I'm reluctant to parrot Toyota's advertising, but there's more than an ounce of truth in the "Yaris -- It's a car!" campaign. During my night with the Yaris, I verified that it does indeed have four wheels, a steering wheel, and a gasoline engine. It also has a steering column that doesn't telescope and a four-speed automatic transmission, which were two of the key factors preventing Toyota from pursuing the alternative tagline, "It's a competitive car!"
Compared with last year's Yaris, the 2012 model appears to be a significant upgrade. For one, it's no longer styled as if it were designed in the likeness of a pufferfish, and the awkward centrally located instrument cluster has been moved to where it belongs -- in front of the driver. The Yaris rides smoothly over choppy pavement and the steering is nicely weighted. The interior materials are nice and the engine meets the refinement and power standards that are par for the subcompact segment. But like the refreshed Honda Civic, the Toyota Yaris doesn't take enough of a step forward to keep up in this increasingly competitive segment. Toyota claims that its old-school four-speed gearbox does less hunting than six-speed automatics, but those modern transmissions can shift more quickly and more smoothly. The Yaris also suffers from quite a bit of road noise penetrating the cabin. The Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2 offer more driving fun, the Honda Fit boasts a much more spacious, versatile interior, and the Chevrolet Sonic delivers a more stylish, upscale, and substantial driving experience.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The Toyota Yaris is a tightly screwed-together, highly competent car, but one that provides no magic. Okay, maybe I'm wrong about that: I was enchanted by the single wiper blade, which in the dark looked to me from the driver's seat like it shrank within itself every time it swept leftward and then extended itself as it swept to the right across the windshield. But then in the light of morning I looked at it from outside the vehicle and realized that this was an optical illusion; in any case, they've done a good job integrating the single wiper blade on a fairly big windshield. That windshield provides excellent forward visibility, and the side visibility is also superb, thanks to the large front windows in the doors and a good-size corner window at the base of the A-pillar. We also have here a quite good radio and simple, three-dial climate controls that take absolutely no time to figure out. I found the driver's seat to be very comfortable over a 100-mile freeway journey. The trunk is not very big, though; I barely had room for three cases of wine and I had to lay them on their sides so the cargo cover would go all the way down.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Wow, this car looks tiny. I was sure it must be shorter than the previous model, but no, it's actually longer by nearly three inches, and it has a two-inch-longer wheelbase. Interior space, even in the back, is decent, however. And the single wiper is kind of cool (shades of the Tata Nano!).
Inside, the chunky new dash is rather substantial looking, and it moves the gauges in front of the driver, where they belong. The radio is well placed, but I found its controls and buttons annoying to use. It's true that there are isolated areas of soft-touch material, but there's still acres of hard plastic that remind you this is a car that's built to a price. The seats in this SE model, though, are firm and seemed supportive during my brief drive. Nice cloth upholstery is impossible to find nowadays, but the insert material in the SE is particularly unusual -- it's sort of like the material on your grandmother's couch. I supposed some might find it charming, in a retro sort of way.
The four-speed automatic is also kind of retro, though there's nothing charming about it. It's also a likely culprit behind the uncompetitive, 35-mpg highway rating. When midsize sedans like the Hyundai Sonata can get 34 mpg, tiny economy cars like this need to do notably better.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
It was nice to see our Yaris tester equipped with the optional soft-touch dash materials. Yes, the soft-touch material is optional, though the standard hard plastic has better graining than the optional stuff and the rest of the interior. That remarkable fact is the most interesting thing about the new Yaris. Well, that and the nine airbags and single-arm wiper. This little Toyota has an all-new design inside and out which is more pleasing to the eye and to ergonomics, but in a class that is continually becoming more competitive, what is remarkable is that the Yaris still has not a single standout characteristic.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I'll freely admit that I'm the closest Automobile Magazine gets to employing a hipster -- I own an Animal Collective album and I love super-skinny jeans -- but even so I'm failing to love the Toyota Yaris.
That tidbit of personal information is important to know because I believe the Yaris is the first car to be marketed exclusively to hipsters. Toyota has plastered meme websites like I Can Haz Cheezburger? with advertisements and given the car an ironic slogan: "It's a Car!"
Even with all this post-ironicness, the Yaris isn't appealing. There's nothing wrong with it: the driving experience is middling to good, the mileage is okay, the funky radio head unit works well, and the whole package is adequate. Unfortunately, aside from the amazing windshield wiper, nothing stands out. The Toyota Yaris is just...a car. For $17,000, that's a problem. For the same money, the Chevrolet Sonic is far more entertaining, and believe you me...hipsters like to be entertained.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
The Yaris is a nice little Japanese car competing in the wrong decade. It has the basics down pat -- good suspension tuning, sharp steering, a willing engine, and a low sticker price. The interior is well laid out, is reasonably attractive, and provides everything occupants need (and nothing they don't). From the mid-1970s to perhaps two or three years ago, this, along with the rock-solid reliability inherent in the Toyota name, was all customers desired in a subcompact car. The fact that the Yaris has actual exterior styling would have been a welcome bonus. Unfortunately for the "new" Yaris, it is stuck competing in 2012 against all manner of "premium" subcompacts - cars that score better fuel economy, have more than four speeds in their transmissions, and feature actual carpeting. The closest competitor, the aging Honda Fit, trumps the Yaris with its minivan-like interior volume.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor