By on September 11, 2012

Tercel. Echo. Yaris.

When the history of great cars is written, these models will likely not be anywhere near the short list.

After all, few cars that are plain-jane, spartan and underpowered make it to the latest and greatest coffee table books or Top 100 lists.

Yet, imagine if you asked actual owners about their best cars instead of the usual short-take reviewer?

I am willing to bet that the real world  Top 100 vehicles would have plenty of small cars that would be easy to own, reliable, and most of all….

Jacques Hedonist: Fun! It’s one of those words that can cover a whole gamut of situations. Fun in the twisties. Fun in the sun. Fun taking the family out to Wallyworld.

This Yaris SE is a fun little runabout. We’re not talking about Miata levels or fun, or even Fit levels of fun. We’re talking more in the lines of taking out your best friend’s brother or sister on a purely platonic lunch, and finding out that they are far more interesting than you imagined.

Stefan Frugalist: We’ll start with that unassuming exterior.

The Yaris SE is in many ways a first generation Matrix with 80% of the size and 90% of the interior space.

It offers that typical Toyota front fascia of our modern time.

A side profile with enough lines, ovals and ellipses to resemble a generic five door hatchback.

And a rear that pretty much finishes the nip and tuck of trying to turn a $16,000 commuter into an $18,000 commuter with a little sporting pretension.


Like that old Matrix, it is still a grocery getter of sorts. But unlike that model, the Yaris SE has one penetrating weakness that makes it almost ignored in today’s marketplace.

Hedonist: Competition.

We’ll put it to you this way. Let’s say you brought the Yaris SE, the Hyundai Accent and the Fiat 500 to an auto show for the first time.

The Fiat would be ogled. It’s arguably the most distinctive subcompact design of this generation. The Accent would be admired. The Yaris SE? Maybe a few glances. But in our weeks worth of driving it and leaving the SE trimmed Yaris in crowded parking lots throughout Atlanta, nobody made so much as a peep about this vehicle.

Frugalist: But then again some people don’t want to be noticed.

Do Camry and Corolla drivers get noticed? Maybe if the Camry has a blinker light that has been accidentally left on. Or if the Corolla scurried around town with a potted plant on top of it. Maybe then they would get noticed.

Often times non-enthusiasts don’t want to get noticed. They want to have a comfortable car with maybe a few appreciable design elements, an interior that makes for a pleasant environment, and enough utility to get the job done. These days they also want two other important things.


Hedonist: Reliability and fuel economy. Once you climb into this vehicle, drive it for a while and look around, you begin to understand where the SE’s sweet spots lies.

It’s in the interior for starters. The seats are eerily reminiscent of the ones in the Toyota Celica of the early-90’s. Very similar design. Exemplary comfort. With thick stitching and good lumbar support for what is in essence a commuter vehicle.


Frugalist: The interior is also bereft of any of the ‘easy to see’ cost cutting of other models. The door panels and dashboard are made of the same quality materials you would expect to see in a modern day $20,000 top of the line compact car.

The radio and speaker system would be right at home in a similarly priced Scion.

Even the instrument cluster has a similar design as the one in the Scion FR-S.

Hedonist: Start the vehicle. Drive around town or in the ‘burbs, and you’re never wanting for more power in any real life situation. The Yaris SE may only have 106 horsepower at 6,000 rpm’s. But the acceleration is there. 0 to 60 is around 9’ish and there was no wait or hunting of gears.

This vehicle is like most Toyotas. The automatic has a tendency to lock in at top gear right around 35 to 37 mph if you’re not going on the interstate. When you do go on the highway, everything is… predictable and non-eventful.

The SE model is a little bit noisy on the highway in that typical small car, small engine way. But the folks considering a car like this are a bit more concerned about other things.


Frugalist: Like fuel economy. This thing is an absolute marvel given the fact that the powertrain has no hybrid, turbo or CVT. A 4-speed automatic coupled with a 1.5 Liter easy to maintain engine and only about 2300 pounds of heft returned us a real-world combined 37 mpg around winding roads and the highway.

No that’s not a typo. Now I should mention that our town driving has a lot of long one lane roads with stop signs every mile or two. Folks drive 30 to 50 in our neck of the woods. Not 25 to 35. As a matter of context the Sonic reviewed here a year ago got 32 mpg and the Versa returned 33.5 mpg.

The Yaris offers class leading fuel economy with an interior that isn’t quite as large as these two competitors. But it offers plenty of usable space for a family of four and an excellent level of safety with 5 star NHTSA and Euro NCAP rating. We should mention that there is some debate on the later safety rating which can be found here.

Hedonist: The other edge the Yaris SE has in the subcompact hatch segment is durability.

A normally aspirated Toyota that averages about 500,000 units a year on a global basis will usually offer outstanding durability and reliability that makes long-term owners truly happy. The reviews here, here and here reflect Toyota’s penchant for building outstanding small cars.

In fact, this type of vehicle represents the optimal car for a dealership (like Steve Lang’s) that specializes in owner financing and cars that can ‘make the note’. Small Toyotas take abuse better than nearly anything out there and the Yaris SE will likely follow that trend.

The NZ-based engine in the Yaris has been built for over a decade with over 20 Toyotas using it in various forms; including a modified version for the Toyota Prius.  The 4-Speed automatic has also been around for forever and a day.

Long story short, this Yaris will endure the ages and then some. If it’s driven reasonably and maintained to the specs.

Frugalist: Owning the Yaris SE for the long, long run would not be an overwhelming or underwhelming experience. It would simply be ‘whelming’. With that said, who should test drive one?

  • Anyone who is in the market for a Honda Fit. Yes, the Fit is a more dynamic vehicle with plenty of versatility. But the Yaris doesn’t have the same annoying level of highway buzziness. Though the MSRP difference is only between $300 to $700 between the two, the real life difference may end up in the $1500 range.
  • Folks who are ‘Toyota-centric’ and want to avoid a hybrid powertrain.
  • Non-enthusiasts who are planning on keeping their vehicles for 12 to 15 years, prefer hatchbacks,  and want the most bulletproof powertrain possible.

Frugalists may be better served by a Prius C. As for enthusiasts and everything in between? The number of vehicles to consider in this market is absolutely staggering. Sonic, Accent, Rio, 500, Fit, the upcoming Versa hatchback, Fiesta, the SX4, Impreza… and that’s just 9 of 20+ potential fits if the buyer is willing to consider a sedan or a coupe.

The Yaris SE isn’t as good as a Fit. In fact, other than the Versa, this model is simply unable to match most competitors when it comes to thrilling driving dynamics.

Hedonist: But cars are kinda like music when it comes to fun. Some of us are true hardcore music aficionados who seek brilliance in that fifth dimension. While others turn the radio to the easy listening station, and enjoy overplayed Billy Joel songs.

The Yaris SE is a ‘light rock’ hatchback. Predictable. Reassuring. It’s probably the perfect car for someone whose only rebellious act in their entire lifetime has been listening to Billy Joel songs about ‘crashing parties’ and ‘riding motorcycles in the rain’.

If you have a friend who is moving out and needs a new car for the longest time, well, you may be right to recommend a Yaris SE.

Tell her about it… preferably at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street… and bring some earplugs if that radio is tuned to the wrong station.

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34 Comments on “Hedonist vs Frugalist : 2012 Toyota Yaris SE...”

  • avatar

    “I am willing to bet that the real world Top 100 vehicles would have plenty of small cars that would be easy to own, reliable, and most of all….”

    Hi Steven! Couldn’t agree more. I had an Uno 1.5 that gave me all of that plus more than a little fun. It had less than 80hp, but since it onoy weighed about 850kg there was more than enough power.

    Now, the truth of the matter is that, if you leave the good old USA, there are plenty of top 100 lists that include small cars. I think Top Gear did a top 100 sexiest cars of all time and the original Fiat 500 came out on top.

    There are other worlds out there. Ones in which people dream of v8s but would never buy one ’cause of a hundred reasons. Worlds in whick a small engine, and a light body, plus a well sorted suspension, manage to put a smile on their drivers’s faces.

  • avatar

    The 4-speed auto.

    Having recently been in a 4-speed Chrysler 200, I recalled why 4-speed automatics were so terrible. If you hit the gas on the highway to pass, the transmission kicks down and you go from way below the power band to way above the power band and as a result have very little power.

    With a 6-speed auto you have a gear that matches your need and speed and you can get the most out of the engine.

    It may be somewhat more reliable that an 6-speed auto Accent, but in exchange for one or two fewer repairs over 15 years you get a frustrating lack of drive-ability every minute you drive the car.

    • 0 avatar

      MPH / 1K
      Accent Yaris
      6 6
      9 11
      13 17
      17 24

      I don’t see it. An overdrive that’s too tall for a 1% grade let alone a pass doesn’t help you pass. A 1.5th and 2.25th gear smooth things out at low speed but don’t help you pass either.

      It’s physically impossible to downshift above the powerband on a modern car, diesels and a few turbos excepted.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s physically impossible to downshift above the powerband on a modern car

        Torque on the Yaris falls about 25% from 4200 rpm to 6200 rpm.

      • 0 avatar

        Look up the difference between torque and horsepower and get back to me.

        While you’re at it, look up how much torque 106 horsepower at 6000 rpm corresponds to and tell me how that drops 17% in the next 200 rpm.

      • 0 avatar

        Maybe I’m approaching it wrong. With a 6-speed automatic (or manual) you have the appropriate gear for your acceleration needs. With the 4-speed (at typical 70+mph highway speeds) you either have loafing along or whaaaaaaaa. No in between.

        It sucks.

      • 0 avatar

        Four-speeds do have the advantage of not gear-hunting nearly as much, and many six-speeds will do the overdrive-lockup-shuffle just as readily.

        I’ve not been impressed with multigear ATs in economy cars. CVTs, yes, but automatics and DSGs with that many gears seem to have drivability and complexity issues.

      • 0 avatar

        What you’re describing is a transmission with closer gear spacing.

        More speeds could mean closer spacing but they don’t have to and in the Accent at highway speeds they don’t.

        More overdrives and better spacing in the 20-40 mph town gears aren’t any help at 50-75.

      • 0 avatar

        I had a 2008 Yaris Hatchback.
        In situations where I needed power right away, I dropped it down to second.

        Second gear is tall enough to work out even at speeds up to 60-70km/h

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    The Auto Rags have been pretty positive regarding the driving dynamics of the SE. Non-SE versions get the typical dismissal.

    If you don’t need the cargo capacity of a Fit or Accent, the Yaris isn’t a bad way to go. Surprisingly roomy backseat and comfortable front seats (a rarity in small Toyotas), underrated EPA fuel economy, good brakes, and a bulletproof powertrain that performs a bit better in person than specs would suggest.

    The damn thing needs a telescoping wheel, though. Orangutans fit well behind the wheel, but not people with normally proportioned arms and legs.

  • avatar

    TTAC’s preference for Japanese cars shines through once again. If this car were to carry a Ford, GM or worst of all Chrysler/Dodge name plate I highly doubt we’d be reading such complimentary words. Rather we’d be seeing an unending diatribe expounding on inferior qualities of this vehicle, jubilently proclaiming the failure of Detroit’s ability to produce for sale a competative vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve only driven the Euro-spec Yaris with a 99hp 1.33L engine and CVT but thought it was an excellent small car. I had fun flogging it around back-roads.

    • 0 avatar
      Freddy M

      Although I do detect a bias towards the Japanese cars and against the American cars, I have to say I read a few reviews here about the Fiesta and the Sonic that were quite positive. Some reviewers liked those while some disliked them. So I think to say that TTAC as a whole will not compliment an American car is not entirely accurate.

      On a personal note, I had an Auto Yaris SE for a rental once. It was quite a nice little car (but I wouldn’t buy one) and I agree 100% with the review above.

  • avatar

    “…We’re talking more in the lines of taking out your best friend’s brother or sister on a purely platonic lunch, and finding out that they are far more interesting than you imagined.” Interesting? Perhaps. But then you open your eyes and realize that the brother or sister really isn’t physically attractive at all, and their name is either Melvin or Bertha. You then excuse yourself from the table and never return. Such is the case with the Yaris.

  • avatar

    Stefan would be pleased to know this comes in a more spartan 3-door, right? Half the hinges!

  • avatar

    “A side profile with enough lines, ovals and ellipses to resemble a generic five door hatchback.”
    – Whoa, now. Let’s not get carried away.

  • avatar

    This seems so softball for TTAC. You barely mention the interior quality of parts when the interior quality of parts is so much less than the competition. You actually talk about how the interior seems nicer than the price tag.

    Next… how does TTAC not have a problem with the 4 speed auto when the competition opts for a 6 speed (Honda, a 5 speed).

    I have had the displeasure of this car as a rental. I don’t wish to have it again.

  • avatar

    One more reason to buy this car- this car (and all its previous incarnations) have the lowest projected cost of ownership of any car past or present. If you are a logically minded person who likes to keep your TCO low- the Yaris is your first and only choice. The TDI owners get great gas mileage, but they pay for for their diesel, timing belt changes, and intake manifold cleaning. The Prius gets phenomenal gas mielage but the battery could give up its ghost at or before 150k. The newest crop of direct injected cars like the Hyundai Accent or Fiesta throws up good mpg numbers, but direct injection is expensive to fix, and the intake valve problem remains unresolved. The tiny turbocharged engines in the Chevy’s, Ford’s and Dodge Dart’s also offer great gas mileage and torque, but as we all kow- turbos have a tendency to check out after 100k, and the heat from the turbo cooks a lot of the rubber pieces in the engine bay.

    The Yaris, on the other hand- has none of these drawbacks. Just a solid, time proven drivetrain that has no expensive novelties, no weaknesses and just plain works. This is the engineer’s car.

    • 0 avatar

      I can attest to that. Driving a 2003 Corolla, and from how it goes so far, the car will last another 10 years with nothing but regular maintenance.

    • 0 avatar

      “The Prius gets phenomenal gas mielage but the battery could give up its ghost at or before 150k”

      I agree with the premise of your post vis a vis TCO, but this statement isn’t true. Prius batteries seem to be holding up well past 200k, and there are livery-service vehicles reaching double that.

      • 0 avatar
        Chicago Dude

        “Prius batteries seem to be holding up well past 200k, and there are livery-service vehicles reaching double that.”

        And there are hybrid city buses that have gone past the 1,000,000 mile mark with perfectly functional original batteries.

        Hybrids are expensive, heavy and may have questionable payback periods. But they HAVE proven to be reliable.

      • 0 avatar

        Also, when the batteries ‘go out,’ they will still work 80% as well as new, not cease to function like a dead transmission.

      • 0 avatar

        In fleet or taxi service where they have high utilization, Prius’es are known to go that long before needing a battery change. But in private service, it seems like a lot of cars need a new battery around 150k. You could check on Craigslist and see how many Priuses have new batteries.

    • 0 avatar

      IIRC, the Fiesta uses MFI not DI.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the review! Interesting format to boot.

    Comparing a Toyota interior to a Scion one isn’t particularly useful. Back in 2004, Scion had a snazzy looking, if not hard plasticked, interior. But fast forward 6 years, and every other compact has a better design and materials than the yards or scions. If commuting is the main objective, then I don’t see why someone wouldn’t buy a lightly used Camry for 18k.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    This car has been getting hammered by just about every review out there, even CR blasted away giving it a “not recommended” status even though it has had an exemplary reliability history, It is what it is, an economy car that gets great MPG’s without resorting to expensive hybrid systems and simple engine and transmissions, H/K withe their 6 speed auto and GDI this and GDI that cannot get better mileage (no one gets close to their claimed 40 mpg claims) So I’m glad someone got it right

  • avatar

    Sorry, I will go for a convertible for the same price. I got the 500c for 18k and love it. It is a fun car before you take the roof off, and as you said it looks good too. Also the engine has been tested in Europe and is now going to be the base for the Dart. (minus turbo)

    I know there are plenty of people who wish not to be noticed, but I can not understand what they are hiding from. A good time?

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    My local Fiat dealer has the ragtops for $22k no $18k around these parts. besides Fiat buyers would not even look at a Yaris or vice-versa.

  • avatar

    When I look at this car and hear these comments (good and bad), I remember the 1966 beetle I bought new. This car looks great and is the car a person who bought a new beetle back in the early sixties would buy.

    I now own a 2011 cube. It has the six speed and I won’t buy a CV transmission in this lifetime. I understand the Versa is going to come out with a 4 speed auto for the people like me who resist the CV. If so they will probably put one in the Cube as well. I hope you intend to test that as well and the Hedonist/Frugalist treatment is great review.

    Thanks for a good piece.

  • avatar

    I liked this article. A good, solid, simple car that’s not going to drive you to drink from expensive repairs. One that you can use for 10-15 years and who cares if it’s not so techy this or that. I work with a guy that drives a 17 year old Civic, with nothing on it. He’s getting 37-38 mpg and has spent very little on it since new. He recently doubled the value by filling up the tank and buying new tires! Call him cheap or whatever, but, I’m starting to think he’s a hell of a lot smarter than me with my GTI.

  • avatar

    Nice summary Steve.

    FYI, the following sentence is missing several links: “The reviews here, here and here reflect Toyota’s penchant for building outstanding small cars.”

  • avatar

    What’s with new Japanese cars having those ugly reflectors in the rear bumper cover (i.e. Yaris, 2013 Accord)? Is this a new law?

    • 0 avatar

      I think it is that there is a minumum “square footage” of reflector that is required in the US. If the actual tail light area doesn’t meet it, then additional reflectors need to be stuck on somewhere. The ’08+ Saab 9-3s had this issue – the new LED taillights didn’t quite meet the spec, so Saab stuck a pair of reflectors in the bumper that are not there on the Euro models.

      The Yaris actually looks like a decent enough little shopping trolley, but so very dull. At least this one is a hatch, the throught of why anyone would buy a useless sedan in this size car boggles the mind.

  • avatar

    After having spent 3 days tearing up the mountains in northern Italy in a 75 HP, 1900lb 5 spd Fiat Panda 1,2L gasoline, the prospect of the Yaris sounds more appealing than all the others for one reason. Well, about 100-200 actually- lbs. Couple that with the fact that the other cars have about the same power to weight ratio (I am still convinced Hyundai’s motors are overrated, they never feel as powerful as they claim), and its a no brainer. You can fix “underpowered”, and in any case in the twisties I bet this thing will be a riot w/a good sway bar and some respectable tires. You can’t fix heavy. I wouldn’t mind getting an L 3dr, keeping the back seat in the garage, throwing some “i enjoy driving” parts at it and having a good frugal time…

    …just not for $13K or whatever they go for new.

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