Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 Toyota Yaris

If you dig down through all the marketing bumph, past the sharper styling, beyond the claims that Toyota is getting back to its reliable small-car basics, the biggest shift happens on the dashboard. Rarely has a car been so underwhelming that its replacement can improve matters simply by moving the speedometer by 10-inches. But that’s the biggest news for potential Yaris buyers interested in the latest version.
1. The Yaris continues to use a 106 hp 1.5L 4-cylinder with a 30/38 mpg rating for the 5-speed manual or 30/35 mpg for the 4-speed automatic.
2. Yaris 3-door models start from $14,115 for the L and $15,480 for the LE. 5-door versions start at $15,140 for the L, $15,960 for the LE and $16,300 for the SE.
3. With a 5.7-inch longer and 2.1-inch wider cargo area, luggage space is up over 60 percent to 15.3 cu-ft on the 3-door and 15.6 cu-ft on the 5-door.
Previously, the Yaris was generally bought by people who had no love for driving and wanted to spend as little money doing it as possible. With an underpowered engine, cheap materials and admitted Toyota reliability, the sub-compact did have some of the lowest running costs around but delivered no thrills or joy in the process.

The latest one doesn’t improve matters much. It still uses the old 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque, and although it does have variable valve timing, it lacks the modern direct-injection systems of its competitors. The class-leading Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio put out another 30 horses and 20 lb-ft without any loss of fuel efficiency, and best the Toyota’s estimated 30 mpg in the city and 38. And that’s with the 5-speed manual. Opt for the 4-speed automatic and the numbers drop to 30/35 mpg. With either of the carry-over transmissions, the Yaris is just as outmatched in the acceleration department, being one of the slowest-accelerating vehicles around.

At just over 2,300 lbs, our five-door Yaris LE tester did little to impress us on the road. Whether because of its more upright styling, its over-sharp steering response, the choice of winter tires fitted or any other reason, the Yaris was a difficult car to drive. It was so willing to follow ruts and grooves in the road that you’d think it was some low-slung sports coupe and not a city-focused hatchback. Not a promising start. But it also leans and wobbles and wiggles too.

Being so far off the mark dynamically makes us wonder if there was an issue with the vehicle Toyota provided...


Setting aside those questions for now, the new Yaris does improve substantially inside. Gone is the center-mounted instrument pod that blighted the first two generations, replaced by a dash that’s perfectly ordinary by comparison. That change alone makes the car instantly more usable. The dash uses the same highly-textured hard black plastic found in other recent Toyotas, but there are softer bits in contrasting shades sprinkled on throughout.

The seats aren’t bad and reasonably comfortable, and there’s enough room for tall drivers not to scrape their hair on the roof-liner. But the steering wheel only tilts – no telescoping – and even then only what feels like a half-inch leaving long-legged owners in a lurch.

Rear-seat space is adequate, although the three-person bench isn’t overly luxurious and the only cup-holders are molded into the rear of the center console. Cargo space is reasonable at 13 cu-ft and in LE models, can be expanded with 60/40 split-folding seats.

The best part of the car is its new set of clothes. It’s taughter and more chiseled, and gives the impression that it’s more expensive than it really is. The narrow and tall 175/65-series tires wrap around 15-inch steelies with plastic wheel covers.

The $16,100 LE really is the top-dog in the range. There is a sportier SE with alloy wheels and more aggressive styling, but there's only one option to be had and that's cruise control. Otherwise, our Yaris tester came with standard air conditioning, a decent six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth hands-free and iPod interface, power windows, locks and mirrors and remote keyless entry.

Not only does the Yaris find itself under threat by the vastly improved and ever-growing batch of rivals from Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Mazda, but it also is having its lunch eaten by another Toyota product, the Prius c. While the c starts at almost $4,000 more than our Yaris tester, it’s infinitely more comfortable, better equipped and gets nearly double the gas mileage in town.


The Yaris won’t be a complete disaster, despite our general indifference to the car. It will sell to current Yaris owners who will appreciate the improvement in style and cabin refinement compared with their old ones.

Despite all the trouble Toyota has had in recent years regarding its quality issues, it was never the small cars that were called into question. Thus, the Yaris will appeal to those who have been burned by American and Korean car makers before and who simply want a vehicle that will be near-guaranteed to start every morning.

To some, reliability is sexy.