Toyota has historically been one of the few manufacturers bold enough to offer a true subcompact car in the United States. Companies from Japan and Germany turned their noses up at the idea of bringing a true small car to market here, adhering to the conventional wisdom that Americans like everything huge and excessive, and will not buy anything small and restrained. Witness Detroit’s half-hearted commitment even to its compact cars, and you get the idea.
Well, it’s their loss. Toyota has been filling that niche for years, first with the Tercel, then the Echo, and now with the Yaris. Other manufacturers have finally seen the light, with Honda’s Fit and Nissan’s Versa entering the market in the last 12 months, and DaimlerChrysler’s SmartCar on the horizon. But Toyota has been at this game for a while, and has finally produced a world-beating subcompact.
The Yaris is actually not a new name – in Europe, the car we knew as the Echo wore the Yaris nameplate. Problem is, the Echo wasn’t a very exciting car. It boasted one of the best turning radiuses in history, but it was heavy on the economy and light on just about everything else. The Yaris has changed all of that. It offers two body styles–a hatchback and a sedan–each with their own personality and a long list of features.
This may sound insignificant, but two different design chiefs in two totally different places designed the two cars. The hatchback was designed in Europe, the sedan in Japan. As such, they really do serve different purposes. The hatch will be the better bet for urban buyers concerned about parallel parking and agility in traffic, while the sedan might be suitable for those who routinely carry more than two people (perhaps even a family).
Toyota sent us a sedan, the “S” variant to be exact. It was finished in Barcelona Red, a nice metallic tone that gave the car a more up-market look. Exterior features particular to the S model included a front and rear underbody spoilers, side rocker panels, and “S” badges. S models also get standard 15″ steelies with wheel covers, as opposed to the 14-inchers on the regular sedan. Ours, however, was equipped with a package that included 15″ alloy wheels, so it really looked rather handsome. If that’s not enough bling for you, Toyota’s web site lists 18″ alloys by TRD (Toyotas Racing Development) on the Yaris accessories page.
Inside, the standard audio system for the S has a CD player with MP3 capability and an auxiliary jack for an iPod or something equivalent. The driver’s seat adjusts for height, and the rear seat splits 60/40 and folds down.
One touch that is a bit polarizing is the center-mounted speedometer and tachometer. We found the visibility excellent once we got used to glancing at the middle of the car instead of through the spokes of the steering wheel. This feature is used on some sportier cars, such as the Mini Cooper, so it’s not exactly a fringe design element.
All Prius models get air conditioning as a standard option. This surprised us a little bit, because frankly there are some folks who might forgo it in order to boost fuel economy and lower the purchase price of the car. But it’s not that expensive as is, so we won’t complain.
Considering that the Yaris is a small compact car (read: economy), it moves pretty well. It has a 1.5L inline-four (identical to the motors found in the Scion twins, the xA and xB) that makes 106 horsepower at 6000rpm and 103 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000rpm. That might not sound like a lot, but our Yaris had a curb weight of just 2288 lbs. So while it’s not going to light you on fire with startling performance, you won’t be banging on the dash to make it go faster, either.
Low weight pays another dividend here, and that’s fuel economy. Our S came with an EPA estimate of 34mpg city and 40mpg highway, which is outstanding. Annual fuel cost is estimated at $891.
One disclaimer is that our Yaris came with a 5-speed manual, which allows the driver to wring the most out of a smaller motor. The four-speed automatic is likely to sap some much-needed power (and fuel efficiency) from the little Yaris’ four-banger, so choose your transmission carefully.
The Yaris uses a standard suspension for this class, with McPherson struts up front and a Torsion beam in the rear. The front brakes are ventilated discs, with drums in back. With not much weight to haul around, this system works just fine.
The Yaris S carries a starting MSRP of just $13,525, according to Toyota’s web site. Our tester had a long list of options, foremost among them being a $1,350 “power package”, which included the 15″ alloy wheels, ABS, power door locks/windows/outside mirrors, an LCD display upgrade for the stereo, cruise control, and upgraded interior trim.
We also got an upgraded airbag system ($650), which adds seat-mounted side airbags for the driver and front passenger, and side curtain airbags all around. Other options were a keyless entry system ($230), fog lamps ($110), carpeted floor mats & cargo net ($150), and a rear spoiler with an LED brake light ($435). The bottom line, including $580 for processing and handling, was $16,830. Not too bad for a fully loaded sedan from the world’s hottest automaker.