Toyota, which has already targeted the entry-level subcompact market with its Scion brand, will take another bite at this apple with the new Yaris hatchback and sedan. When it debuts in April as a 2007 model, the Yaris will face plenty of competition from the new Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent, as well as the coming Nissan Versa and Honda Fit.
But job one for the Yaris is to erase memories of the Toyota Echo, an odd duck sabotaged by its econobox trappings--which is to say no trappings at all--and weirdly ill-proportioned looks that even a mother couldn't love. All Yarises, therefore, come with A/C and tilt steering, and they no longer look like automotive design don'ts.
The two-door hatch's funky styling was born in Toyota's European design studio. The rear seats are roomy, although the car isn't as spacious as the four-door version being sold elsewhere in the world. The four-door sedan, styled in Japan, is 19.3 inches longer than the hatch. It's more likely to appeal to American buyers, Toyota says.
The interior is decent at best, with storage space galore. One off-putting touch is the instrument binnacle, which, like the Echo's, is located above the center stack rather than behind the steering wheel. Toyota insists that drivers eventually get used to the unconventional location. Yeah, and convicts eventually get used to cell block D.
It seems churlish to complain about the lack of grunt in a car that costs less than $13,000, but be forewarned: You've got to spin the 1.5-liter four to six grand just to eke out 106 hp. The five-speed manual allows you to harness the power a bit more effectively than the four-speed automatic. Either way, you get great mileage--34 mpg in the city, 39-plus on the highway.
Dynamically, the Yaris is fine, but for driving pleasure (such as it is), the five-speed hatchback is the way to go. Throw some sixteens on the car along with performance springs, dampers, and engine mods, and you'd have yourself a peppy little econobox. Or you could just buy a Honda Civic coming off lease.