First glance: Stand-out styling puts it ahead of the pack
Toyota never really left the subcompact segment. But their previous entry, the Echo, was a half-hearted effort at best, insubstantial and too costly for what it delivered. When gas prices skyrocketed and it became clear that the market was heating up, Toyota quickly replaced the Echo with the Yaris, introduced in 2006 as a 2007 model in both 3-door hatchback and 4-door sedan forms. (Toyota also sells a 5-door hatchback Yaris in Canada.)
The Yaris S sedan is the pseudo-sport member of the Yaris family, adding some extra body bits (front and rear under-bumper spoilers and side sills) along with some comfort and convenience equipment (AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo and split/fold rear seat) to the regular Yaris sedan. If you ask me, the stereo and split/fold seat ought to be standard on all Yaris models, but I really do like the extra body trim. It brings out the Yaris' character lines and gives the car a more aggressive face than the base model (links go to photos). The alloy wheels on my tester helped, but they are optional (part of a $1350 "Power Package" that includes power locks, windows and mirrors, antilock brakes, upgraded interior trim and stereo, and cruise control). I tend to gravitate towards hatchbacks, but the Yaris is the exception -- I think the S sedan is the best-looking car in the Yaris lineup.
In the Driver's Seat: Simple meets stylish
I'm all about simple interiors, and the Yaris proves that "simple" and "stylish" can co-exist in the same car. The Yaris' instruments are mounted in a pod dead-center on the dash, a design Toyota employed on the Yaris' predecessor, the Echo, as well as the Scion xA and xB. Toyota claims that the location makes viewing easier (less distance and adjustment for the eyes to move from road to gauges) and that it makes the interior feel roomier, which it does. What they don't mention is that it also makes the car cheaper to produce for both right- and left-hand-drive markets. No matter; I think it looks cool and it's just as easy to use as a traditional layout, so I give the design a thumbs-up.
Another great example of style and simplicity is the air conditioning control panel, a nifty re-shuffling of the traditional three-dial setup that I love so much. The Yaris' center stack has the "floating" look seen in some Volvo models, though unlike said Volvos it isn't a separate panel.
The Yaris sedan, oddly enough, has a slightly different interior layout than the Yaris hatchback, and lacks the latter's three gloveboxes (two ahead of the passenger, one ahead of the driver). It does, however, offer two cupholders at the outer edges of the dash that fold away when not in use.
The Yaris' driver's seat adjusts for height and the steering column tilts up-and-down but does not telescope in-and-out. I'm 5'6" and found the driving position comfortable with plenty of headroom and good visibility all around. The back seat is decent considering the Yaris' small size.
On the Road: Snappy power but lots of work in traffic
My Yaris tester had a 5-speed manual transmission; a 4-speed automatic is optional. I usually prefer stick-shifts, but the short gearing necessary for the Yaris' small engine, along with the slightly numb feel of the Yaris' clutch, make the manual version a pain in traffic. Many small cars can be left in one gear for the duration of a traffic jam, but driving the Yaris through rush-hour stop-and-go involved constant shifting between first and second. Because of this, the Yaris is one of the few cars in which I would recommend the automatic, particularly for city dwellers.
Journey's End: Approval and affection
With the S-model's body-trim package the Yaris is arguably better looking than its best sedan competitors, the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa. The Yaris sedan lacks the versatility of the Honda Fit hatchback, but it feels like a much bigger and more substantial car (and has better EPA fuel economy ratings to boot). And I like the modern interior, which makes buying a car with the Yaris' low price and high fuel economy more of a statement of style preference than economic necessity. And then there's the fact that it's a Toyota, which means it's as reliable as the sunrise and offers near-investment-grade resale values.
But what I like best about the Yaris is that its charms go so far beyond its low price. Yep, it's cheap -- but its stylish looks and practical size are what really make it stand out. -- Aaron Gold