By Roger Boylan
Last year I tested the 2011 Yaris, and liked it. This year I spent a week with the redesigned 2012 Yaris, and liked it even more. Why? Because, as Toyota tells us in its advertising slogan for the new Yaris: “It’s a car!” Say what?
Sometimes, given the ubiquity of Toyotas in the U.S., it’s hard to remember that the company is, after all, Japanese, and that Japan is the birthplace of joyously nonsensical pseudo-English that, in the realm of car names alone, has given us gems such as the Mitsubishi Mini Active Urban Sandal, the Isuzu Mysterious Utility Wizard and the Mazda Bongo Friendee. See, this is what you get when you don’t hire gaijin proofreaders to check your English, Toyoda-san! Perhaps “it’s a car!” has a deep, emotional resonance in Japanese, but a quick phone call to a native speaker Stateside might have obviated considerable silliness.
Still, there’s no denying the accuracy of the statement. The Yaris (another fairly silly name, when you think about it) is, indeed, a car, and a good one for the price range, starting at $14,115 for the base L three-door liftback with a five-speed manual to just north of $17K for the SE five-door liftback with a somewhat archaic four-speed auto. Mine was the middle-market LE in a gorgeous, rich-looking tomato hue Toyota calls, absolutely accurately, Absolutely Red. This iteration goes for around $16K, well equipped with Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity, remote entry, power everything, steering-wheel mounted redundant audio controls, that aging four-speed auto (which actually works pretty well), cruise control, 15-inch steel wheels with (almost tolerable) plastic covers, a nifty intermittent front mono-arm windshield wiper that sweeps the entire windshield except for the tiny northeastern corner, a rear windshield wiper, and a six-speaker sound system with HD radio with clear and crisp sound quality that did equal justice during my week-long tenure to Beethoven, Bach, and Johnny Cash. A factory-installed nav system isn’t available, but your local Best Radio Buy Shack will happily sell you a raft of portable handheld gizmos.
Overall, the redesign works well, inside and out. For one thing, the interior has been tidied up and standardized: no more weird center-mounted gauges and long drooping center stack. Everything is where it should be: The instrument gauges are big and clearly legible, and the huge HVAC knobs are a joy to use for simpletons such as I. The dashboard layout is uncluttered and even elegant, with pleasantly grained plastics in muted grays and silvers. Storage spaces, although not especially capacious, are serviceable, and luggage capacity behind the rear seats is more generous, at 15.6 cu. ft., than in the previous generation–although less than that offered by, say, the Honda Fit (20.6). Those rear seats, however, are well-padded and offer ample leg room, almost unheard-of in this segment. The front seats, too, are very comfortable, with good lateral support. Indeed, I heard no complaints fore or aft on a day-long family New Year’s excursion through the sunny Texas Hill Country, except when we passed downwind of a recently deceased skunk.
Externally, the new design casts the Yaris in a more aggressive mode, with a longer wheelbase and lower and longer stance than before, resulting in more cargo room and headroom, all housed within a compact but aerodynamic body yielding a 0.30 coefficient of drag, same as a Nissan 370Z. Maybe this, along with a slight weight loss of 40 lbs or so, is why the car seemed zippier than its 2011 predecessor, although it has the same engine. My 0-60 times, per Swiss chronometer, were pretty much the same as last year: 9.6 sec on a dry windless day on smooth blacktop, as opposed to 9.8 under similar conditions in the 2011 model. These results are pretty impressive for a tiny four-banger turning out a mere 106 horses and 103 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s a Mighty Mouse of engines. I never worried about passing, even on two-lane roads: Somehow, the Yaris has oomph enough to handle these situations, and I’m not quite sure where it gets it. Of course, the steering in the new model has been recalibrated for a quicker, more responsive feel, the suspension has been firmed up, and the turning circle is tighter than before, all of which contribute to a better driving experience. Brakes are excellent, too, with no fade even after repeated jabs. There was only the road noise on rough surfaces between us and automotive nirvana. (Yes! I exaggerate. But it’s quiet enough, especially for a midget, except when accelerating.)
Not surprisingly, fuel economy is good: EPA estimates are 30 mpg city, 35 highway and 32 combined. I find these figures entirely believable, having put nearly 400 miles on the clock on the little scamp without needing to refill. On the last day I topped it up with $6 worth of regular and left the needle at almost the halfway point. This would be sufficient nourishment to sustain a weekly 300-mile commute, which is typical of the daily home-to-office slogs here in the Austin-San Antonio corridor, and in many other parts of the country. Safety, of course, is the commuter’s other main concern, and this is addressed in the Yaris by the antilock brakes (rear drums for all models except the SE), traction and stability control, active front head restraints, front seat side airbags, a driver’s-knee airbag, and front and rear side-curtain airbags. All of this earns the approval of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which designates the 2012 Yaris a “top safety pick” and awards it the institute’s highest rating, “good.”
Those are impressive stats. And overall this is an impressive little car. Granted, there are others—the Hyundai Accent, the Chevrolet Sonic, the Suzuki SX—that offer bigger powerplants and spiffier styling and/or more cargo space for the same money or less, depending on trim level; but Toyota is Toyota, and with the rumblings and groans of unintended acceleration recalls, etc., fading into the past, the Japanese giant can once again reassert itself on its traditional grounds of reliability, solidity of build, and no-hassle car ownership.
And you, the proud owner, can point to your shiny new Yaris and exclaim, “It’s a car!”
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.