Editor’s note: This review was written in April 2009 about the 2009 Toyota Yaris. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
In the world of subcompact cars, things have improved greatly over the past few years. Today’s smallest models offer a lot of room, good fuel economy and surprising levels of quality for small amounts of money. The Toyota Yaris is in this segment, and this is the first year the smallest Toyota has been available as a four-door hatchback; previously, only a two-door hatch and a sedan were offered.
Testing the new four-door hatchback, I found myself enjoying the driving experience more than I ever thought possible. However, its price tag is surprisingly high, I wasn’t very comfortable in it and its ergonomics are downright poor.
In the realm of really small cars, the Yaris isn’t that unattractive. Its snub nose is probably its most striking attribute, and you can find it on both the sedan and hatchback. The sedan’s body style is very traditional; it doesn’t stand out on the road. The two- and four-door hatchbacks have a bit more utility and are more distinguishable.
There’s one positive about the Yaris’ interior that hits you right away: It feels like a more expensive car than it is (the four-door hatch starts at $13,305). One negative hits you about 20 minutes into a drive: It’s incredibly uncomfortable to sit in and even harder to live with.
Let’s tackle the positives first. The Yaris’ materials are very nice: The plastics have nice graining, and there are few rough edges to be found. I’d even say the interior is more pleasing to the eye than the recently redesigned Toyota Corolla. The seat fabric seems like it would be very durable over the long haul, yet it still feels good to the touch. It’s just too bad the seats are horribly unsupportive and offer little thigh support.
The Yaris certainly won’t be the first pick for larger drivers. By the time my first commute home was done, my back hurt. For the record, I’m 5-feet, 10-inches and about average weight. By comparison, I thought the Honda Fit’s seats were much more comfortable.
The other major problem with the Yaris’ interior is its ergonomics. First, there’s the instrument cluster, which is in the center of the dashboard. While this may work in other small cars, like the Mini Cooper, the Yaris’ pale, amber-colored speedometer readout doesn’t stand out enough to grab your eyes. I just kind of gave up looking at it and assumed that I wasn’t speeding.
Then there’s the stereo. The knobs for volume and tuning are so stubby and slippery it was a struggle just to turn up a good song when one came on the radio. Luckily, the air conditioning controls are simply done, with three huge knobs that have ridges to grab onto.
Don’t get me started on the cupholders. There’s only one traditional cupholder, and it’s placed at the far back of the center console, behind the driver’s right elbow. It was a pain to reach back to get a drink. Each door has a bottleholder, but then what do you do with two Slurpees? Two venti lattes? I wouldn’t complain if there weren’t a huge area in front of the shifter where Toyota could have easily put two more cupholders. Instead, it’s just a flat area where you can place cell phones and change.
There are also little cubbies — big enough for the smallest cell phones and MP3 players — sprinkled throughout the front of the car. I didn’t use any of them.
As for roominess, the Yaris is surprisingly adequate. The driver and front passenger have ample headroom and legroom. Even in the backseat there’s a surprising amount of headroom, but your legs can’t stretch too far. I wouldn’t even think of squeezing a third person back there unless they were a very dear frenemy.
By far the biggest shock about the Yaris was how much pep it had. Yes, I’d call it pep. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder only produces 106 horsepower, but it sure moves the Yaris with a lot of zip. The little engine revs healthily even when paired with a four-speed automatic transmission, and it passes easily on the highway. Of course, that zippiness was most often with just one person in the car, though I didn’t notice any decrease in performance when driving with my wife and 1-year-old son. I assume three adults in the back, however, would make the engine work much harder.
Wind and road noise aren’t terrible for this class. The ride is also pretty comfortable considering the car’s short wheelbase. That short wheelbase also lets you easily make a U-turn on narrow side streets, which comes in handy if you live in an urban area. (When Cars.com tested the Smart ForTwo we were shocked it couldn’t make the same maneuver.)
Handling is superb and exactly what you’d expect from a tiny runabout. Turns are sharp and crisp. The steering wheel is a bit sensitive to even the slightest hand movement, but that level of responsiveness gives the car some sportiness. Body roll is excessive, however, and is the one real detractor in the driving experience.
Mileage is very good, as you’d expect. The Yaris achieves an EPA-estimated 29/36 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 29/35 mpg with the automatic.
The Yaris comes standard with antilock brakes and seat-mounted side-impact airbags, plus side curtain airbags for both rows. Electronic stability control isn’t offered.
The Yaris received the top rating, Good, in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests, but it received a score of Marginal (second worst) in rear crash tests. That test simulates whiplash forces on a crash-test dummy.
Recently, IIHS released a damaging report on very small cars, including the Yaris, that showed significant damage in head-on collisions with midsize sedans. So while the Yaris’ scores are good when compared to others in its class, buyers should remember that cars of this size are at a safety disadvantage against larger cars. The Fit is the only subcompact car that’s earned IIHS’ Top Safety Pick designation (when equipped with optional electronic stability control), but even it fared poorly in a head-on crash test with the larger Honda Accord.
Even after years of studying safety reports and testing hundreds of cars, I don’t feel totally safe in cars with doors that shut with a tinny clank, like the Yaris’ do. It’s not a professional assessment; it’s a personal one. In the end, reason won out and I put my son in the Yaris during my week of testing. Still, there are a lot of people who have safety reservations when it comes to cars this size.
I came away from my time with the Yaris liking its performance a lot more than I thought I would, but there’s no way I could live with its poor ergonomics and uncomfortable seating. The price tag will lure many to the table, though. Car shoppers should understand, though, that even a modestly equipped Yaris costs much more than the $12,205 you’d pay for the lowliest two-door hatchback Yaris, with its manual transmission and 14-inch steel wheels — and no stereo.
As mentioned, the four-door hatchback starts at $13,305 with a standard automatic transmission, but adding simple conveniences like power windows and door locks requires a $2,170 option package.
All told, my test car topped $17,000 with its optional alloy wheels and the destination charge. A similarly equipped Honda Fit with 15-inch steel wheels costs about $16,000, and the better-equipped Fit Sport with 16-inch wheels comes in around $17,500. So if you want things like power windows and locks, the Fit is the better choice. It’s also roomier and has better safety scores. If you just want to spend as little as possible, the Yaris fits the bill and would make a serviceable choice if you want a $12,000 car, which is something Honda doesn’t offer. Nissan’s Versa is another possibility; it too is larger than the Yaris and comes in very basic trim levels with few frills.
Even the most basic Corolla has a full complement of side airbags and comes in at $15,350.
With such tough competition from Honda and Nissan, it’s hard to recommend the Yaris over its roomier competitors. Its mileage isn’t enough to warrant the tradeoffs in space and — with regard to the Fit — safety.
If all you really want is a truly inexpensive new car, then the Yaris will offer reliable, efficient transportation to meet your needs. However, if you’re looking for a vehicle with even modest levels of convenience, like power windows, there are better options.