2007 Toyota Yaris - test drive
The Toyota Yaris was one of our more pleasant surprises. Yes, the interior is downright cheap - with center-mounted gauges (a single dial on base models, coupled with cold and hot lights and an eight-bar gas level indicator), and a cheap/buzzy feel. But compared with the first generation (the Echo), there were also big differences, like nimble cornering, a feeling of more space, a more upscale exterior (modeled on the Camry), and a far more responsive powertrain. The engine is buzzy and loud, but it is also surprisingly peppy, especially considering that it has to push forward through an automatic transmission.
The engine makes decent power starting around 3,000 rpm, and can accelerate onto the highway as quickly as a reasonably intelligent driver needs it to. Passing was a cinch, and if the Yaris isn't a Hemi Charger, well, it doesn't need to be, at least not with over 34 mpg city, and 39 mpg highway (2007 numbers, to be adjusted in 2008). While the Yaris and Corolla have similar mileage now, the Yaris is no longer such a poor compromise – buzzy and noisy it remains, but it's now actually a fun, tossable little car, with its own charms to go along with its own shortcomings. The only real problem with the engine was its aural resemblance to a sewing machine.
As long as we're talking about acceleration – the Yaris almost invariably lept forward from a standstill or from just about any speed from rolling to the faster highways. At higher speeds it didn't perform quite as well, but was still sprightly and more than sufficient for anyone not competing in a race. From a dead stop, the Yaris was surprisingly responsive, and seemed to enjoy jumping forward. The transmission helped, instantly and firmly downshifting when needed, otherwise making silky smooth and gentle shifts. The one exception was a little hairy, when the transmission prematurely upshifted, refused to go back, and left us with tepid acceleration while merging onto a highway, even though the pedal was pushed to the floor. That happened once in a week of driving, and we could not reproduce it.
The engine makes 106 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, with 103 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm, a good balance; and the torque curve seems fairly flat, so you don't need to rev to the redline to get any power. Some drivers will keep the gas pedal buried, but the Yaris will usually come through with over 30 mpg anyway. 0-60 times varied from a bit over 10 seconds to nearly 11 seconds, which is not bad, especially with an automatic; and it feels faster, which is often more important. The quarter mile can come in under 17 seconds, a time that required a V6 or turbocharger in cars about this size not very long ago. Stopping is incredibly quick, and you might just be able to out-brake a new police cruiser (yes, even a Charger). Just don't try to outrun one of those Hemi Charger squads. (Really. They have these things called “radio” and “high-speed pursuit training.”)
The ride is comfortable, if not plush; it’s on the firm side but still forgiving of nasty pavement. Interior noise is generally held down admirably well especially for the class; stability in strong winds is big-car-good. Emergency maneuvers come out well though understeer (not turning as much as requested due to loss of front-tire traction) can be a problem under pressure, and oversteer could also show up, oddly enough. Steering is less than ideal, sometimes overly tight and sometimes just a bit dead-feeling, with the electric power steering probably causing some less than ideal characteristics. Whether most people will notice, well, that's another question. We're paid to pay attention to these things, and we doubt the average person on the street will care.
What is really amazing about the Yaris is the long list of standard equipment and technology – not just frilly consumer items, but engineering and safety features. The engine is a 1.5 liter four-cylinder which fits in the engine bay with considerable room to spare, but it uses variable valve technology with valve-lift control to generate power at just about all engine speeds, while still maintaining commendable gas mileage – and generating relatively few pollutants. The four-speed automatic is electronically controlled and has anti-hunting and other features, so most of the time it seems to simply read the driver's mind, shifting gently or firmly depending on need. The front suspension is fully independent, using the common MacPherson struts; the rear suspension uses torsion beams, the cheaper way of building it that was so criticized in American cars through the 1990s. Power steering is electronic, as is the throttle control system, giving the Yaris throttle-by-wire. The front uses ventilated disc brakes, the rear drums. Wheels are mounted on 14 inch wheels, rather than the 13-inchers of economy cars past.
A surprising number of comfort features are standard – air conditioning, driver's side seat height adjustment (admittedly, it's manual), tilt steering, intermittent wipers (with one intermittent setting), remote side mirrors (mechanically adjusted), an in-glass antennta, and remote trunk and gas cap releases, which are missing from some cars costing twice as much. While many amenities are absent, including an instrument panel actually placed in front of the driver instead of in the center of the dashboard, a fuel gauge, usable cup-holders, power locks, and cruise control, for example, the overall basic package is not bad for $13,000 or so. Most people can either live without those features – or get them as part of an option package.
The interior is plain, bordering on cheap. Our test vehicle was outfitted in the "acres of black plastic" style, made all the more stark by the lack of an instrument panel in front of the driver. At night the rheostat, power mirror controls, and door-mounted controls are not lit, leaving a single pool of illumination in the center, which is disconcerting for a while. The stylists did at least put a lot of effort into prettying the speedometer backlighting, and keeping the brightness of the various indicators even.
Most of the styling effort was placed in the center stack, which starts with the small instrument panel – enlarged since the Echo, with a good-sized speedometer but no other gauges unless the optional tachometer is installed. Beneath that, a silver bezel relieves the darkness of the car – if you got the Power Package with its trim upgrade. The stereo is definitely meant to stay, with no aftermarket replacements likely in that space; it takes up about twice the space of even a standard Detroit double-height unit, spreading out a fairly small number of buttons on both sides of a large display that is no more informative than usual. That display uses LCDs, backlit at night, and sometimes washed out during the day.
Our test stereo was optional, as is every stereo – the Yaris comes only with four pre-wired speakers, not a stereo head unit (though these don't make it into the fleet, we assume they come with a more conventional opening for a normal stereo, which is probably a better choice.) The stereo came with the power package, and has FM, CD, an auxiliary jack (smartly placed in a bin so it could be with the iPod), and controls for navigating through data discs containing MP3 or WMA files. The sound was pretty good, though bass tended to be muddy and thumpy. The stereo, unusually, remembered audio characteristics (bass, treble, etc) on a station by station basis, which is convenient for those who listen to both music and talk radio.
Underneath the stereo was a trio of moderately kitschy silver knobs for climate control, with a mechanical feel and a mechanical sound when turned; the center buttons on two controlled a/c and the rear defroster. The fan was oddly placed with the larger control turning recirculation on or off, and the smaller one adjusting the quiet vent fan. Otherwise the system was conventional in its use, if more mechanical-feeling than most.
The gearshift also had a silver bezel, and provided places for selecting each of the four gears individually; however, the gate system provided to be ineffective at its real functions, which are preventing accidental use of Reverse and letting drivers easily select Drive. It was all too easy to move into third gear, and the gating seems to have been a gimmick more than anything else.
There were a number of storage places, including two cubbies on either side of the center stack, large and deep enough to be truly convenient but not padded, so that hard objects slide around and rattle; and map pockets on both front doors and on the back of the front seats. There was also a small center console, the usual Toyota bin under the rheostat, and a glove compartment.
The driver's side cupholder is awkwardly placed in a fold-out gizmo to the left of the steering wheel, where any liquid that spills can go right into the rheostat and (if equipped) power mirror control. The passenger side cupholder is placed at the other end of the car, though it works a little better there. Provision is made for different sized cups.
The interior had good gap control, but rattles came from enough places to make us think that the Yaris might just some issues there – both sides of the car and the cowl. Some people care about that, others don't, and we don’t think it's reflective of overall quality.
Back seats were comfortable for those less than 5'11", with plenty of leg and hip room but headroom restriction from the downslope of the roof.
Overall, we had few complaints with the Yaris, and a lot of fun. The tilt wheel did not come up enough for our taste, but since the only way to make the seat comfortable was to recline more than usual, thanks to deep side bolsters, that turned out not to be a problem. Larger people might find the seats less comfortable than smaller people; the Yaris doesn't seem to have been especially Americanized, though that is one of the ways they can sell it at this price. It was fairly easy to get used to the center-mounted speedometer, though the eight-bar LCD-based gas gauge still strikes us as a poor place to save money. The stubby emergency brake was hard to use, awkwardly positioned and easily slipping out of our hands, especially with gloves on. Likewise, the sun visors didn't seem to have gotten much attention, and were lacking in a telescope feature or slideouts for extra coverage.
Countering those problems we have a fun to drive, sporty little car, with a peppy little engine that seems to enjoy revving and rolling, good enough cornering with a fun feel, enough comfort features to keep us happy, a strong reputation for reliability, and of course that guilt-free 34 mpg city, 39 highway that you actually have a chance of getting that you actually have a chance of getting.
Our test car ran to a hefty $16,840, thanks to lots of optional equipment; for that price, you can get a nice Corolla, or a more solid-feeling Chevy Cobalt, which is also a fun little car (and because people seem to blindly blunder into Honda Civics, you can get 'em cheap). The extra $4,000 or so mostly went towards the power package, which at $2,175 encompasses some things that make a difference, and some that don't – specifically, power locks, antilock brakes, power windows, power outside mirrors, stereo, cruise, split fold-down rear seat, upgraded interior trim, rear defroster, and tachometer, and 15-inch alloy wheels. Less pricey are front and rear side curtain airbags with front seat-mounted side airbags at $650; the unnecessary and overpriced rear spoiler with LED stop lamp at $435; remote keyless entry at $230; carpeted floor and cargo mats at $150; and the all-weather package at $70, the bargain of the bunch, providing a larger washer tank with a level warning, luggage door and back door trim, heavy duty heater (which worked fast and was powerful indeed), rear heat duct, and heavy duty starter.
Overall, we really did like the Yaris, and found it fun and practical – enough to forgive an interior which was cheaper-looking than we think it had to be and some other gripes. If you like comfort more than a quick, light feel, or if the 13-cubic-foot trunk and pretty-big interior just aren’t big enough, you may well find the Corolla makes a lot more sense, and it’s not much more expensive. The Chevrolet Aveo (jointly engineered in Korea and Michigan) and Hyundai Accent are both considerably cheaper, too. The Honda Fit, which is most often picked over the Yaris in car reviews, isn't any faster, doesn't do the slalom as quickly, doesn't stop as quickly, and costs more; we’re not sure what’s going on there. Reviewers do often judge from a “we don’t like these little econoboxes” high horse that may just introduce some bias.
No matter what you pick, though, be careful with that options list. It isn't hard to knock a car up a couple of price classes...especially when the Yaris and Corolla are close together to begin with.