With the subcompact segment well into its metamorphosis from "basic transportation" to "desirable small cars," Toyota had a heck of an opportunity to redesign its fairly strong-selling Yaris to conform to the future.
Inside and out, the new Yaris is a fairly substantial styling departure from its predecessor, but we learned rather quickly that this 2012 model was more of a safe RBI than a hard smack out of the ballpark.
What is it?
Slotting in below the dull Corolla in Toyota's lineup, the Yaris is the automaker's entry-level model. Its descendants really began in the late 1990s with the youth-oriented Toyota Echo, a model that preceded the similarly Gen X/Y-hopeful Scion brand. As history has taught us, both the Echo and Scion found buyers a wee bit older than the demographers had pictured. Try and try again, eh?
This latest Yaris, which went on sale last year, is noticeably more stylish than before. The outgoing model's particularly dowdy four-door sedan configuration is gone, replaced instead by either a three-door hatchback or, tested here, a five-door. Regardless of aperture count, Yarises (Yarii?) bound for North America include a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine mated to either a five-speed manual (three-door L and five-door SE) or a four-speed automatic (three-door LE, five-door L and LE).
Despite its sporty red paint scheme, our Yaris LE tester was anything but, although it did feature an interesting, cost-saving single wiper blade.
What's it up against?
The subcompact segment is full of new entries.
Budget-conscious consumers could look to the Nissan Versa, but those interested in actually buying an enjoyable car might want to consider the Ford Fiesta
, Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio
and Mazda Mazda2
How does it look?
Although the Yaris doesn't actually share its exterior with the recently-released Toyota Prius
c, the two platform mates were obviously born in the same design studio.
The Yaris boasts a pleasant enough front fascia, with nice detailing in the lower grille opening and around the headlamps. From the side, an airy greenhouse dominates at first, but a blocky C-pillar really commands the viewer's attention. A character "swoosh" across the lower portion of the front doors adds some visual glitz. Out back, the old Yaris' third world-looking tailgate with its single black push button/handle is gone in favor of a chrome strip and clear/red tail lamps.
Overall, aside from the laughably chintzy hubcaps (alloy wheels are only available on the SE model or through Toyota's accessory catalog), the Yaris isn't a bad-looking little urban runabout in our eyes. It isn't as balanced as the Kia Rio or as flashy as the Ford Fiesta, but it is clean and tailored, the sort of responsible-looking five-door you might not automatically think is mere cheap transportation.
And on the inside?
A wide dashboard adorned with few controls dominates the Yaris' interior, giving it a basic but not excessively cheap appearance.
Oddly, secondary controls like the hazard switch are placed close to the driver, while the excessively complex - yet low-specification - audio head unit is oriented more toward the passenger. At least the trio of climate control knobs are an easy reach for the driver.
But while the interior doesn't look particularly cheap at first glance, a brief touch of the ultra thin door panels and milk bottle-grade dashboard plastics reveals no shortage of cost cutting. Foamy, rather un-sculpted seats and a gauge cluster lacking even a tachometer continue the budget-minded appearance.
On the bright side, visibility from the large greenhouse is excellent, while the meaty three-spoke steering wheel felt good in our hands. In addition, both front and rear passenger space is above average for the segment, as is the cargo area behind the rear seats.
But does it go?
With just 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft. of torque on tap, the Yaris' 1.5-liter four-cylinder certainly isn't a class leader. Neither is its four-speed automatic transmission, which is down a gear or two compared to nearly every rival.
Not surprisingly,, the Yaris' straight-line performance suffers. Its transmission shifts smoothly but must be called upon often during highway passing and on-ramp maneuvers. Even some suburban driving - the kind of terrain that shouldn't challenge a small car like the Yaris - forces the driver to push hard on the skinny pedal in order to get things happening under the subcompact's small hood.
At least there's not a huge amount of commotion to accompany the obviously straining engine under hood. Wind, road and mechanical noises are kept to a minimum.
In fact, aside from its obviously underpowered drivetrain, the Yaris feels rather grown up otherwise. Its ride is soft but composed, revealing a certain degree of sophistication lacking in a Kia Rio we recently sampled. Steering is numb but precise and pleasantly weighted. As its skinny tires and hubcap-clad steel wheels suggest, outright grip is limited, but the Yaris is predictable in the way it goes about its business.
Thanks to the limited gears on offer, highway fuel economy suffers. While rivals offer as much as 40 mpg, the Yaris is stuck at a rather compact (or even midsize)-like 35 mpg on the highway. City fuel economy is a more impressive 30 mpg. In mixed driving, we saw right around 31 mpg.
Why you would buy it:
Toyota has a reputation for building stout small cars.
Why you wouldn't:
You cross-shopped more dynamic rivals.
Leftlane's bottom line
The redesigned Yaris feels like a missed opportunity for Toyota. While it's not inherently a bad car, this little five-door lacks either the spunk, the value or the premium feel offered in rivals.
In short, its basic bones are steeped in Toyota values but its execution feels a little second rate.
2012 Toyota Yaris LE
base price, $16,100. As tested, $17,290.
Cruise Control, $250; Floor mats, $180; Destination, $760.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.