On the Road Review: Toyota Yaris LE

A certain irony occurs with almost every review vehicle that is sampled. As I ply the roads of Maine, it seems coincidental that there appear to be many more samples of the car or truck that I am driving for that week that are met in traffic. Oh, these vehicles are always there, but they just seem to stand out when you are driving the same car and those drivers seem to stare at you.

Unfortunately, there are occasionally new cars where you meet no other traffic that looks like you, or worse, notices you. The Dodge Dart comes to mind (who do you know that owns a Dart?) as does this week’s Toyota Yaris.

The Yaris, built in France for here and other world markets, is Toyota’s three-door and five-door subcompact entry targeting a lengthy list of rivals: Chevy Sonic and Spark, Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa and Note, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, Mazda 2, as well as Toyota’s own Prius C and Scion brand small cars. Throw in the VW Golf or Mini Cooper models into this mix and you can see that this is a large group of small competitors fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie.

That’s right, if you watch new car sales data, small cars are not exactly hot sellers right now. While the Yaris is virtually alone in the segment this year, with modest sales gains due to its list of upgrades, small cars as a rule are seeing less showroom traffic and slower sales than a year ago as buyers again gravitate to crossovers — of all sizes — as well as pickup trucks. Lower fuel prices help this equation, but buyers generally prefer the spacing and functionality of crossovers/SUVs/trucks over small cars given free and open markets with choice.

Toyota has positioned the Yaris as an urban/commuter car for buyers who are not enthusiast drivers, but who seek a means to go places. Toyota’s research indicates many Yaris buyers own at least one other car, maybe two, however they are attracted to the Yaris for price and economy, as well as the car’s versatility as a three-door or five-door hatchback. Styling, fun, and safety are buying considerations too, but minority priorities. With 60 percent college-educated, and the median buyers’ age of 40 years old, the Yaris dynamics are not all that different from other small cars or for Toyota hybrids as a rule.

There are three Yaris trim levels. Toyota claims that the base L, $14,845 with the five-speed manual, accounts for 40 percent of sales. Mid-level LE (our silver tester, $17,885 as shown with the 4-speed automatic) is 45 percent of overall Yaris sales, while the top SE is selected by 15 percent of buyers. Sales through the end of April, the last numbers available at this writing, were 7,477 units year to date, a gain of 25 percent. Nissan’s Versa is currently the small car sales leader, with Chevy’s Sonic a close second.

The absence of a tachometer tells you a lot about the Yaris and its target audience. “A means to go places” signifies empty nesters or young drivers unconcerned about engine performance, but a desire to efficiently move oneself from a place to another. The car is a transportation tool, not unlike the train, the bus or the taxi.

However, there are some misses (and hits) that provide contrast to the Yaris’s mission. All Yaris models now come standard with Toyota’s Entune audio system. There are steering wheel controls, and USB jacks, but no satellite radio on the standard 6-inch screen. The steering wheel, a nice responsive unit with nimble handling, lacks any telescoping action so tall drivers are faced with a long arm reach to the wheel, or, cramped legs. The LCD info panel in the instrument cluster relays more data than usual (for small cars) and is easy to access.

There is no back-up camera, but nine airbags are now standard. The front seats are more supportive, but the rear seats do not fold flat when reclined for cargo. The four-speed automatic is dated, and several gears down to more modern transmissions, yet our net mileage for the week was 35.9 mpg — almost exactly the EPA highway rating; 30/36/32-mpg are the EPA projections. In this case, less is more.

The engine is peaky, laboring loudly when pressed, yet the whole car was relatively subdued at highway speeds and performed better on cruise control than several recent small car offerings relying on those multi-speed transmissions for fuel economy. In fact, there were few if any comments about the Yaris’s ride, handling or driving acumen other than the car has a wicked tiny turning radius and is downright spritely (106 hp, but only 2,400 pounds) when squirting through urban traffic. Seems like the planned suspension changes worked out well.

Toyota also altered the Yaris’s front fascia — a Euro influence — while the sound deadening initiatives paid off handsomely. While not Lexus-like quiet, the Yaris is more pleasant on a long drive than the likes of the Mazda 2 or Ford Fiesta.

At 154 inches long on a 99-inch wheelbase, the Yaris is barely larger than a Mini Cooper. A Prius C hybrid is almost the exact same size, as is the aforementioned Mazda. The Sonic, Fiesta, Versa and Accent are all larger by a few inches.

With a new face, new features, and more safety the Yaris seems well positioned to maintain its status as one of Toyota’s most reliable, dependable cars — regardless of size. Whether the market forces will change enough for the sub-compact Yaris to be a popular seller like Camry and Corolla remains to be seen.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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