2009 Toyota Yaris 3-Door Liftback Review

By Kevin Miller

12.24.2008

Toyota got their start in the US nearly four decades ago, selling efficient, no-frills economy cars. More recently their offerings have grown to match the size and power of domestic offerings while offering appliance-like charm and reliability, but the Yaris harkens back to the simpler vehicles of Toyota’s early days.

The Yaris is in its second generation worldwide, though the current generation is the first Yaris to be sold in the US. It is an economical vehicle, available here as a three- or five-door Liftback, or as a four-door sedan. Having recently helped my sister-in-law shop for a small car, I can report that the Yaris shares its vertically-oriented climate control binnacle and trick rear seats with the Scion xD.

The car I spent a cold, snowy Seattle week with was a 3-door Yaris Liftback (Toyota uses the term “Liftback” as way of not using the taboo “hatchback”), in a retina-searing “Yellow Jolt” hue which was never meant to be driven by a man. It was a really bright color; my three-year-old daughter told me she liked the car because its color matched the sun. Thankfully, the interior is a muted charcoal color with light-gray inserts.

The interior’s dominating feature is its instrument pod, located on the center of the dashboard. Unfortunately, the big binnacle houses only three instruments- an analog speedometer, a digital clock, and a bar graph for fuel level. Notable in its absence is a tachometer, which can be a useful instrument in a vehicle with a manual transmission. Also missing was an engine temperature gauge; a green thermometer icon with the word “COOL” illuminates until the engine is warmed up; a similar indicator will illuminate red if the engine overheats. Ironically, this setup means that the car will tell you it’s “COOL” only briefly when you start your journey, at which point the car becomes, well, un-cool.

The center-mounted gauge pod is inconvenient for daily use. While the Mini Cooper I reviewed earlier this summer had a center-mounted speedometer, it also had a redundant digital speed display on the steering column. The Yaris lacks a redundant display. If I never cared how fast I was going, the center-mounted speedo would be fine. When underway, however, when I needed to keep my eyes on the road, it was a long glance away from the action to check vehicle speed.

With the instrument cluster in the center of the dash, space traditionally used for instruments in front of the steering wheel is free for an extra storage compartment. The Yaris has an amazing number of storage cubbies and bins: the lidded bin and a cup holder behind the steering wheel with a coin holder below, two lidded bins and a cup holder in front of the passenger, cubbies on each side of the center stack, a tray and a cupholder in the center console, door bins in each front door, and bottle holders in the rear seat trim. There are additional storage bins on each side of the spare tire under the luggage compartment floor; the amount of storage bins in the Yaris puts my Volvo V70 to shame.

Unfortunately, the storage bins under the trunk floor make up about half of the Yaris’ usable trunk volume. The trunk inside of the Liftback is quite shallow, it is amazingly tiny if the rear seats are in their rearmost position. Fortunately, it is easy to slide the rear seats forward or to fold them forward to increase luggage space. In either sliding position, the cargo shield covers the small storage space.

The front seats are surprisingly supportive and comfortable, though front legroom is insufficient for the legs of a 6’4” driver like me. Even if my legs were several inches shorter, I’m not sure they would fit behind the wheel, as the front seats seem to have been positioned to ensure adequate rear legroom. I had a difficult time getting my right knee past the bottom of the steering wheel when getting in and out of the car, and my driving position was very “knees out” to allow my knees to clear the dashboard. Clearly, the Yaris is designed for drivers shorter than I am.

The car I tested was equipped with 60/40 split reclining, sliding, fold-flat rear seats, which were included in the relatively expensive Power Package. These articulating seats were very useful, and unexpected in a vehicle in this price class. With the seats in their rear-most position, there was nearly as much legroom as in the front of the car- maybe even more. In that position, my three-year-old in her car seat had nearly limousine-like space for her legs. That being said, there wasn’t quite enough room for an infant’s Graco SnugRide travel system in the rear – unless nobody was sitting in the front passenger seat.

On the road, the 1.5 liter, 106 HP four mated to a five-speed manual transmission moved the Yaris without drama, though it often sounded out of breath. The engine’s relative lack of torque meant that torque steer was absolutely not an issue. There was plenty of power for merging onto the freeway and maintaining 80 MPH, though I spent plenty of time rowing through the gears to keep the little engine in its power band. The Yaris’ electric power steering required little effort, and in return offered little feedback. Among the most appreciated standard features during my snowy week with the Yaris was the antilock braking system.

Driving on sanded roads, the sounds of slush and sand being thrown against the underside of the car was fairly loud, pointing to the fact that not much sound deadening material is used inside of the wheelarches. The Yaris I drove also experienced two distinct interior trim rattles depending on road condition and speed, one was from the driver-side lidded bin behind the steering wheel, the other was from somewhere above the headliner. The parts-bin stereo with its four speakers didn’t have enough volume to drown out the persistent road noise and rattles on the freeway.

My Yaris was equipped with the optional foldable arm rest mounted between the front seats. No Yaris with a manual transmission should be so equipped. Besides looking incredibly tacked-on and flimsy, the armrest was in the way for changing gears and using the parking brake. Whether folded up or folded down, my right elbow couldn’t avoid it. I usually left it down, and held my arm way up in the air when shifting, looking like an idiot just to facilitate gearchanges.

Base price for the Yaris is $12,205, which includes such standard features as pre-wiring for a stereo; fourteen-inch wheels; front, side, and side curtain airbags; four-wheel ABS (with front disc, rear drum brakes); tire pressure monitoring system; air conditioning; and tilt steering wheel. Options on my tester included the All Weather Guard Package (larger washer fluid tank with level monitor, heavy duty heater, heavy duty starter, rear heat duct, and daytime running lamps) for $110, Power Package (power door locks, power windows, power outside mirrors, 60/40 split reclining, sliding, fold-flat rear seat, AM/FM/CD player with aux in and satellite capability, rear window wiper, rear window defroster, fifteen-inch steel wheels with covers, and engine immobilizer) for $1400, Carpeted Floor and Cargo mats for $150, Emergency Assistance Kit (stowed in a nice bag under the trunk floor) for $70, rear bumper protector for $79, Arm Rest for $129, and delivery charge of $720, for a total of $14,863.

While the Power Package costs about 11% of the Yaris’ base MSRP, it really does include things that make the car livable, and make it seem like a nice car instead of a cheap, entry-level car. That being said, I was surprised to find that the Power Package does not include a remote control for unlocking the doors, so the driver must insert the key into the lock on the outside of the door to unlock the vehicle. Doing so was like stepping back in time, a nod to the economical Toyotas of decades gone by.

The Yaris is rated 29/36 MPG city/highway. During my snowy week with the car I didn’t burn through enough fuel to warrant refilling, so I can’t report on observed fuel economy. I can report, however, that the Yaris was not an unpleasant car to drive. I had expected a small car with very few amenities, soggy handling, a gutless engine, and a total lack of joy. Apart from having too little driver legroom, I found the Yaris to be a competent little car with surprising utility and rear seat space; and great maneuverability and visibility. I enjoyed my time in the Yaris far more than I had expected, and the car is certainly worth a look if you are in the market for a vehicle in this class.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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4 Comments

  1. Surely the first Yaris WAS sold in the US, though not as a liftback – it was called the Echo.

  2. Love the cartoony style of this car,think it is cute while my new Versa is just frumpy looking.If this car had the 1.8 that its chasis mate Scion xd has I would have bought it,(they sell it in Europe),even though it is small and austere.Toyota says that they will use the tech from the new I.Q. on the next Yaris to make it roomy-can’t wait to see it!

  3. Outside of the value equation, it would be nice to have a choice between 5 door / 5 speed Yaris and the 5 speed xD just on styling differences alone. Not everyone can stomach the bulldog face of the xD and would rather have the jellybean styling of the Yaris.

  4. Though the Honda Fit is rated higher by Consumer Reports and several snobby car mags, I sprung for the 2-dr liftback, auto. It came with power pkg and cold weather pkg. I added the armrest and aftermarket cruise control. The car looks fab and I love to drive it. I appreciate and have used the tiny turn circle. I found the car zippy. I liked the way it handled on the highway. American Racing Aero wheels were made for this thing. I also want a sunroof and the large spoiler and will be adding these later.

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