Review: 2011 Toyota Yaris S Sedan
By Roger Boylan
I’ve always liked small cars, and indeed owe whatever abilities I have behind the wheel to the tough apprenticeship I served with the quirky minicars of my European youth: the Mini itself, as well as sundry Simcas, Fiats, Peugeots, and Renaults. But that was longer ago than I care to remember, and it’s a measure of how much small cars have changed since then that the Yaris, Toyota’s base econocar model, boasts—at least in its “S” iteration–more luxuries than were once available on Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, never mind on your average Simca or Renault. Not that we think of such features as luxuries these days; they’re just the safety and comfort devices we’ve come to expect, spoiled brats that we are. But the 1966 Simca 1000 I learned to drive on was, essentially, nothing but a chassis, an engine (rear-mounted), and a passenger cabin with elementary accommodations. No airbags, no seat belts, no ABS, no stability control, no traction control, no headrests, no crumple zones, no GPS, no radio–although later on I taped a tiny Sony transistor to the dashboard–and no glove compartment, just a shelf for maps, cigarettes, and bandages. But it did have a rigid (non-telescoping) steering column to efficiently impale the driver in the event of a collision, a sharp-edged dashboard that could slice you in two if you hit it at the right angle, coat hooks above the passenger windows ideally placed for gouging eyes from heads flung sideways in crosswinds, and hideous gray-and-red vinyl seats that always smelled of cod liver oil, especially on hot summer days when the only air conditioning came through the half-open passenger window. God, I loved that car. Because what it had most of all was Personality.
So does the Yaris, believe it or not. If not in spades, exactly, at least more than its big sisters the Corolla and the Camry (except maybe the sassier Camry SE V6, tested here). I had a veritable nostalgia trip driving this little bugger, with its spunky 4-cylinder 106-horsepower engine, firm but comfortable ride, tight 32.6-foot turning circle, well-weighted steering, and nimble handling. I certainly appreciated its disdain for filling stations: EPA mpg estimates are 29 and 35, respectively, for city and highway driving, and if anything I bettered them, without really trying. I never even used the cruise control. I dropped the hammer again and again. I loved the roar of the little engine under hard acceleration, and the corollary sensation of really moving. In fact, I found it impossible to drive the Yaris in any manner other than that of a mad Italian pilota of the 1960s, which says something for its maneuverability and fun-to-drive factor.
The four-on-the-floor standard tranny of those days was missing, of course, but I managed to derive a fair amount of fun from the manual-shift capability of the 4-speed auto, especially going down tight switchbacks in the Texas Hill Country, imagining all the while that I was descending the Alpine passes of my youth: the Campolongo, the Grossglockner, the Mont-Cenis… and the Yaris played along eagerly. On a couple of occasions, sensing contempt for my humble wheels from drivers of the likes of F-150s and base-model Chargers, I succeeded in imposing some respect for the sight of my diminishing rear spoiler, to the tune of 9.8 seconds from 0 to 60. That’s better than what Toyota claims, but it’s certified by venerable Swiss chronometer, so there it is: It’s official. A small well-tuned engine with sufficient torque—this one has 103 lb.-ft.–can impel a light car forward with vigor, and the Yaris sedan tips the scales at a featherweight 2300 lbs, enabling it to scoot when needed.
I mentioned the spoiler. Yes, it did have one, an entirely redundant frippery on any car incapable of speeds of 125 m.p.h. and above, and we all know that by now, but it actually looked pretty good, as did the car as a whole, certainly better than its predecessor at the bottom of the Toyota food chain, the weird little Echo, and much better than its predecessor, the late unlamented Tercel.
The Yaris comes in three flavors, starting at a miserly $13K or so for the two-door hatchback, called Liftback, also available as a stylish-looking 4-door for another grand or so. And so on up the ladder to my test sedan, priced at a fairly hefty $18k out the door as an “S” model. The “S” trim is mostly aesthetic, adding eye-candy like said spoiler, side rocker panels, and integrated foglights, but also an AM/FM CD player with MP3 playback (the base Yaris is one of the few cars that can be had without an audio system—shades of my ’66 Simca), iPod interface, remote keyless entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter—but (shock, horror) plastic wheel covers! I found it reprehensible that I was driving the topmost trim level of the car and had to be seen in public sporting ghastly plastic hubcaps that should have gone out with landau roofs and sheepskin seats and—well, hubcaps. Alloys should be automatically included with the package. Are you listening, Toyota? Nothing screams CHEAPO like plastic wheel covers masquerading as alloys. Very down-market. Not cool at all.
Apart from that, I liked the car’s looks—better than many of my fellow reviewers, apparently. One review I read, harking back to the days of the Echo and the Tercel, described the Yaris sedan as looking “almost normal,” damning with faint praise indeed. In fact, it’s a great improvement over its ancestors. But one thing the Yaris does have in common with the Echo is the center-mounted instrument panel, a feature that for some reason seemed to enrage many of my fellow reviewers, perhaps because it’s so obviously a cost-cutting measure, enabling Toyota to switch steering assemblies from the right (Japan, UK, Australia) to the left (almost everybody else) without altering the dashboard layout. It bothered me at first, but I soon got used to the minimal extra effort required to check my speed and RPMs by glancing up and over; no big deal, as far as I was concerned. (The Prius has a similar arrangement.) Otherwise, the Yaris inside is your basic Toyota, comfortable, undramatic, and grayish, with easy-to-use HVAC knobs and an intuitive set of controls for the audio system, cruise control (via steering-column stalk), power windows, etc. Not exactly gorgeous, but the gray plastic panels fit tightly together, and nothing ever squeaked or rattled, even over washboard-surface back roads.
It’s a well-built little car, and there’s a lot more room inside than you’d expect; in fact, the trunk is simply amazing. I fit an entire week’s worth of family-sized grocery shopping in there with room to spare for another 12-pack or mega-roll of paper towels. As for seating, I was comfortable enough when I tried out the rear seats, and I’m hardly balletic in profile, but the front seats, although comfortable enough for me, were a different matter for my wife, who is considerably more petite than I. She played test passenger with good humor, but could never find a really comfortable position, mostly thanks to the lumbar bulge in the back of the passenger seat. It was a bit like an airplane seat in Coach for her. I, on the other hand, despite being more bulbous, fit quite comfortably into the contours of the driver’s seat. Go figure. Neither love nor money, by the way, will get you power seat adjustments on the Yaris, so if, like my wife, you need precise lumbar adjustments, you’d better look elsewhere.
The Yaris was exempt from Toyota’s recent unintended-acceleration, sticking-gas-pedal and/or floormat-interference crises, but like all its stablemates, as of the 2011 model year it gets an electronic override system that favors the brakes if Ronald McDonald behind the wheel applies them and the accelerator simultaneously. This complements the car’s already-impressive safety system, the same “Star” lineup found in other Toyotas, with traction control, stability control, ABS with electronic brake assist and the aforementioned override system, plus all the usual airbags, including side-mounted for driver and front passenger and side curtain for all fore and aft seating positions. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the 2011 Yaris its highest rating, “Good,” for frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.
The Yaris doesn’t aspire to the heights of its costlier rivals, and it’s in for a hard slog in the marketplace against the likes of the new Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2, but it’s a first-rate commuter car with great personality and appeal. After spending a week with it, I found it to be a spunky, hard-working little trooper, solidly built and economical, a cinch for the daily milk run, comfortable enough to take for a long drive, and way more fun than a lot of its loftier cousins. Almost as much fun, in fact, as a 1966 Simca 1000, and a lot safer.