The spicy red 2009 Yaris S five-door I tested last week, with its wide, roof spoiler and snappy 1.5 liter four-cylinder, is every bit the competent economy car. It’s typical Toyota-quiet, has a smooth suspension, excellent lateral seat support, and returned about 26 miles per gallon in my 195-mile test of mixed driving. But when compared to the sportier Honda Fit and the all-wheel-drive capable Suzuki SX4 Crossover, our top-level $17,515 Yaris is pricey for what it lacks.
* No seat height adjustment. It’s standard on Staples office chairs, but not in the Yaris. Thankfully, the ample headroom makes up for it.
* No navigation. Neither the crudely drawn maps of the Fit, nor the standard removable Garmin unit in the SX4.
* No manual mode. The Fit offers a 5-speed automatic with paddle shifters that let the driver bang the tachometer to its rev-limiter, which brings some real entertainment to this class. Toyota’s four-speed shifts smoother, however, and its widely-spaced gear ratios don’t make you call for another overdrive.
* No trip computer. The center-mounted instrument panel reeks of Scion, and while some may like it, it’s a chore to avert your eyes to the right instead of straight ahead (the Mini Cooper is equally guilty of this distraction). It’s easy to read, but there’s no trip computer – not even a fuel economy readout. The tire pressure monitoring system has a warning light, but makes you guess which tire is low. Considering how cheap it is these days to display OBD information, this was a big surprise.
* Strange vertical dashboard. On the hatchback, the three large circular HVAC dials are arranged like a traffic light. It’s frustrating to reach so far down to adjust the temperature, and hazardous if you attempt to glance at it while driving. The radio tuning knob is also a multifunction disaster – it slides in four directions, pushes inward, and twists. When you’re trying to adjust the bass, you’ll slide the knob by mistake, switching your iPod track. A very deft hand is required.
These wouldn’t be obvious shortcomings had I not driven a 2009 Fit Sport, which offered quicker turn-in, a firmer suspension, a faster-revving engine, and innovative fold-up rear seats, which allow cargo to lie flat on the floor. Granted, not everyone wants a harsher ride, but in terms of driving enjoyment, the little Honda is the supercar of the subcompact class.
The 2009 Suzuki SX4 Crossover with optional all-wheel-drive is a great value for around $18,000. The ability to switch from two-wheel to four-wheel to four-wheel lock is unheard of in this class, and the SX4 plowed through some deep snow this winter without any fuss. With heated seats (which the Yaris doesn’t offer), it’s an ideal economy car to blaze the blizzard-caked roads of New England.
The $12,205 base price for the manual 3-door Yaris is quite attractive, though it doesn’t include power windows and locks. Still, despite some glaring omissions and setbacks, the Yaris feels substantial. The doors close with a reassuring weight, and don’t sound tinny like the Nissan Versa (which is dirt cheap at $9,990). The backseat includes headrests for all three seating positions, and the smallish cargo area swallowed a huge, two-foot wide suitcase for a quick trip to Logan Airport. Side-view mirrors are large, the rear quarters largely unobstructed. Thirsty junk collectors like myself appreciate the seven large storage bins spanning the dashboard (two are the size of gloveboxes), and large cupholders in every door pocket.
When a redesigned model arrives sometime in 2011, it should be more refined and ripe for Toyota’s hybrid powertrain (read more about the possible Yaris Hybrid here). Until then, keep your wallet trained on the Honda or Suzuki.