The subcompact class is not one in which you can expect many thrills or frills. Subcompact cars occupy the bottom rung of the automotive ladder, intended mostly for those consumers who are looking for little more than basic transportation. Both Toyota (Yaris) and Nissan (Versa) are fielding all-new offerings in the segment for 2012 and are poised to battle each other in the bargain basement arena. Nissan is aiming for those truly short on cash, which leaves the team from Toyota City to aim a smidge higher with a more sport-infused Yaris.
The third generation of Toyota's small car -- the first generation was called the Echo here in the U.S. -- will be sold as a hatchback only; the outgoing Yaris saw such a high take rate for the liftback that it led to the sedan's demise. Toyota is hoping that the new Yaris will appeal to those tech-savvy customers who make few sacrifices in their lives but also appreciate the value of a dollar. Through a 100-percent digital marketing campaign on cult websites such as I Can Has Cheezburger and Funny or Die, Toyota is looking for the new Yaris to woo subcompact buyers looking for sportier flair.
Is the Yaris sportier?
For the most part, no, although Toyota has tried to instill a more driver-oriented feel. First up was the elimination of the center-mounted gauge pod. Now placed right in front of the driver, the instrument panel is based around a large circular speedometer and comes in two flavors: orange-lit white numerals on graphite-colored dials on the L and LE levels, or red numerals on silver dials with a tachometer for the SE.
An important part of trying to move the bar above that of basic transportation was the addition of the top-line SE trim. Similar to what is seen on the larger Corolla and Camry models, the SE adds more aggressive front and rear fascias, a dark gray interior, revised suspension and steering, sixteen-inch alloy wheels, and rear disc brakes. The additional kit, however, does little to improve the ride and handling compared with the lesser trim levels, and no matter the setup, the electric power-assisted steering feels disconnected from the wheels and artificially overboosted.
The engine is a carryover -- the 1.5-liter four-cylinder produces the same 106 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque as it did in the previous Yaris. Also carrying over to the 2012 model year are the four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmission offerings. As before, the 1.5-liter frequently feels overwhelmed under any kind of acceleration. Toyota says that it opted to continue using the four-speed automatic in order to help increase driving feel; the automaker claims that the five- and six-speed automatic transmissions used by its competitors have to kick down one or two gears during highway passing, dropping fuel economy and making for an uncomfortable driving feel. However, we found that the Yaris also needed to kick down a ratio or two when any kind of incline was present or when a passing maneuver was called for. We recommend the manual transmission, where the driver is fully in charge of gear selection.
Estimated fuel economy for the manual-equipped Yaris is up a single mile per gallon in the city and two on the highway, to 30/38 mpg. The automatic Yaris gains 1 mpg in the city and is rated at 30/35 mpg. These figures still fall just shy of the magical 40 mpg that most manufacturers have been earmarking for compact fuel efficiency, however.
How does it stack up against the competition?
The Yaris is not the cheapest car in the segment, nor is it the most fuel efficient or the best-equipped. What it does have over the rest of the field is style - the Yaris is easily the most attractive offering in the segment. (Until the 2012 Kia Rio arrives, that is.) The styling is evolutionary; it still looks like the last-generation Yaris but with a more butch attitude. A sharp Y-shaped grille, a large lower air intake, and creased headlights sharply define the front end. A canted C-pillar -- forward-leaning on the three-door model and triangular-shaped on the five-door -- dominates the short profile. A character line angles upward just aft of the front door cut, runs through the door handles, and concludes in the top of the taillights. A short rear overhang, a wide hatch, and inverted-L-shaped reverse lights and turn signals add to the sportier look of the 2012 Yaris.
Now that the instrument panel has been shifted away from the center stack, the entire dashboard has taken on a more lateral design compared with the cascading tower from the last Yaris. A soft-touch, rubberized material runs across the dash and along the top of both door panels (base L models don't get the soft-touch panel, but its well-grained plastic trim feels almost as nice as the higher-grade material). The climate controls protrude from under the radio head unit in their own pod and are an easy reach for the driver. Two stereos are available: the L receives an AM/FM/CD system with four speakers and USB/AUX inputs with a simple and intuitive interface. The LE and SE models get a more advanced six-speaker system that also includes HD radio, Bluetooth phone connectivity and music streaming, an iPod interface, steering-wheel-mounted controls, and an infuriatingly confusing rotary controller with a directional pad.
Toyota has also one-upped the competition in terms of safety with nine standard air bags. The most interesting of these are the two front seat-cushion air bags, which help to stabilize the positions of the the driver and front passenger in the event of a crash.
How much does it cost?
A base Yaris L with a manual transmission starts at $14,875 (including destination). Stepping up to the mid-level LE three-door will cost $16,385 (available only with an automatic), while the five-door-only SE begins at $17,180. The new model will arrive at dealerships this October.