Lifestyle

The Judgment of Yaris


Yaris_2006
Editor's Rating: star rating

Toyota’s new econobox is an improvement over the Echo—but the Corolla and Civic offer similar gas mileage and are more fun to drive.

Sometimes I think Toyota has too many models on the market. Between Toyota, Lexus, and Scion cars, vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks, I count nearly three dozen Toyota-made models total, which can get pretty confusing.

The latest is the Yaris, an inexpensive gasoline-sipping econobox that replaces and upgrades the Toyota Echo. Like all Toyotas, the Yaris is well-made and probably will run forever. But what really sets it apart from all the other economy cars on the market?

LACKING IN PIZZAZZ.

The Echo was never a big-seller in the U.S. and never got very good reviews, but at least it had a clear market niche: it was a very basic, dirt-cheap little car that got great mileage. The Yaris' position in the market is less clear. It's bigger and slightly fancier than the Echo—and the problem for me is that when you start adding a few options, the Yaris bumps up against the new Honda Civic and Toyota's own Corolla, both of which are bigger cars with more powerful engines.

The four-door Yaris sedan, the version of the car I test-drove, starts at $12,405 with a manual transmission and $13,130 with an automatic (there's also a hatchback that starts at $11,530 with a stick shift and $12,430 with an automatic). But that's for a very bare-bones vehicle. I suspect most buyers of the sedan are going to opt for the $2,175 power package that includes antilock brakes, power windows and door locks, rear-window defroster, 60/40 folding rear seat, CD player, 15-in. alloy wheels, and a tachometer. I would also pay an extra $650 for side curtain airbags, which I consider an essential safety innovation in small cars.

Those add-ons raise the price of the Yaris to nearly the same level as a base-level Honda Civic DX or Corolla CE. It's also within two grand of a similarly equipped Honda Civic LX, the midrange version of the Civic that starts at $17,060 with a stick shift, $17,860 with an automatic. I would definitely consider paying a bit more for the newly redesigned Civic, which is a very nice car (see BusinessWeek.com, 06/07/06, "Civic Virtues". The Yaris drives fine, but its tiny 106 horsepower, four-cylinder engine gives it none of the Civic's pizzazz.

A GOOD KIND OF LIGHT.

The Yaris also has to compete with the newly introduced and well-received Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent, both of which start out at around $11,000. On top of that, the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit—both of which are similar entry level compacts—are coming out this year. So, why buy the Yaris?

Granted, what you get for your money is a decent, safe little car. The Yaris has a coefficient of drag (a measure of how slippery a car is), of just 0.29, which is remarkable for an economy car. The ride is very smooth and everything about the car feels light—in a good way. Steering takes very little effort. The transmission shifts smoothly. The car seems to skip over bumps and rough patches in the road.

The Yaris also promises to be very safe. It was first introduced in Europe and earned a top five-star rating in crash tests in Germany.

That's impressive for such a small car. The Yaris sedan is only 169 inches long and has a curb weight of just 2,326 pounds. Its traverse-mounted engine gives it a stubby front end, which means you get a very clear view of the road from behind the wheel; I couldn't see the hood at all.

DESIGN DISTRACTIONS.

The Yaris also has a high rear deck that allows a decent amount of trunk space (12.9 cubic feet) in an equally stubby rear end. But the combined effect is to make the car look odd. As one post on a message board for Scion owners put it: The Yaris "looks like a VW Bug and a [Scion] xA had a kid."

The Yaris' interior is plain and functional, but it also has some design problems. One thing that really bothered me is that the instrument panel is in the middle of the dashboard, rather than in front of the driver. There's a certain logic to this, as I find that positioning the steering wheel where I like it means I often have to crane to see the speedometer and other instruments in conventionally designed cars. But I never got used to looking over to my right to check the Yaris' instruments. I know some other small cars are being designed the same way, but I find it distracting.

Headroom in the Yaris also seems pretty inadequate, though not quite as tight as in the Scion tC (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/5/06, "Scion: Third Time's the Charm"). If you keep the seat back upright, which people with back problems are wont to do, you have the sensation that your head is too close to the roof. I'm only five-feet-ten, but unless the seat was adjusted down to its lowest level, the lack of headroom made me uncomfortable.

NOT LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT.

Aesthetically speaking, the instruments and dials in my test Yaris were an unattractive hodgepodge. The little screen in the center console for the sound system was an unpleasant algae green, while the speedometer and tachometer had light-colored backings, and the odometer and gas gauge were in a monochromatic digital readout like the one on a digital watch. Another design nitpick: There are handy storage compartments for coins and such at either end of the dash, but the pop-open doors on them don't open wide enough for you to be able to see what's inside without craning way forward—not practical if you're driving.

Finally, gas mileage in the Yaris is a little disappointing. With an automatic transmission, it's rated to get 34 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway. In a stretch of 186 miles of mixed driving I got 33.9 mpg. That's good, but only about the same as the Corolla and Civic, which are quicker and more fun to drive.

You're going to hear a lot about the Yaris this summer, because Toyota is marketing the new model heavily. But I'd definitely do a lot of comparison shopping before I would go out and buy a Yaris sedan.

Click here to see more of the Toyota Yaris.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for BusinessWeek.com.

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