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FEELS ROOMY, LOOKS SMALL: WILL THE YARIS PLAY IN PARIS? (int'l edition)

No matter how tiny their cars, Europeans want them big on pizzazz. So when Toyota Motor Corp. decided to lead its push into Europe with a small car, it knew it had to liven up its dull reputation. The outcome is the Yaris, which will start selling in April for $12,000. ''Toyota is known for quality but needs more emotion,'' says Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz, executive vice-president of Toyota Motor Europe Marketing & Engineering. ''The Yaris is a very emotional car.''

Designed in Brussels, the snub-nosed Yaris draws on research that shows Europeans want a city car that feels spacious. Thus, the Yaris sports ample headroom, a movable backseat, lots of interior pockets, and the biggest trunk in the category. People also want a zippy drive. So the company borrowed Lexus' intelligent variable-valve technology, which monitors the way the engine and accelerator are used, to deliver a sporty ride with good fuel consumption. From 2001 on, the Yaris will be built in the French town of Valenciennes--a big plus in this import-leery market. Says Jean-Louis Gaspar, a 50-year-old visitor at the Paris showroom on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees: ''Now, Toyota can say, 'We are also a French car.'''

The Yaris has gotten plenty of interest at recent auto shows and has softened some of the skepticism about Japanese cars. Andrew Golby, deputy road-test editor at Autocar magazine in London, is impressed. ''Toyotas in the past have been dull to look at,'' he says. ''This car looks pretty and stands out.'' Toyota hopes eventually to sell 200,000 Yarises in Europe every year--a tall order, considering such rivals as the Volkswagen Polo and the Renault Clio.

If the Yaris makes it, expect to see its funny silhouette show up in Asia and Latin America, too. Toyota figures it can do better in these markets with a European-styled subcompact. ''The Europeans have come into our neighboring market of China. And in Latin America, GM and Ford have products from their European divisions,'' explains Akira Yokoi, executive vice-president for overseas operations at Toyota. ''We have to fight them on an equal level.'' With the Yaris, the auto wars will get hotter.

By Heidi Dawley in London, with Inka Resch in Paris



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