Yaris was introduced as a 2007 model. For 2008, a sporty S version of the liftback joins the Toyota Yaris lineup. The Yaris S liftback and sedan benefit from special interior and exterior trim: a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, amber-illuminated tachometer, special seat fabric, and color-keyed spoilers under the front and rear bumpers. Aluminum-alloy wheels are optional.
The Yaris is a reminder of what has made Toyota the world's leading carmaker: the ability to cater to a wide range of luxury and specialty market niches without forgetting how to build good, basic transportation. All Yaris models combine an inexpensive sticker, outstanding fuel mileage and the solid integrity that underlies every Toyota vehicle.
Toyota Yaris Liftback ($11,350); Sedan ($12,225); Liftback S ($13,025); Sedan S ($13,725)
The liftback was designed around the theme of powerful simplicity, but our first impression was that it's cute as the proverbial bug. It has character, with its wedgy profile, large front halogen headlamp clusters, creased hood lines and T-grille. Almost every exterior element is body-colored, but it 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, and 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 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. It's significantly longer than the liftback, by 3.5 inches in wheelbase and a whopping 19 inches overall. Its long, stretched cabin, arched beltline and short overhangs give it sporty proportions, and the multi-reflector halogen headlights 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, an excellent number that helps quiet the ride and increase fuel economy at cruising speeds.
The standard running gear consists of P175/65R14 radials on 14-inch steel wheels, and the brakes are front ventilated discs and rear drums. The suspension is independent in front, with a semi-independent torsion beam in the rear.
The standard fabric upholstery is classy looking, durable and provides good grip in the corners. The black upholstery studded with blue dots that came in one of our test cars was especially handsome. The front seats have supportive, deeply dished backs; but the bottom cushions are flat and short, so long-legged drivers may not enjoy optimum comfort and lower-body support. The seating position is nicely upright and allows excellent forward sightlines, but it 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 the other extreme, laying down in a sports racing car. The sedan's front seats do feature a height adjustment, which helps the driver find a more comfortable position. And the sedan's longer wheelbase provides about another 2 inches of legroom front and rear.
Access to the liftback's rear seat is provided by a walk-in lever in the shoulder area of the front 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 9.5 cubic feet, or 25.7 cubic feet with the seats folded down. The sedan's cargo volume is 12.9 cubic feet with the standard rear seat and 13.7 behind the 60/40 folding seats. Folding the sedan's seats adds volume. The wide rear openings, which extend down to bumper level, make the task of loading and unloading the Yaris easier.
Just as the two Yaris models differ in exterior styling, the instrument panels for the liftback and sedan are distinctive. 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 120-mph speedometer, fuel gauge, odometer/trip meter and various warning graphics. Manual-shift sedans, S-model liftbacks, and automatic sedans with the Power Package add a tachometer. Outboard cupholders are standard on all 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 left-side 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, although liftbacks have three gloveboxes to the sedan's one. For those cars equipped with the MP3 stereo, the center console includes an auxiliary input.
Overall, the interior is comfy, the trim and upholstery appear classy, and the controls are intuitive. 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 solid integrity of the chassis.
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.
The five-speed manual transmission 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.
The four-speed automatic works well, too. Some acceleration power is compromised, but the smooth upshifts and crisp downshifts make it a commuter's best friend. The automatic features a gated shifter, and the shift lever is well placed and a cinch to operate.
The 14-inch tires that come standard prefer city work to excursions through the canyons. The optional 15-inch running gear sharpens 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. The torsion beam rear suspension features anti-lift geometry for more stable braking, and a toe correction function for enhanced straight line stability.
The electric power steering rack 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, use only an economical amount of fuel. The 2008 Yaris is EPA-rated at 29 mpg City, 36 mpg Highway (or 35 Highway with the automatic), according to the stringent new EPA test methods. How much a Yaris actually achieves is entirely up to the driver, but because of its flexible powertrain and economy-directed gear ratios, we believe that reaching the 2008 figures is entirely possible.
The 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 liftback or sedan suggests the cutting of corners. This is a great time to be shopping for a subcompact, with the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Saturn Astra, Kia Rio, and Hyundai Accent competing for buyers.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown filed this report from Santa Barbara, California.