Lacks convenience, not space
Saying the Yaris has a minimalist interior might be an understatement. Want to open the door locks or roll down the windows? Don't look for buttons - all cabin mechanisms on our test car were manually operated. Plop into the driver's seat and you're staring at a vast, gray plastic dashboard (which actually hides one of 20 storage compartments just beyond the steering wheel). On our test model, overall dash fit and finish seemed to suffer, as the storage boxes scratched easily and did not always align with the rest of the plastic molding.
Unfortunately, the Yaris was also built with a center-mounted instrument panel. Not only are the gauges sitting in an inconvenient place, but they stare straight at the back seat. Why didn't Toyota at least tilt the cluster to face the driver (such as in the discontinued Saturn Ion) and place the speedometer closer to the driver's eyes? Climate and radio controls are easy to use, though, and air conditioning and a tilt steering wheel are standard equipment. A CD/MP3 stereo with audio mini-jack is optional.
Interior dimensions are impressive thanks to the Yaris liftback's height. It has enough headroom and rear space for a vacationing couple, and the Yaris sedan even has a bit more cargo volume than the larger 2008 Toyota Corolla - 25.7 cubic feet of room with the seats folded down. Seats are supportive, but fabric quality is only par for the car's price class.
The little engine that could...save you money
Toyota's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is the Yaris's only motivation. It puts out 106 hp @ 6000 rpm and 103 lb-ft of torque - barely enough to comfortably haul more than two adults - and when linked to a four-speed automatic transmission, it struggles to pull the Yaris through traffic or onto highways. Shifts take significant time, but once up to speed, the powertrain is able to relax and recover from high-revving use. However, the payoff for the Yaris's slow speed is phenomenal gas mileage. Choosing a manual transmission over an automatic increases the Yaris's EPA estimated highway fuel economy a notch, from 35 mpg to a class-leading 36 mpg (which translates to roughly a 400-mile highway driving range). All Yaris models get an impressive 29 mpg in city driving.