Toyota Yaris — A Bit of Zest for the Budget Minded

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

Our first experience with the sub-compact Toyota Yaris nearly two years ago was not a good one. Our 2007 Yaris test car was a modern rendition of the celebrated stripper of the past, a car with four doors, a steering wheel and an engine. A positive impression was not derived from our seven days behind the wheel.

We grew up many years ago when roll down windows and manual door locks were the norm. Power equipment was very much a luxury. But when we get a 21st Century car with window cranks and manual locks, we cringe.

What we drove a couple years ago was an example of what you could buy new for about $12,000. If that†s all you can absolutely afford, we recommend the purchase of a low-mileage one-to-two-year-old vehicle with some modern amenities. We didn†t write about the Yaris then because we didn†t feel we could give it a fair evaluation in its basest of base trim.

And now two years later we can report how important a $1,500 †power package† figures into our opinion of a car. We just finished driving a 2009 base Yaris five-door liftback, a new model for †09 joining the sedan and three-door hatch, beginning at $13,305. Unlike the 2007 sedan base model, it came with a $1,970 †power package† † there†s actually a less expensive $1,500 package † that included power windows, power doorlocks, and upgraded audio system and alloy wheels.

This Yaris put us in a better frame of mind and we liked it.

Performance from its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a four- speed automatic was adequate and its EPA gas mileage rating of 29 city/35 highway made us smile.

And we really liked the new four-door hatchback style. In fact, we had a couple of favorable comments over its rather appealing shape.

The problem with the Yaris is the competition. There are several very good vehicles in the sub-compact ranks that should be test driven before making a buying decision. One comes under the Toyota umbrella, the Scion xD. The xD comes with a slightly higher price tag and a bigger engine. One advantage here is that you can drive the two cars back-to-back at most Toyota stores.

If you have been part of a Toyota family and you like the idea of keeping a Toyota in the driveway, and feel it†s a waste of time to visit other dealers, you won†t be making a mistake with the smallest Toyota.

The three-style lineup gives the Yaris an advantage over competitors.
Our choice is the new five-door hatch, which is very versatile. It holds four adult passengers with a fair amount of comfort. When in passenger mode, there is still a smallish 9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats.

Smartly, the rear seatback is split so that large objects can be stored next to a single back-seat rider, and if cargo-hauling is your goal of the day, the seatbacks fold down to reveal 26 cubic feet.

The Yaris gets only one engine and if you want to wring the most out of it, it†s best to settle for the five-speed manual shifter. Our test car came with a four-speed automatic, which proved delightful in around-town driving and shopping. But it was necessary to have a heavy right foot at times to push the 106 horses into enough lather for freeway merges.

For comparison purposes, the Yaris with the automatic has been measured from 0 to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds. That†s faster than virtually every small family vehicle in the †80s and most of the †90s, but average at best this deep into the 21st Century.

We never felt in danger of getting run over, however, and when we looked at the gas gauge still hovering close to full after more than 100 miles we became more satisfied with the little engine.

The small size of the Yaris † it stretches just a bit over 12 feet † makes it an agile partner in parking lot situations. With a turning radius of just 30.8 feet you can turn the smallest spaces into your advantage in a crowded parking lot. Perhaps it was for that reason that at least one spouse proclaimed the Yaris one of her favorites in recent times.

We also found that it rode and handled confidently on the highway. But be prepared to crank the audio up a few notches at interstate speeds because of elevated interior noise levels.

As you might expect from Toyota, the interior is well made with decent materials. The seats are comfortable and we had no problem finding a good driving position.

Perhaps most Yaris buyers will like the center-mounted gauge cluster, but despite several experiences with this odd design, we can†t get used to it. It is like looking into a black hole. The position of the gauges forces your eyes to the right and away from the road, and that alone is argument enough to return the gauges to their traditional location behind the steering wheel.

Standard equipment in the five-door hatch starting at $14,080 including destination charge is fairly basic, but we applaud Toyota for putting a large amount of standard safety in the new model including four-wheel antilock brakes, front side airbags and full- length side-curtain airbags.

Other standard equipment on the five-door includes air conditioning, electric power steering, driver-side glovebox, tilt steering wheel digital clock and luggage cover.
But here†s the catch. You have to come up with another $840 to get an audio system † Toyota provides four speakers as standard equipment, but no receiver. It will take an outlay of $1,580 to get the audio receiver AND the aforementioned power windows and locks.

The up-level S trim package starting at $15,900 in the five-door hatch does buy you an audio system with CD and MP3 player and integrated iPod capability. But you will still have to fork over $1,290 for power equipment and keyless entry.

Even with the add-ons the Yaris still comes in under such entries as the Honda Fit that has more standard equipment, but a starting price of more than $15,000 including destination charge.

The stripped-down Yaris, much like the one we reluctantly drove in 2007, starts at $12,950 in three-door mode, $13,740 in the sedan style and $14,080 in the five-door. The five-door comes with the automatic transmission standard.

Our test car, which we could live with, carried a bottom line of $16,505.

We like the Yaris and think it would be a good purchase for a young one-car family or as a second or third car for more established families. Gas mileage is excellent and the interior space, especially in the new five-door style, is noteworthy.

Just make sure the car still fits into your budget after what we think are necessary options.

For those who think small isnt enough, Yaris is being talked about as a future hybrid. Two caveats —  think 2011 and a lot more money.


Base price, $12,950; as driven, $16,505
Engine: 1.5-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 106 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 103 foot-pounds @ 4,200 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 96.9 inches
Length: 150.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,340 pounds
Turning circle: 30.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 9.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 26 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.1 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 35 mpg highway, 29 city
0-60: 10.5 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Honda Fit, Scion xD, Nissan Versa

The Good
• One of most fuel-efficient cars on the road
• Well-done interior
• Good passenger room in five-door format

The Bad
• The base price is just the starting price as options are necessary

The Ugly
• Deliver us from center-placed gauges