Toyota introduced the subcompact Yaris in 2007, a replacement for the unloved Echo. Traditionally, Americans are more likely to go for the Yaris sedan -- but for urbanites and hard-core minimalists, the 3-door Yaris Liftback is the way to go. At just twelve and a half feet long, it's over a foot and a half shorter than the sedan and has a turning circle that's nearly 2' tighter. We know it's small -- but is it a good car? Read on. $12,210 base, $16,345 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 29 MPG city, 35-36 MPG highway.
First Glance: The joys of small
I love small cars for two reasons: One, they are inherently fun, and two, I am inherently cheap. Smaller cars tend to be lighter, which makes them more fuel efficient. And thanks to America's bigger-is-better mentality, it also means they cost less, and at just over 12 grand, the Yaris is the cheapest car Toyota sells in the US. That said, the basic Yaris comes with air conditioning and not a whole lot else. By the time you get done adding nice-to-haves like power windows and locks, a stereo, floor mats, a rear wiper, and antilock brakes, the Yaris will set you back almost 15 grand; the one I tested stickered well over $16k.
For 2008, Toyota has added an "S" trim level to the Yaris. For an extra $1,700, it includes extra body cladding (link goes to photo), a fancier gauge cluster, and the Convenience Package (rear wiper, rear window defroster, AM/FM/CD stereo with auxiliary jack). I like the S package on the Yaris sedan, but I could do without it on the Yaris hatchback -- it doesn't add anything to the Liftback's already-handsome design. (The Convenience Package is available separately for $630.)
In the Driver's Seat: Glovebox city
I like unique interiors, so for me the Yaris' cabin is seventh heaven. The gauge pod is mounted on the center of the dash, with the stereo and simple three-dial climate controls arranged below. So what's in front of the driver? A second glovebox. Actually, it's the third glovebox, as there are two on the passenger's side. (In fact, the Yaris has so many storage bins and cubbies, I began to wonder where they put the bits that make the car work.) The cupholders are mounted at the outer edges of the dashboard right in front of the vents, so switching on the A/C cools your coffee instead of you.
The Yaris' front seats boast plenty of headroom, but taller drivers will find themselves looking right through the top of the windshield (and flying blind if they drop the sun visor). For short folks like me, visibility is great all around.
Back seat space and trunk room are always a balancing act in a small car. Yaris drivers can tip the scales with an optional adjustable back seat that slides forward for more trunk room or back for more passenger room. With the seats fully back, the trunk offers 9.5 cubic feet of space, enough for a serious grocery run. There are two problems with the system, though. One: Sliding the seats forward (or folding them down) leaves a yawning chasm where small, loose items are bound to collect. Two: The split/fold/slide seat is only available as part of a $1,520 option bundle. A regular split/fold rear seat is standard, and folding the back seats down opens up 25.7 cubic feet -- more trunk room than a Lincoln Town Car.
On the Road: Zippy performance, but don't forget those extra airbags
A 1.5 liter 106 horsepower engine makes the Yaris feel zippy around town and on the freeway -- I was able to race around well over the legal limit, though that required some reative use of the 5-speed manual transmission. (A 4-speed automatic is optional.) The engine takes kindly to such harsh treatment; its monotonous buzz changes to an impressive snarl at higher RPMs -- not that you'd buy a car like this to race around, mind you, but it's nice to know you can if you want to. And despite all this zipping, racing and snarling, I averaged 31.1 miles per gallon -- less than 5 MPG behind the Smart Fortwo I recently tested, and the Smart doesn't zip, race or snarl. The Smart also requires premium gas; the Yaris runs on regular. Handling is sharp and responsive, as you'd expect from a small car, and the ride is impressively smooth and quiet.
The Yaris scored "Good" (the best rating) in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal crash tests; the Fed's barrier crash yielded a perfect 5 stars for the driver and 4 for the passenger. Side impact is another story: IIHS tested Yarises with and without side airbags (optional at $650). Scores were "good" (the best) with them and "poor" (the worst) without them. The Fed tested a Yaris without side airbags and it scored 3 stars. Furthermore, the Yaris doesn't come with standard antilock brakes; they're a $300 option. (NOTE: As of 2009, side airbags and ABS are standard.) Electronic stability control isn't available at all -- unfortunate, considering that the Yaris is likely to be purchased by young and inexperienced drivers.
Journey's End: Small done right
There's a lot to like about the Yaris: It has adequate space for passengers and cargo, it's ridiculously easy to park, and it's incredibly maneuverable, able to pull U-turns on narrow city streets. Its power is good and its fuel economy is stellar. Given all that it does well, I see the Yaris as a good alternative to the Smart Fortwo. It's nearly as maneuverable and nearly as cute, and the Smart's better fuel economy is partially offset by its need for high-octane fuel. The Yaris has more power, a longer warranty, and a proven quality track record -- as well as a back seat. That said, the Yaris falls down on safety compared to the Smart, which includes antilock brakes, side airbags and electronic stability control as standard.
If you need more space, the Yaris is available as a four-door sedan, which shares most of the Yaris Liftback's strengths. The five-door Scion xD hatchback -- Scion is a division of Toyota -- shares the Yaris' platform, though it has a bigger engine and therefore isn't quite as fuel efficient. I'd also look at the five-door Honda Fit, which is nicely equipped and, in my experience, just as fuel efficient -- if not slightly moreso -- than the three-door Yaris.
Overall, I like the Yaris for its looks and its flexibility, though I don't like the fact that crucial safety hardware such as side airbags and antilock brakes aren't included in the bargain-basement price. Adding these important options will drive up the price, but the Yaris is worth it. -- Aaron Gold