2015 Toyota Yaris

DETROIT — This is a funny little car. Though a mechanical carry over, the refreshed styling has given the Yaris a cheeky look that is youthful and —from the front — a bit avant-garde. You either love it or hate it, and I found it stopped just short of going over the top. Being a Toyota, reliability isn’t a problem, though — by the same token — it’s also not very likely to have much of a personality or be terribly fun to drive.

The five-door SE model I borrowed from Toyota’s press fleet was sparsely equipped. It had the optional carpeted floor/cargo mats ($180) and the Navigation Upgrade ($899). That’s it. With destination and delivery, this meant a $18,724 bottom line.

However, it wasn’t a total penalty box. The Yaris has one of the nicest steering wheels around. It is thick, nicely shaped, covered in small grain leather and has white stitching along its inner edge. You get controls for the audio system on the left spoke, and a clear view of the instruments (tach, speedometer, fuel gauge and a small odometer/trip display). The front door panels have soft-touch upper surfaces, while those in the rear do not.

Though basically a large beam across the front of the car, the instrument panel is widely styled, has three large knobs for the climate control, numerous cubbies for things like phones, and a touch screen audio/navigation display. The shift lever is pleasingly plump and — like the shift boot — is covered in leather. The plastics around the outer air vents, on the center console and covering the steering wheel spokes is piano black. Together with the two-tone gray/black trim, it’s a nice looking interior.

Compared to the Chevy Sonic, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent, the Yaris is a bit underpowered. However, you never feel like the gerbil on the exercise wheel is going to drop dead at any moment from overwork. The Yaris’s 1.5-liter engine produces 106 hp at 6,000 rpm and 103 lb.-ft. at 4,200, which places it three horsepower and four pound-feet behind the similarly short on output Nissan Versa Note. However, while you might notice the Fiesta’s 14 more horsepower, or the nearly 20 more horsepower of the Sonic and Accent, the Yaris compensates by being — wait for it — fun to drive. Yep, it surprised me too.

What make the Yaris work is the thick, satisfyingly tactile steering wheel and the five-speed manual’s slick gear linkage. You don’t mind having to shift, especially when the clutch action is light and linear with a satisfying take-up halfway between the floor and the center of the pedal travel. And the engine sounds and feels smooth and lively, which helps erase thoughts about the power deficit.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Yaris is pretty darned economical. It returned 33 mpg in a combination of city/highway driving, exactly as the EPA says it should. Unfortunately, the revs rise as you begin to move off, then fall flat as you further engage the clutch or shift to the next gear. It takes a while to get used to it, but you quickly learn to compensate.

The interior is spacious, though the Nissan Versa Note has five inches more rear leg room than the Yaris. Compared to the rest of the cars in this class, the Yaris is about average, with the Fiesta having the smallest rear cabin. The same is true of cargo capacity. The Versa Note has 3.2 more cubic feet (and a more versatile load area), while the Hyundai and Chevy are second and the Ford last. The Yaris does, however, have a large, wide hatch opening to make loading and unloading easier.

If the Yaris has a major fault, it is that the steering wheel adjust up and down, but not in and out. Versa Note drivers have the same dilemma, but in the Yaris you immediately notice the reason for this omission. The steering wheel is canted to the left. Moving it closer would magnify this eccentricity, and place the steering wheel closer to the door panel. Thus, you have to compromise your seating position slightly if your legs are long by sitting closer to the pedals than you would if the column was fully adjustable.

Another sore spot was the touch screen. It wasn’t touchy enough, and demanded a firm push to make the desired change. On the other hand, the single, pantograph-style wiper clears almost the entire windshield in a single sweep, leaving very little of the transparent real estate untouched.

Perhaps the Yaris is best summed up by a single sentence after a week with the car. Despite the lack of power, off-kilter steering wheel and column, etc. I finished my notes with a single, simple  declarative statement. “I like this thing.”

— Christopher A. Sawyer