A week spent with the surprising subcompact from Toyota
Nice shifter and clutch
Five speed only manual
The Toyota Yaris has been with us since the late nineties when it first reached our shores as the Echo. Both it and the second-gen version that was subsequently renamed the Yaris were forgettable dreck-boxes that are best forgotten.
In fact, up against such competition as the Honda Fit and even the Nissan Versa, I’m amazed that Toyota sold any of those stylistically-challenged vehicles at all. Despite this fact, the Yaris managed to be at or near the top of its class in sales since its introduction. Evidently sometimes there’s no accounting for taste in this class.
That being said, I was pleasantly surprised when Toyota unveiled its latest generation Yaris. And while, unlike the previous model, it’s only available in hatchback form (5-door only for the SE, while L and Le buyers can opt for a 3-door configuration) – no sedan is offered – it is an altogether better vehicle than the one it replaces in every way.
Those changes to newest Yaris, especially in SE guise, begin on the outside. Up front, a unique front fascia includes built-in fog lights, a larger and more aggressive intake as well as a vestigial chin spoiler. The standard grill has been replaced by one featuring “sport mesh” that also is repeated in the fog lamp surrounds and lower air intake.
Although neither the front nor the rear wheel wells can be described as being “flared”, they are filled nicely by SE-specific smoked alloy wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Turanza P195/50VR16 rubber.
Beginning with what for a Yaris is a fairly aggressive front end then, a mild character line begins at the trailing edge of the headlamp enclosures and extends along the sides just below the beltline, bisecting both front and rear door handles until it terminates just ahead of, and below the upper edge of, the rear tail-lamp enclosures. Another character line starts just aft of the lower portion of the front wheel well and, rising slightly, ends halfway up the rear wheel well opening.
Compared to its flanks, the rear fascia is much more aggressive – the lower rear bumper sports twin recessed outboard reflectors. Below the bumper, is a narrow grey lower trim strip and, jutting out of it, is a single chromed exhaust tip. Both rear tail-lamps angle downward and inward and a horizontal chrome trim piece sits above the license plate binnacle. Topping this all off, so to speak, is a body-colored spoiler set above the rear window.
While none of this is looks as purposeful as, say, the Ford Fiesta, it is, for the Yaris, a huge improvement.
The Yaris sits on a 98.8 inch wheelbase, is 154.7 inches long, 66.7 inches wide and 59.4 inches high. In addition to larger wheels and tires, the SE version also has a narrower front and rear tread width (57.5 and 56.9 versus 58.5 and 56.9 for its non-sporting brethren).
Inside you’ll find a plethora of plastic, although the surfaces are nicely grained and the multiple textures plus a two-tone trim scheme dress up what would otherwise be a pretty mundane cabin. Instrumentation has been moved from the previous-gen’s hideous center mount to where it belongs – in front of the driver. The black on white silver-trimmed gauges are also clear and straightforward.
Front seat passengers will find generous amounts of head and legroom. The seats for both the pilot and co-pilot are also surprisingly supportive and feature manual adjustments (six for the driver, four for the passenger).
Unlike its platform-mate the Prius c, the steering wheel, which on the SE is wrapped in rich-feeling leather, only offers a tilt function and does not telescope, although it does contain controls for the audio system. Another shortcoming – while the audio system is smart phone compatible, the USB port that’s used to connect these devices is located in the upper right-hand corner of the glove box – hardly a place that can be called “driver-accessible.
The center stack, as you might expect, is simple and straight forward. An upper pod contains the radio, while an oddly-sized large round circle just to its left contains both the emergency flasher button and, below it, a readout that tells you if the passenger airbag is activated. Three round knobs sit below the radio and control the HVAC system functions allowing you the adjust the air delivery, fan speed and air temperature, while buttons within them control air recirculation, rear defroster and A/C on-off functions.
I was able to pair my iPhone to the Yaris’s Bluetooth system; although I did have to consult the owner’s manual to do this. In this case, while the controls are simple enough, in the case of the Yaris it seems as though they’re not as intuitive for many of the upper-level functions offered as they could be.
Although the seats are fairly flat, rear seat passengers will at least find plenty of headroom and legroom, while the theater-type seating allows for good forward visibility. The rear doors are also large enough to allow easy ingress and egress for passengers.
Speaking of space, overall interior volume is 100.7 cubic feet, with 85.1 cubic feet of passenger volume and 15.6 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the rear seat, while a rear cargo cover is standard.
Due to a relatively low belt-line and cowl as well as a generous glass area, the view out the front, back and sides is excellent.
The Yaris, regardless of trim level, is available with just one engine: a DOHC 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with independent variable valve timing that produces a less-than-thundering 106 horsepower and 103 lb.-ft. of torque. This is mated to either a 5-speed manual of 4-speed automatic transaxle.
To paraphrase Colin Chapman, “more horsepower makes you faster on the straights, while less weight makes you faster everywhere.” I say this because, despite the engine’s anemic output compared to other vehicles in this class such as the Fiesta’s 120 horses, the four-banger in the Yaris pulls around a vehicle that weighs over 240 pounds less than the offering from Ford – making it every bit as energetic.
In addition, the Yaris also exhibits a well-controlled ride. This is due in no small part to the SE’s firmer suspension settings, quicker steering and stickier tires (who would’ve thought you could get a Yaris with V rated rubber?). Also part and parcel of all sportier Yarii (?) are four-wheel disc brakes.
Although the Yaris is hardly in the same league, handling-wise as, say, the Mazda2, it is, at least for an entry-level people mover, highly entertaining – not something I’ve come to expect from Toyota.
There is, however, a trade-off to all this goodness. While tossing it into corners is a hoot and the SE exhibits the least amount of body lean of any Yaris, the suspension, especially on bumpy surfaces, shows a lack of compliance and transmits a good deal of harshness through the body to the driver’s seat. So while zipping along smooth city streets and throwing it into corners can be highly entertaining, driving a Yaris SE down a pothole-scarred freeway can quickly become an exercise in torture – especially accompanied by a road surface soundtrack that, thanks to minimal insulation, loudly intrudes into the cabin.
On the other hand, the all-disc brake setup on the Yaris does a nice job of bringing it to a halt. I detected no fade and the pedal was easy to modulate.
Despite its entry-level assignment, even the least expensive Yaris, the L, comes fairly well equipped. Standard features include color-keyed outside mirrors and door handles, air conditioning, intermittent front wiper (yes, there is only one), rear wiper and window defogger, power locks, rear storage cover, AM/FM radio with CD player and the aforementioned USB port with iPod connectivity.
The LE trim adds power windows and mirrors, two more speakers (for a total of 6), HD radio, satellite radio compatibility, Bluetooth music streaming, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, metallic interior trim and chrome inside door handles.
At the pinnacle the SE adds, in addition to the aforementioned features, smoked headlamp enclosures, sport fabric-trimmed seats, a 60/40 split fold down rear seat and “sport analog instrumentation that includes outside temperature, fuel economy and average speed information.”
The Yaris also comes standard with nine airbags, stability and traction control, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and Toyota’s smart stop technology – a feature necessitated by Toyota’s accelerator recall issue that reduces engine power if both the accelerator and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously.
Toyota Yaris new car prices for 2013, including a $795 delivery, processing and handling fee, begin at $15,165 for a manually-equipped base L model and top out at just over $19,000 for a fully-equipped SE outfitted with an automatic transmission.
Our Absolutely Red SE, being a 2012 model, had a base price of $16,400. Adding carpeted floor mats at $160 meant that the vehicle we tested checked in at precisely $17,340.
Unlike the small Toyotas we’ve become accustomed to, there are times when the Yaris is downright entertaining. It manages to do this because, even though it gives up horsepower to just about everything else in the segment, the weight savings make it an equal.
At the same time, however, I have to look at what the Yaris is up against. With vehicles like the Hyundai Accent, Mazda Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta alongside it, I suspect that only loyal Toyota buyers plus a few others will choose it over its rivals.
In any case, potential buyers should know this: not only is the Yaris Toyota’s most affordable small car, it’s also, at least in SE trim, the most entertaining one I have ever driven.