My automotive odyssey began in a Ford Pinto. I didn't need Ralph Nader to tell me that The Blue Oval's first sub-compact was a death trap. The Pinto was so nasty on so many levels I'm surprised it didn't spontaneously combust in shame. Then again, why would it? Ford had no shame. Like the rest of the Big Three, their greed, arrogance and incompetence handed the small car market to the Japanese. As far as I can tell, nothing much has changed in the last 35 years. Once again, gas prices are squeezing cash-strapped motorists. Once again, domestics don't have a compelling answer. And once again, Toyota does: the Toyota Yaris.
Do without any optional frills (power windows, remote keyless, a radio) and an autobox Yaris Liftback will set you back about twelve large. If the repo man has never darkened your drive and you have a grand to put down (or are willing to also do your own shifting), payments are within spitting distance of $200. That's to own the car, not a lease with a phone book's worth of fine print. And not just any car, but a brand spankin' new, made-in-Japan, everyone's-sister-knows-it'll-never-break Toyota. A Hummer driver spends twice as much just to keep the tank topped off. Speaking of which, you get over 35 mpg in a Yaris, with a three-year bumper-to-bumper hakuna mutata.
Of course, when I say "you" I mean poor people. Sorry, members of the working class, seniors on a fixed-income, recent college graduates and teenage children of heavily mortgaged parents. Let's face it: very few Americans outside this frugal-by-necessity subset would be wiling to drive a car this small. Even die-hard greens would favor a mid-sized hybrid over a car that could double as an H2 escape pod. Actually, that's being kind. The Yaris Liftback looks like a demonically-possessed doorstop. While the Yaris' ass-in-the-air stance has a certain Gallic charm, the tilted coffee table windshield and grotesquely oversized headlamps makes you wonder if the shape was penned by an adolescent (or alcohol-impaired) M.C. Escher.
Like the new Civic, the Yaris' windscreen angle takes it toll on cabin karma (though not on the bugs glancing off its slightly angled surface). There may be drivers who are perfectly happy looking across an acre of uninterrupted dash, through a narrow aperture, between enormous pillars, at a hoodless vista filled with vehicles four or five times as large as the tin can surrounding them, but I'm not one of them. Obviously, the Yaris' raked glass improves its fuel-efficiency at speed. I'd gladly pay a tad more at the pump for a less SUV-ish [non-Pontiac] vibe, and instrumentation that doesn't look like a digital Quonset hut plonked in the center of a black plastic field.
Fortunately, miraculously, the Yaris provides enough head, leg and shoulder room for four full-sized adults– as long as they don't mind sitting on fabric with a half-life greater than plutonium 239. The Yaris' roll-up windows are a welcome bit of nostalgia (if only to freak out the grandkids) and all the switchgear clunk clicks with firm but fair tactility. The stereo proves my long-held theory that economy-cars need kick-ass tunes more than expensive ones. The Yaris' radio makes FM sound like AM and AM sound like a SETI beacon heard from somewhere inside the Pleiades star cluster.
The Yaris isn't a pig to drive. Who knew that a handbag-sized four-cylinder engine could generate enough oomph to transport kith, kin and 2335 lbs. worth of car down a road without inviting comparisons to continental drift? Needless to say, Toyota's tweaked the Yaris' erstwhile powerplant seven ways to fun day: intelligent variable valve timing, double-overhead camshafts, 16-valves, direct ignition and an electronic throttle. OK, maybe not "fun" per se. But the Yaris is a peppy little thing that only develops asthma at highway cruising speeds, where additional forward momentum requires kicking down into third and… patience.
The Yaris' handling is equally remarkable. With a dinner plate-sized turning circle and power-assisted rack and pinion steering, the four-wheeled micro-lite is predictably nimble in the cut-and-thrust of urban warfare. And unpredictably stable through the corners. Throw the Yaris Liftback into a proper turn and she'll hang on with all the tenacity of a Rush Limbaugh caller. Eventually, the Yaris' all-season rubber squeals surrender, but it's just a bit of harmless fun in a too-boring-to-do-again-except-to-prove-it-can sort of way. The front disc, rear drum set-up is equally steadfast, and the suspension makes rough roads feel like rubberized rough roads. How great is that?
Pretty great– at the price. Again, the Yaris is a superb value proposition. If you have the extra cash and want a stylish runabout, you wouldn't choose a Yaris over a MINI. But if you don't have the cash and don't want to bum rides, use public transportation or throw more money at your decrepit gas-guzzler, Toyota wins. Again. Still.