By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
Toyota can get away with it.
What high crime are we dealing with here? It’s more like a misdemeanor: Selling While Old. Or rather, selling a car that’s getting old, that has some pretty dated features (four-speed automatic, anyone? Drum rear brakes?) relative to what’s become common — expected — in the class.
I refer to the Yaris. It’s in no way a bad car — but it’s riding on the fumes of Toyota’s blue chip reputation for quality, durability and high-resale values. If Kia was selling a car with a four-speed automatic, there’d be blood on the floor. Honda would get laughed out of the room. But Toyota does it and people snap ’em up regardless.
That’s how valuable an intangible such as a reputation can be.
But also valuable is, well, value.
The Yaris may not be quite as technologically up to date as some of the newer stuff like the Honda Fit, but it costs nearly $1,000 less to start (a big deal in the $15k-ish to start class) and despite its four-speed automatic (and its standard five-speed manual) vs. the Fit (and others in this class) six speed boxes, the Toyota still manages to deliver class-competitive gas mileage — or close enough to make it a negligible issue, given the low MSRP.
Factor in the blue chip rep, the overall pleasantness of the car — and you begin to see why Toyota gets away with it.
WHAT IT IS
The Yaris is Toyota’s entry-level subcompact, a notch down from the Corolla in both size and price. It’s available as a two or four-door hatchback and lists for $14,845 to start (base L trim with five-speed manual transmission), topping out at $17,620 for an SE trim with the optional four-speed automatic.
Rivals — in terms of price and general layout — include the Kia Rio ($13,990-$18,290), the Nissan Versa Note ($14,180-$18,660), Ford Fiesta )$14,455-$18,805), Chevy Sonic ($14,245-$19,680) and Honda Fit ($15,650-$20,925).
The Yaris is, however, among the smallest of subcompacts in terms of its overall footprint (it’s about four inches shorter, end to end, than a Kia Rio sedan and almost two feet shorter, overall, than a Ford Fiesta) yet has class-competitive room inside (more room, in fact, than the Rio and the Fiesta in the second row).
The ’15 Yaris gets a new front and rear clip as well as some interior enhancements (including a standard touchscreen interface in all trims).
Smaller footprint and turning radius than rivals makes it easier to park/maneuver.
Despite being tiny outside, it has more room inside than several larger-on-the-outside rivals (Fiesta, Rio).
Conventional (hydraulic) automatic is less thrashy (and noisy) than CVT automatics in several rivals.
Two or four-door layouts.
Low entry price, very good gas mileage — excellent rep.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
If you don’t mind a slightly larger-on-the-outside car — and paying slightly more — you can get a lot more room inside by going with a Honda Fit. The Nissan Versa is also roomier — and costs less than the Yaris.
No upgrade engine.
Four-speed automatic crimps mileage potential.
Rep is great but warranty coverage is mediocre.
UNDER THE HOOD
Every Yaris comes standard with a 1.5 liter four generating an advertised 106 hp, working through either a five-speed manual (standard in base trims) or a four-speed automatic (optional).
The manual-equipped version is much quicker than the automatic-equipped version, as is usually the case in small-engined, not-turbocharged cars. With the stick, the Yaris can get to 60 in about 9.2 seconds, a decent time for a car in this class. But with the automatic, it’s in the middle tens — slow for the class.
The reason for the disparity is that with the automatic, the small engine takes a few moments to rev up to where it makes decent power; with a manual, you can rev the engine up into its powerband and then feather out the clutch. In turbocharged cars, The Slows (with the automatic) are averted by the big torque down low generated by force-feeding the engine. This is why — as an example — the Chevy Sonic with its available 1.4 liter turbocharged four gets to 60 in about 8.7 seconds, even quicker than the manual-equipped Yaris. The Chevy’s engine makes 148 ft.-lbs. of torque almost immediately (at near idle speed) while the Toyota’s not-turbo’d four only makes 103 ft.-lbs. and doesn’t make it until the engine spins up to 4,200 RPM. Put another way, you’ve really gotta work a little four (sans turbo) like the Yaris’ four to get a reaction — and even then, the reaction’s pretty tepid.
But on the upside, it’s a simpler engine. No turbo means… no worries about replacing a $4,000 turbo ten years from now when the car’s out of warranty.
Fuel economy with the manual is also slightly better — 30 city, 37 highway vs. 30 city, 36 highway for the automatic-equipped Yaris. This would have been considered usual/typical five or so years ago — when manual-equipped versions of any given car typically delivered better mileage than the same car with an automatic. But lately, automatic-equipped versions do better — chiefly because most modern automatics have six (or more) forward gears and are very efficient in terms of their ability to shift up or down at exactly the right moment, every time, than a manual controlled by a human. Efficiency losses are even less with continuously variable (CVT) automatics — which you’ll find in the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. In those cars, the automatic versions get the best mileage (40 or better on the highway in both cases).
Still, the Yaris remains close enough to be competitive — especially in view of its low MSRP, which savings makes up for a couple or three MPGs at the pump.
ON THE ROAD
Perspectives change with time — and conditions.
Compared with a ’90s-era economy subcompact like the Geo Metro (remember that one?) the 10-seconds-to 60 Yaris is downright speedy. But compared with its rivals today, it’s on the slowish side. You can keep the pedal to the metal for something like 90 seconds before the car approaches speeds that would get you into trouble if a cop happened to be around. 100 or so is possible but takes effort — and patience. Yet, there’s enough juice to hold a steady 80 or so — and that’s as much as one really needs these days.
The car’s chief deficit, performance-wise, is that you can get noticeably better performance in rival cars like the Fit and Rio — and even more so, the (turbo) Sonic and (turbo) Fiesta. Of course, the latter two cost more — but it’s a plus (for them) that such performance is available whereas the Yaris is take it — or leave it.
The optional four-speed automatic works perfectly well; in some ways, works better than the CVT automatics in rivals like the Fit and Versa. CVTs are — almost inevitably — more obstreperous than conventional automatics. They are designed to keep the engine’s revs up — counterintuitively, this is an aid to efficiency — with the side effect that the engine often seems to be working very hard to maintain the car’s speed. With a conventional automatic, the engine RPMs are (generally) kept low by the shifting up to a higher gear as the car accelerates. This reduces RPM and thus, noise.
The main functional criticism one can lay at the feet of the Yaris’ four-speed box is that the Yaris’ mileage would probably be a lot better if it had six rather than just four speeds.
That said, the Yaris is an enjoyable-to-drive car, with excellent all-around visibility due to its “box” design that surrounds the cabin with proportionately large glass area, especially the very big (for such a small car) windshield. Toyota has also done a great job maintaining rearward and to the side visibility — both of which are often not-so-great in other cars.
All but sporty-themed SE trims have a softer-than-most suspension, which is a plus unless you drive at a pace faster than the flow of traffic. Small cars are often on the bouncy-side of the aisle, but the Yaris’ ride is pleasantly compliant. SEs (which come with more aggressive 16 inch wheels in lieu of the otherwise standard 15s and different suspension tuning — as well as four wheel disc brakes) are noticeably firmer riding, but they are also more stable when cornering at faster-than-flow-of-traffic speeds.
AT THE CURB
All the cars in this class are technically subcompacts, but the Yaris is to the left (smaller) side of the continuum — with models like the Fiesta and Sonic far to the right.
At just 155.5 inches end to end, the Yaris is 18.1 inches shorter overall than the Fiesta (173.6 inches) , 17.6 inches longer than the Sonic and about 6 inches shorter than the Fit (160 inches) and Rio (159.3 inches). So it’s easier to fit in tight spots (aided by a turning circle of just 31.5 feet vs. 34.4 for the Fiesta and 35.1 for the Fit; even the Rio — which is also small — has a pretty wide turning circle: 33.5 feet).
And yet it’s not as tight as you might think inside.
In fact it’s less tight inside than it is in some of the Yaris’ larger-footprint rivals.
For instance, the nearly two-feet-longer Fiesta: It has 31.2 inches of legroom in the second row… as compared with 33.3 in the Yaris sedan. The Kia Rio’s got 31.1 inches. Both the Honda Fit and the Nissan Versa Note beat the Yaris on backseat legroom (39.3 and 38.3 inches, respectively) but — again — both of them have a larger exterior footprint and so ought to have more room inside.
Yaris sedan also has 15.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind its second row — vs. just 12.8 for the Fiesta, 14.9 for the Chevy Sonic and 15 even for the Kia Rio. The Nissan Versa and Honda Fit are champs (18.8 and 16.6 cubes, respectively) but — again — they ought to be roomier, given how much larger overall they are.
The face (and ass) lift have improved the car’s looks, made it less cringy than it used to be. And the interior ambiance has been bumped up from coach to coach-plus. A new-design dash is finished in softer plastic with some give to it and beyond the merely tactile/visual enhancements, there are functional ones too — such as the additional storage/key cubbies provided throughout the cabin (including a very cleverly positioned hand-sized one on the top left of the dash and the newly standard-across-the-line 6.1 inch LCD touchscreen input for the audio rig, which includes Bluetooth streaming capability and USB plug.
There are only a few controls and gauges — it’s a simple car — and they are old-school easy to use. Three big rotary dials for the temperature fan/outlet settings. Speed, tach and fuel gauge.
What else do you need?
If you want more, it’s available. Including heated seats, projector beam headlights, LED running lamps, piano black trim and leather accents. GPS is available as a dealer-installed accessory. These are features that — just ten years ago — would have been as unimaginable in this class as a porterhouse steak served on China at McDonalds. No in-car Wi-fi, though. (You can get that in the Sonic).
The truth is there’s no such thing as an “economy” car anymore. Yaris or otherwise. There are economical cars, certainly. But that’s a horse of a different color.
Ask anyone old enough to remember what a real “economy” car was like. A Chevy Chevette, say. In comparison, a car like the Yaris is a downsized Lexus.
While AC is standard, four-wheel-disc brakes are not. Like the Yaris’ optional four-speed automatic, the standard disc/drum set-up is a bit behind the times. But, both are also simpler (and so, less expensive) to manufacture and (big thing) service. With drum brakes, there are no costly calipers to freeze up. Wheel cylinders, yes — but they are much cheaper to replace if need be. The Yaris’ four-speed automatic almost certainly would cost you less to replace/rebuild than the latest six-speed/CVT automatics. And hey, it’s a Toyota. Probably the transmission (and wheel cylinders) won’t ever need to be replaced. Not for a long time, anyhow.
That’s not in the press kit materials, but it’s as much a selling point as cargo space, backseat legroom and EPA mileage stats.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The competition is definitely beginning to nip at this Toyota’s heels. The Honda Fit (just redesigned) is more modern, has a hugely roomy interior (and a rear seat that folds/stows everywhich way, just about). The Fiesta and Sonic offer peppy — and efficient turbocharged engines. The Kia Rio, something very similar overall for less money ($13,990 to start) with a much better warranty.
But that rep, that rep.
For Toyota People, there simply is no substitute. And that explains why a car that would otherwise be a second choice on the merits manages to remain the only choice for so many people.