graph that shifts all the time.
One end is marked 0 (for 0 kpl) and the other 30 (for 30 kpl), apparently this car at its most economical. The average consumption is shown by some playschool-size numerals just next to the speedo. There is also a figure that gives the estimated range for the fuel left in the tank.
During our various “test drives”, the digital system went on the fritz on more than one occasion. The fuel gauge failed to update its status even after two top-ups, as did the range indicator (if that is what it was).
It read “0 kilometres” for more than two days of driving and had me wondering if this car sometimes runs on air. We are not sure whether this was a defect peculiar to this car or if it is a typical Vista affliction.
The problem was solved later by turning off the car after filling up, then restarting it. IT types should identify with this style of curing problems.
Worse still, there is no tachometer. Some of us depend on the dancing of the rev-counter needle to get our entertainment, but there is no such thing here. A lot of Japanese hieroglyphics crowd the left hand side of the display, which I would have gladly traded for a good ol’ tach.
Another weakness is the positioning of the gear selector lever: on the left of the steering column. Being a full automatic, it is not so bad, though I have always preferred a floor-mounted affair.
But the thing is, when parking (sliding the lever from D or R up to P), there is a tendency to turn the wipers on, because one’s wrist hits the wiper switch upwards in tandem with the selector lever movement.
It is not a fatal flaw, and with a bit of practice it could be overcome, but such actions in a motor vehicle should not be accompanied with heavy thinking, nor should they be bothersome. They should be instinctive.
Dynamically, the car is right on the money. It’s fast and it’s comfortable, which is what it should be. Its two-litre engine gives just enough power to have you moving rapidly without shocking your socks off, and the automatic gearbox works fairly well.
At any speed, with the windows shut, it rides with a smoothness and noiselessness that is reminiscent of the old Lexus GS300 —yes, it is that smooth.
However, the car we drove came equipped with generously treaded snow tyres: 15-inch studless Yokohama Ice-Guards that are marvellous for finding traction on treacherous surfaces but roar terribly on the blacktop. Keep the windows shut and you won’t hear them.
The brakes are sharp, rightfully so for a car this size, and have amazing stopping power. They work progressively and so one can contain one’s enthusiasm without having one’s face pulled off in the process.
The suspension soaks up almost all but the worst road corrugations, and lends confidence-inspiring stability to the ride characteristics, even at triple-digit speeds.
Every silver lining has a cloud, and so does the Vista. Its turning circle is huge, the kind you’d expect from a much larger car. The steering is direct and input can be felt instantaneously, but this does not act as a palliative for its truck-like versatility.
Tight three-point turns could be a little painful. Along with the large turning circle comes understeer, available in generous quantities here.
Even at sober speeds, there is a fair bit of understeer, but I think I can explain away these twin phenomena: The Vista is meant for wafting, or for comfortable family conveyance from point A to the in-laws.
This means that the chassis setup is “Comfort”, not “Sport” or “Race”. Soft bushes, soft springs, and highly absorbent shock absorbers are the order of the day for this kind of car.
This means that steering input and the subsequent wheel turning will have to go through a thick blanket of bush and spring compression, chassis flex, and strut travel before the car starts to change direction noticeably, hence the massive understeer.
This is not a go-cart, and should not be driven as if it was one. The turning circle is on account of the wheelbase, which is fairly lengthy — to maximise space and passenger comfort within the safety cell.
The rear wheel wells do not impose into the cell, giving the car a bus-like wheelbase and interior space, therefore a bus-like turning circle.
What I cannot explain away is the slightly lethargic cog-box that is supposed to channel power to the road from the engine.
It is not as smooth as the Lexus I had started comparing it with (upshifts in the lower gears are noticeable for the keen driver, even when driving softly, while there is a hesitation to downshift when the need arises, such as on a hill or when a quick overtake is necessary).
It is worse on gradients because the box clings to the higher gear tenaciously until the last possible moment before shifting down, by which time it is necessary to shift down two gears rapidly rather than one at a time.
The end result is that the nose lifts, the rear squats, and the engine revs soar, and progress becomes a little undignified for such a lovely car.
Is it a drunkard? Hell no, surprisingly. It even has a green graphic that tells you when your driving style has gone into economy mode.
The only complication is the fuel gauge, which is very eager to drop to the floor like a cash-strapped twilight girl on a slow Monday night.
This is deceptive because, on a flat gauge, it will still cover a considerable chunk of land-mass before conking out. It is not easy to gauge the range of this car, but rest assured your hard-earned pennies will not be wasted.
Granted, this Japanese Cadillac will relieve you of the best part of your million — four fifths of it, in fact, give or take — but in terms of value for money, you will be hard pressed to find a better deal elsewhere.
All in all, the Vista works as a car should. We like it, in fact, we like it very much. Would we buy one? Yes, and then maybe hire it out for three grand a day.
Vehicle Type: Front engine, FWD, 4-door, 5 seat sedan
Asking price when tested: Ksh. 800,000
Standard Equipment: Rear ELR3 point seat belt, Front seat pretensioner seat belt, Fourth limited front seat belt, Side impact bar, Airbag (Driver), Airbag (Passenger), Steering wheel tilt, Power window, Centralized door lock, UV cutting glass, ABS (Antilock brake system), AM/FM radio equipped cassette player, CD-player, Power steering
Optional Equipment: Front fog lamp, rear wiper, rear/roof spoiler (Ardeo), aluminium wheels, wood panel, satellite navigation