Editor's note: This review was written in March 2015 about the 2015 Toyota Yaris. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2016, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The restyled 2015 Toyota Yaris packs undeniable value, but the driving experience and a lot of other aspects feel half-baked.
Visual updates for 2015 keep Toyota's subcompact hatchback mildly interesting, and it handles a lot better than its humble pedigree suggests. But there's little to praise beyond that. Shoppers on a tight budget will find the base Yaris has generous standard features, but once you move up a trim level or two, better choices for similar money exist.
The Yaris comes as a two- or four-door hatchback, though both have identical dimensions. Trim levels include the L, LE and four-door-only SE, which you can compare here. The three-door L and SE can be had with manual or automatic transmissions, while other trims are only available with the automatic. We tested an automatic SE.
Exterior & Styling
Slapped with a mammoth, five-sided opening that joins the top and bottom grille, the new Yaris carries an assertive expression that the 2012-2014 model did not (compare them here). SE models have fog lights, LED daytime running lights and a rear spoiler, but even the L and LE have body-colored mirrors and door handles — a degree of uniformity absent from last year's Yaris, whose base trim screamed "cheap."
At just 155.5 inches long with a 31.5-foot turning circle, the Yaris' urban-friendly dimensions are smaller than most competitors by a healthy margin. Unfortunately, the SE trim level's 16-inch alloy wheels and unique steering ratio balloon the turning circle to an unremarkable 36.1 feet, and no trim level offers a backup camera — a crucial provision for city drivers that the rival Honda Fit includes standard.
How It Drives
The Yaris' tiny, 106-horsepower four-cylinder engine has adequate, if unrefined, chutzpah. Thanks to quick gas-pedal response, the drivetrain provides its power early for peppy starts around town. Extra passengers or any highway passing, however, require most of the engine's reserves — a situation where rivals like the Honda Fit and Chevrolet Sonic leave some power on tap. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but our test car's optional four-speed automatic had a one-size-fits-all approach to acceleration that was a few steps behind the competition. Find a highway on-ramp and the engine churns loudly through each endless gear; at 60 mph or so, the only kickdown option from 4th is 3rd, and that makes it a buzzy slog to 70 mph. Most competitors have continuously variable automatic transmissions or six-speed automatics; the Yaris' gearbox is behind the times.
EPA gas mileage with the automatic is 30/36/32 mpg city/highway/combined. That matches or beats the automatic-equipped Korean and American competition, but it's well short of the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa Note and Mitsubishi Mirage, all of which feature CVTs. That the Yaris' numbers are even this good is a testament to its curb weight, which is lighter than every major competitor save the featherweight Mirage. To improve the mileage, Toyota's overdue to implement a better transmission and direct fuel injection, to name just two common technologies.
With its 16-inch alloy wheels (other trims have 15s), the Yaris SE handles bumps well enough at lower speeds, but highway travel exposes poor overall isolation, with a wheelbase that's too short for the front axle to sort out a disruption before the rear encounters the same thing. The SE-specific steering wheel feels securely weighted at highway speeds, but undulating pavement makes for a turbulent highway routine. Pervasive road and wind noise worsen the experience, despite Toyota's claims of more noise insulation for 2015. This is how subcompacts used to behave; the Fit, Sonic and Ford Fiesta prove that entry-level cars can ride better. Toyota has work to do.
Fling the Yaris into a corner and the steering delivers unexpectedly sharp, immediate directional changes, with none of the soupy vagueness that plagues some competitors (Mitsubishi Mirage, I'm looking at you). After a few degrees of initial body roll, the suspension quells the leaning with predictable consistency, and it's relatively easy to slide the Yaris' tail around — a degree of handling balance that's rare in this league. Strong, linear stopping power comes courtesy of the SE's four-wheel disc brakes. L and LE models have rear drums, not to mention separate steering tuning — both differences that may blunt the driving fun.
The interior mixes decent materials with plenty of cheaper plastics at eye level, but there's padding in areas that count, like the door inserts and armrests. Still, features like a telescoping steering wheel and center armrest were missing in our test car — more yesteryear thinking, especially when today's competition has them.
Some may find the front seats' bottom cushions too small; I could have used some more thigh support over a four-hour stretch in the car. Taller adults may also find limited seat travel; my 6-foot frame needed the chair almost all the way back. If you share the car with someone who prefers a different seat height, the standard height adjuster uses a rickety pump lever that's in a narrow canyon between the seat and the door. Pumping it is an easy way to pinch your fingers.
Legroom is good in back, and the rear seat sits higher off the floor than in many small cars, affording adults decent support.
Ergonomics & Electronics
It's nice to see a touch-screen stereo as standard equipment, but various features feel half-baked. The optional dealer-installed navigation system lacks the swiping and zooming capabilities found in many in-car navigation systems and smartphones. Its physical shortcut buttons include the all-important volume and tuning knobs, but the Bluetooth system requires you to accept or rejecting calls via controls on the screen itself, rather than buttons on the more conventional (and convenient) steering-wheel location.
Cargo & Storage
Storage areas incorporate plenty of cubbies around the dashboard, including one to the upper left of the steering wheel, but the cupholders remain wedged below the climate controls — an onerous location if you have a large travel mug.
Cargo room behind the backseat totals 15.6 cubic feet (15.3 cubic feet in two-door models), which is on the small side for this group. Toyota doesn't furnish specs for maximum cargo room with the seats folded.
Despite its nine standard airbags, the Yaris scored marginal in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's small-overlap frontal crash test. (IIHS scores are good, acceptable, marginal and poor.) The Yaris earned good scores across four other IIHS tests. Toyota's scores reflect an indictment of the subcompact class overall. Of more than 10 entry-level cars subjected to IIHS' small-overlap test, only one — the 2015 Honda Fit — scored acceptable, and none scored good.
Other standard features include the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Click here for a full list.
Value in Its Class
Strong reliability for the current generation will justify the Yaris for some shoppers. So will its value, given that around $16,800 gets you an automatic, four-door Yaris L with power windows and locks, air conditioning, a touch-screen stereo and Bluetooth. For the same features, most competitors run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to nearly $2,000 more.
But the justifications are difficult from there. The Yaris LE and SE ask for Fit or Fiesta money, yet both those cars are superior choices in terms of features and drivability (albeit dismal reliability for the Fiesta). The Sonic is quicker, and the Nissan Versa Note is roomier. The Mirage is neither, but it gets 25 percent better predicted gas mileage. The Yaris will get lost in the shuffle, as it probably should. Better subcompacts exist, and the alternatives only snowball when you consider late-model used cars.
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