The Yaris, however, is better than just good. This replacement for the unloved Toyota Echo boasts the good looks, suave road manners, perky performance and well-tailored interior that establish new benchmarks in the entry-level game. And this will cause the increasing competition in that market many sleepless nights figuring out how to offset Toyota's deep well of talent, materials and technology.
The Yaris combines the economies of an inexpensive sticker, outstanding fuel mileage and the solid integrity that underlies every Toyota vehicle. Sure, certain aspects of the car, such as noise isolation and driving position, are far from ideal, but the Yaris owner will never feel as though he or she had to settle for second best, even if they didn't have to pay much to get the best.
The first generation of Toyota Yaris has been sold in Europe since 1999 and became Toyota's best seller there, and it also won many honors, including the 2000 Car of the Year. However, the Yaris that's coming to America is built off an all-new platform, and whereas the first Yaris was offered only as a three-door liftback, America's traditional indifference to the body style means we will also get a four-door sedan in the line-up.
Toyota Yaris Liftback ($10,950); Sedan ($11,825)
Though they share platforms and powertrains, the Yaris liftback and sedan were developed under different chief engineers and design teams, providing the entry-level buyer with two distinctive choices in a small, economical subcompact. Toyota is one of the few automakers that can afford such luxury of manpower, and it was put to good use in the Yaris project.
The liftback was designed around the theme of powerful simplicity, but our first impression was that it's cute as the proverbial bug. With its wedgy profile, large front halogen headlamp clusters, creased hood lines and T-grille, it has all the character that its predecessor, the unloved Echo, never possessed. Virtually every exterior element is body-colored, but the Yaris avoids looking like a featureless blob due to strategic placement of black trim around the base of the A-pillar, on the B-pillar, on the two strips that run the length of the roof, the front grilles and foglamp surrounds at the base of the windshield.
The rear hatch opens down to the bumper line and raises just high enough to allow a six-foot-tall person to stand under it. Like everything else about the Yaris, the hatch's function feels just right. Opening of the hatch is well damped by two struts, and closing it takes no more than a gentle downward push.
The Yaris sedan's theme is Simple is Cool, which is based on the Japanese art of flower arranging, where unnecessary decoration is shunned in place of a single, simple design. Its long, stretched cabin, arched beltline and short overhangs give it sporty proportions, and the multi-reflector halogen headlamps lend it a premium look. Longer and wider and riding on a much longer wheelbase than the Echo sedan it replaces, the Yaris sedan has proportions that work together to create a sportier car.
Despite their distinctive styling, both the sedan and liftback share a 0.29 coefficient of drag, excellent numbers that help quiet the ride and increase fuel economy at cruising speeds.
The front seats have supportive, deeply dished backs, but the cushions are flat and short, which means the long-legged will not enjoy optimum comfort and lower-body support. However, the fabric upholstery is classy looking, durable and provides good grip in the corners. Our test car's black upholstery studded with blue dots was especially handsome. Though the seating position is nicely upright and allows excellent forward sightlines, it also feels awkward relative to the steering wheel. The wheel adjusts for rake but not for reach, so it's necessary to pull the seat fairly far forward to assume the proper 10 and 2 o'clock hand placement, and this results in a position that's more like sitting in a chair at the dining table, legs bent at 90 degrees, than in, say, a sports car. The sedan's front seats also feature a height adjustment feature, which helps the driver find a more comfortable position.
Access to the liftback's back seats is provided by a walk-in lever in the shoulder area of the passenger seat. There is no such lever on the driver's side. The rear seats in the sedan and liftback are adequate to the task of hauling passengers over short distances, but the liftback offers the advantage of a recline feature that increases the seatback angle from 10 degrees to 28 degrees. A 60/40 split seat with 5.9 inches of fore and aft adjustability is also available, greatly increasing the liftback's comfort and practicality. A pair of levers on the shoulder of the seatback make the operation a snap. The sedan's rear seating can also be ordered in a 60/40 split configuration, but there is no recline feature.
Cargo space in the Liftback with the seats upright is 12.8 cubic feet, 25.7 cubic feet with the seats folded down. The Sedan's cargo volume is 12.9 cubic feet with the seats in place, 13.7 cubic feet with the 60/40 rear seats folded down. That's less than what's available in the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Kia Rio5, but the wide rear openings, which extend down to bumper level, make the task of loading and unloading the Yaris easy.
Just as the two Yaris models differ in exterior styling, the instrument panels for the liftback and sedan are distinctive, but each features a center-mounted gauge cluster and an overall simplicity of design. The sedan's IP looks a bit more upscale with its dual-toned trim and Optitron illuminated gauge cluster, which includes a standard tachometer for 5-speed manual models along with a 120-mph speedometer, fuel gauge, odometer/trip meter and various warning graphics. Tachs are not available in liftbacks, but they do have three gloveboxes to the sedan's one. Outboard cupholders are standard on both models.
The center console differs in style between the two models, but the stereo and air conditioning functions are, in typical Toyota fashion, equally easy to view and use. Turn signals and lights are operated by the leftside steering column-mounted stalk; the right stalk is for the front wipers (plus a rear wiper in the liftback). Storage bins abound, on either side of the center stack and along the doors. For those cars equipped with the MP3 stereo, the center console includes an auxiliary input.
Overall, the Yaris controls are all very intuitive, the interior is comfy and the trim and upholstery appear classy. There would be no shame in taking the boss out to lunch or your mother-in-law to the opera in a Yaris.
Still, you know this isn't a Lexus, or even a Camry, from the clearly heard engine and some road noise. These are constant reminders of the car's small size and light weight, but there's little else about its road manners to complain about. The reason for that is its extremely rigid structure. Various braces and crossmembers were designed to offset vibration and several types of undercoatings and damping materials were applied to reduce noise, and the results are impressive. Rough road, railroad tracks and potholes are certainly felt but are pleasantly muted by the car's solid integrity.
The Yaris has no problem keeping up with traffic and is especially usable for in-town duty. The engine revs freely and smoothly and will tolerate near-redline rpm without squawking. On the highway, fifth gear is definitely just for cruising, but a quick downshift to fourth delivers comfortable passing power. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine features variable valve timing, direct ignition and an electronic throttle. It's the same engine used in the Scion xA and xB.
The standard five-speed manual is a joy to work, both around town and in the wide-open spaces. The shifts are creamy smooth and the gear ratios are well spaced, especially for the cut and thrust of city life. First gear delivers good throttle response, while second and third are flexible enough that it's easy to keep the engine's power flowing smoothly without having to constantly row the shift lever. Fourth gear is good for passing at highway speeds, while fifth allows comfortable cruising up to about 80 mph.
There's plenty to like, too, about the four-speed automatic, which features the first gated shifter in class. Some acceleration power is compromised, but the smooth upshifts and crisp downshifts make it a commuter's best friend. And, like every other control element of the Yaris, the shift lever is well placed and a cinch to operate.
The standard 14-inch wheel and tire package prefers city work to excursions through the canyons. The optional 15-inch running gear sharpens up the handling and steering and makes the car an agreeable companion through the corners. There's still some body roll when the corners get tight, but it comes and goes with no surprises or awkward weight transitions. The front independent suspension is newly developed and is 47 percent stiffer than the Echo. The torsion beam rear suspension features anti-lift geometry for more stable braking and a toe correction function for enhanced straight line stability.
The new electric power steering rack only adds to the confidence-inspiring road manners. Not only does it help fuel mileage by eliminating a power-sapping hydraulic pump, it can be tuned for a specific feel, and Toyota's engineers did a marvelous job making this one feel just right, with crisp response to driver input and plenty of on-center feel.
An economy car must, of course, deliver good fuel mileage. The EPA estimates the Yaris should deliver 34 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. How much a Yaris actually achieves is entirely up to the driver, as a heavy right foot will make the EPA's estimates seem like gross exaggerati
The new Toyota Yaris proves that inexpensive should not be confused with cheap. From their well sculptured exterior lines to the tailored, upscale look of their interiors, little about the Yaris hatchback and sedan suggests the cutting of corners. This is a great time to be shopping for a subcompact, with the brand-new Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit hitting the streets, facing strong competition from the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent. The bottom of the market is now crowded with upwardly mobile competition.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown filed this report from Santa Barbara, California.