First Glance: Who are you calling funny-looking?
Ralph, who is late-50's and drives a Hyundai Tiburon coupe, stared at the Yaris and muttered "funny-looking car." Ken, ancient like me and owner of a Dodge Caravan, added "Yeah, sure is funny-looking." I might have retorted with insulting adjectives about their taste in design but it doesn't pay to annoy your friends after a full breakfast. Instead, I led them to the rear of the car where the design's energy and rational character can be best appreciated.
Up went the hatch, leading to more disparaging remarks, this time regarding luggage room. Will these guys never learn? A quick removal of the parcel shelf showed how goods can be stacked and with the 60/40 flip-down seat lowered, the space grew to the size of a small pickup bed. By now I was winning a few points, thus the next move was to suggest they climb in. They're both big men, which would make this the litmus test for the Yaris. And that's when they discovered beauty is indeed more than skin deep. The leg and headroom in the rear is astounding for the size of the car, even impressive alongside some much bigger vehicles. Later, driving Ken home, I suggested it was all the car he really needs, to which he replied "you know, it is kinda cute!"Scroll down for more...
In the Driver's Seat: Who are you calling a dummy?
The first thing I noticed in the driver's seat -- in fact, the first thing everyone noticed (except Ken, who's a total non-car guy) -- was the location of the instrument panel. Where's the speedometer? Where's the fuel gauge? Answer to myself: In the center, dummy! Well, my Morris Minor of olden times had a center-mounted instrument cluster and it didn't bother me a bit. In fact, I never gave it a thought. Same deal with the Yaris.
I did, however, perform one little test, estimating the time it took to glance at the instruments vs. where they're supposed to be. Result? A tie. No doubt those fussy engineers at Toyota spent hours, even days, making scientific measurements of eye movement before approving the location. They could have saved themselves all that trouble by purchasing an old Morris Minor.
I rather liked the unusual shape of the console with its vertically-stacked controls, especially the shiny finish, which reminded me of Bakelite. Don't remember Bakelite, kids? It's what radio cabinets were made from back in the 1940's. Toyota calls it Retrolite. (Just kidding.) This being an optioned RS I was also treated to a tilt and leather-covered wheel, fancy sound system, power locks, windows, keyless entry.
On the Road: Good ol' seat-of-the-pants driving
The Yaris is a seat-of-the-pants car, meaning you can drive it fast relying purely on the feedback transmitted between the seat of the car and the seat of your pants. I like that, so if you expect any bitchin' about lack of performance or safety, you ain't gonna find it here, folks. For one thing, the 106 hp 1.6 liter aluminum twin-cam 16-valve four has plenty of zip, even with an automatic. An automatic that thinks so well I sometimes wondered why it didn't change up or down until I realised it could "see" hills and understand when acceleration or deceleration was needed.
Response from the electrically-powered steering is superb, as I learned when fellow About.com tester Colin Hefferon suddenly yelled "No, not left, right, turn here!" When I turned, Yaris' roadholding kept us on course. The RS, I should add, comes with wide tires and 15-inch wheels. Our tester was fitted with "ice" tires because a few fellow journalists like to head for Whistler (where everyone will be heading in the 2010 Olympics) but I didn't observe any lessening of roadholding or undue tire noise. What I did hear, though, was a rather unattractive buzz from the engine under acceleration. Reminded me of F1 cars on TV. (Not the real sound, if you know F1.)
Journey's End: Elegantly efficient motoring
It's the "RS" that bothers me. Intended to add sportiness and therefore appeal to the same crowd that drives us nuts when they pass with windows open so we can admire speakers more powerful than a football stadium's, the RS adds a lot of bucks to an affordable base price. Nice, but not really necessary. I'd go for a base Yaris plus the "B" option that includes ABS with electronic brake force distribution, air, power windows, and remote keyless entry. This is, after all, an entry-level economy sedan and a darn good one if you consider the packaging of people and goods plus fuel economy and environmental benefits.
So if we look at the functionality of the Yaris, we come up with a winner. Inexpensive to purchase, cheap to run. Remarkably roomy. More storage pouches than a momma kangeroo. Nice little features that appeal to a single woman or young mother or old folks like me, and include front airbags and "Whiplash Impact Lessening" seat structures, with the undeniable practicality of a hatchback. And for those who prefer their economy to include a dollop of performance, the Yaris RS responds well. As for Ralph and Ken's opinion of style, I'm buying breakfast next week. Includes a lesson on design.