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2008 Toyota Yaris

The Toyota Yaris has suddenly become a hot seller thanks to its excellent fuel economy and solid Toyota build quality. Through the first half of 2008, Yaris sales are up 39 percent compared to 2007 (sales of the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, and Suzuki SX4 are up even more), yet Yaris pricing remains competitively low. The liftback version starts at only $11,550 (our liftback tester with a four-speed automatic transmission sells for $14,125), and buyers can order their new Yaris econo-hatch with everything or seemingly nothing.

A 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission are standard on the car, as are air conditioning and color-keyed mirrors and door handles. Creature comforts such as power windows and locks, a rear defroster and rear wiper, fifteen-inch alloy wheels, a leather steering wheel, and an MP3 compatible stereo system are available through option packages. Buyers can also give their Yaris a more performance-oriented look by ordering the S package (which adds front and rear lip spoilers) and fog lights. For those worried about accident protection, the Yaris features available ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, available side airbags, and side-curtain airbags for both front and rear passengers.

But what makes this featherweight (2326-pound) commuter car attractive isn't its looks or safety credentials. Consumers shopping for a Yaris are simply looking for one thing - the best small car value.

Does this Toyota deliver?

ExteriorIs that a bug on the road?

Eyeing our blue Yaris from the street, we noticed a few obvious things. Styling on the liftback is quirkier than that of the Yaris sedan (squint hard and it sort of looks like a smashed bug), but body panel fit is tight, unlike that of the old Echo. Seeing that Toyota didn't skimp on assembly makes us believe this car should hold up for many years to come.

We like the roof antennae, side marker lights, and the optional front and rear bumper lips on our Yaris S model. However, we're not sure that we would pay extra for the cosmetic body enhancements. Ditto for the available alloy wheels - this car is for basic transportation, not a Sunday car show. The Yaris's bubbly, obtuse front nose is different from anything else on the road, and it also helped earn the Toyota a "good" frontal crash test rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

InteriorLacks 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.

PowertrainThe 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.

Chassis/Suspension You get what you ask for

The Yaris is not meant to feel or drive like a sport compact, and it doesn't. There is some body roll if you push the car around bends, but on rough roads, the independent suspension absorbs enough punishment to make rides bearable (just don't hit any potholes that are bigger than the car). We do, however, wonder how the ride would improve with Toyota's optional fifteen-inch alloy wheels.

Driving DynamicsShort of hitting the snooze button

If you can handle the occasional frustration of not being able to keep up with quicker traffic, the Yaris offers drivers a solid, well-controlled ride with great all-around visibility. For a subcompact, the car handles and brakes well, although we wish there was more feedback from the electric power steering. Overall, the Yaris's cabin insulation isn't poor, but loud, buzzy engine noise from under the dashboard is an issue passengers have to live with. And if the engine noise isn't enough to keep you alive at the wheel, try ordering the five-speed manual transmission.

ConclusionA competitive subcompact

For more than $14,000, the Yaris we sampled comes with some nostalgic old-school features - roll-down windows, manual locks - and an average warranty (3-year/36,000-mile comprehensive, 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain). It also comes with fewer trips to the fuel pump, which could help buyers stay sane as gas prices rise. Yet subcompacts such as the Hyundai Accent and the Suzuki SX4 are better values. Hyundai and Suzuki offer longer warranties, while the Accent and SX4 both engage the driver more, feature higher quality interior materials, and have sufficient dashboard insulation - all important aspects of a subcompact that will likely serve as a commuter car. If we had to choose a Yaris, we'd pick the sedan model based on looks and the convenience of having another two doors. Or perhaps we'd wait for the Yaris liftback five-door model, scheduled to arrive in the U.S. by the end of this summer.