Remember the legendary Toyota Tercel? Sorry, trick question—there was no legendary Toyota Tercel. Between 1980 and 2000 five generations of tiny Toyotas came and went, leaving nary a trace in car guy lore. Toyota followed up the Tercel with the Echo. The new car was memorable…for ridiculous Gen Y marketing, an ugly exterior, a cheap interior, bobbly handling, and a harsh ride. All but admitting failure, Toyota not only let the Echo die on the vine as a “special order only” car but, taking a page from the GM playbook, euthanized the nameplate as well. A Yaris successor succeeded in that it continued the Tercel tradition of utter unmemorability. Emboldened by this success, Toyota has not only retained the Yaris nameplate for a second generation, but is pitching an SE variant at people who actually like to drive. Will we remember this one, and for the right reasons?
Drooling over this photo? Then your medication has at least one unpleasant side effect. Still, I must admit a fondness for the car’s exterior. The look is current, with the wheels pushed all the way out to aero-friendly crisp corners. Seeking swoopy insectoid styling? Look elsewhere. The SE tweaks (aggressive front facia, gunmetal gray eight-spoke 16-inch rims) work well, effectively communicating the car’s sporting ambitions. Prefer the three-door body style? Then no SE for you. It’s only available with the five-door. (The sedan was dropped with the redesign.)
Interior design high points include intriguingly patterned blue cloth and some squishy surfaces (the light gray bits). But the instrument panel suffers from the odd design details and clumsy attempts at coherence that have afflicted too many Toyota interiors over the past decade. Round vents, or rectangular ones? Why not both! Then mirror both shapes with an open storage cubby northwest of the instruments (for easy viewing by passers by) and a prominent circular surround overlapping the left side of the audio system’s thick bezel. The latter houses an unhappily cohabiting hazard button and passenger airbag indicator light—because you might have trouble finding them otherwise. Then there’s the audio system, with a tiny power button tucked away in the top right corner (and so beyond easy reach due to the system’s rightward displacement by the hazard button surround) and sound quality adjustments so buried even my kids failed to locate them.
Just drive the car at night, and everything is good. The steering wheel isn’t too thickly padded and is invitingly shaped. The seats are both comfortable and supportive. The side windows are generously sized, especially by current standards. The windshield, not so much. Like many lately, the instrument panel is tall, perhaps to lend the impression that the Yaris is larger and more substantial than it actually is. Or to avoid the minivanish driving position of the Honda Fit. It succeeds on both counts. The rear seat is roomier than the segment average. Adults of average size will fit with perhaps an entire inch to spare. Cargo volume is at best average, meaning the Honda Fit is the clear winner.
SE notwithstanding, the horsepower war hasn’t yet made it to the Yaris. A 1.5-liter four-cylinder good for a mere 106 horses at 6,000 rpm remains the only available engine. But the Yaris also hasn’t packed on pounds the way most competitors have, and still checks in south of 2,300 (about 300 fewer than a Fiesta or Sonic). Hitched to a five-speed manual, the engine feels peppy. Unlike the Mazda2, each shift doesn’t sink the engine into a torque-free zone from which it struggles to emerge. More of an issue than power: when revved the four produces a soft wheezy buzz. If it weren’t a brand new Toyota, I’d have hunted for a small exhaust leak. Shift feel is okay, neither as good as the Honda Fit’s nor as craptastic as the Hyundai Accent’s.
With a small engine and low curb weight, the Yaris SE’s fuel economy ought to be stellar. Unfortunately, it bumps against the same invisible ceiling as every other car in the segment, and so rates “only” 30 city and 38 highway from the EPA—about the same as the larger, heavier, and more powerful cars from the next class up. In suburban driving, the trip computer usually reported numbers in the low to mid 30s. Despite its higher curb weight and much more powerful engine, the Chevrolet Sonic 1.4T (29/40, reviewed last week) tends to do a little better, especially at higher speeds where its sixth gear comes into play.
Toyota’s recent efforts at sport variants of its small cars have been nothing more than appearance packages. Thankfully, it went further with the Yaris SE, tweaking the steering and suspension. Aided by the thinly-padded wheel and a modest level of power assist, the steering is more communicative than most. The SE’s chassis, far more poised than that of the misbegotten Echo, compares well to those of competitors. Add in the low curb weight and compact dimensions even by segment standards (a Hyundai Accent is 8.5 inches longer), and the Yaris SE vies with the Mazda2 for the class title of “most tossable.” Unlike the systems in the three Koreans, the stability control doesn’t kill the joy by cutting in too early. The car’s handling is so safe that it doesn’t need to cut in at all. The price for this agile handling: a slightly harsh (but still livable) ride and traditional levels of wind and road noise.
Contrary to conventional wisdom (well, at least that before the UA scare), all Toyotas are not equally reliable. In general, as with most other manufacturers, the smaller and simpler they are the fewer problems they have. And the Yaris is the smallest, simplest car in the line. It’s too soon to have any reliability stats on the 2012 car, but the first-generation Yaris has consistently been among the most reliable models in TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey.
This justified reputation for reliability has long enabled Toyota to charge more. With floormats, the Yaris SE lists for $17,310. An Accent SE stickers for $16,650. In the past people would gladly pay $660 more for a smaller, less powerful, less stylish Toyota.
By conventional measures, the Toyota Yaris isn’t very competitive. It’s smaller, less powerful, and less lavishly equipped than most competitors, but doesn’t cost less or go farther on a gallon of gas. The redesigned exterior is attractive, at least in SE spec, but others are arguably more stylish. About the interior enough has been said already. Yet I think I’ll remember my time with this small Toyota, as it offers something most competitors no longer do. Imposing instrument panel aside, the Yaris is a small car that’s okay with being a small car. Though unlikely to curry favor with the typical non-SE buyer, this isn’t entirely a bad thing for car guys. There’s a directness to the controls and an agility to the chassis you won’t find in subcompact hatches with loftier aspirations.Unlike its predecessors, the Yaris is a fun car to drive, minimally competent powertrain notwithstanding. And if Toyota did manage to field a powertrain fully competitive with that in the Hyundai? I’d definitely remember that car.
Toyota provided the car with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.