by Chris Wall
Toyota is a global automotive powerhouse, and this means that if there's a category of car you can think of, Toyota will likely have a model competing in it, and it's usually rather good too. Their offering for one of the more fiercely contested markets, the subcompact market, is the diminutive Yaris. The little car looks good, has a good amount of features and is well priced, but that does also give an indication of the quality of materials. The 5-model (two 3-door and three 5-door) range starts as low as $15,653 and $18,260 tops things off – option dependent.
Inside a low-priced subcompact hatchback you can expect things to looks as funky as possible to appeal to the younger buyer, while using the cheapest materials as possible to make the overall package as affordable as possible to that same younger buyer. Toyota has got this combination sorted out with the Yaris. When you overlook the hard plastics, the design and layout is pretty good. Front seats are almost bucket-like and combined with an adjustable multifunction steering wheel; a good driving position is available.
Rear space is more limited than the front, especially in the 3-door variant, but kids needing a lift will be happy with not walking and will love it. The dash features a good-looking instrument cluster with chrome bezels (model dependent) and a decent 6.1-inch color screen heading up the infotainment system – the features and functionality are great and usually seen in more expensive cars. This system is a big selling point for the hatchback.
Cars like the Toyota Yaris are all about getting you safely from A – B and this means they're not ever going to be particularly fast. The small capacity 1.5-liter motor has enough grunt to get the small car running ahead of traffic if needed, but it won't hold the lead for long. Being as small and light as it is, the suspension ends up feeling tightly sprung and so body roll is minimal, but so is comfort over any sort of corrugations.
The Yaris can be had with a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic, the former being the best option for a more rewarding drive. Gear changes feel deliberate, even if the lever feel is light, and you can do these when you want. The automatic feels like it needs more, shorter gears especially if you're in a hurry when the gears feel never ending. It simply feels old.
Performance and a subcompact hatchback aren't usually found in the same sentence, and with good reason. In the Toyota Yaris we're greeted with a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that's able to make just 106 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque. That's just about enough to give the 2335 lb. body a bit of go, and when revving hard, an almost sporty feeling. On the plus side it does manage a light 32 mpg on the highway. The power is directed to the front wheels in all models, and associated transmissions include a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. The manual is the best option, and not because it's that good, but because the auto is that mediocre.
Toyotas have always been known as safe and reliable cars, and the Yaris is set to be both. Added to an array of 9 airbags, there are safety systems like Toyota Safety Sense, a pre-collision system, lane departure alert, a Star Safety System that includes vehicle stability control, ABS, EBD and brake assist. Standard you get a 6.1-inch screen heading up a good infotainment system that includes a 6-speaker audio system, smartphone connectivity, optional navigation, Bluetooth and a backup camera with a projected path. Instrumentation can be optioned in a Sport configuration to look a little more upper class.
In the word of the subcompacts, the Toyota Yaris does manage to hold it's own, mainly thanks to the automaker being one of the world's biggest. Directly compared to segment competitors it can be left wanting in a few areas, particularly with regards to performance and automatic transmissions. If you overlook that, and the harder plastics found inside, the Yaris becomes a good car for the young and budget conscious.