Toyota’s Yaris has been a regular fixture on the Canadian scene since it was introduced in 2003 as the Echo, and it was among the first sub-compacts to gain respect and a foothold in the Canadian market.
But the competition has increased by leaps and bounds with all-new product from Japan, South Korea and "Detroit", all of which are more current.
One look at the list of competitors and you can see what the Yaris is up against:
Chrysler (Fiat 500), Ford (Fiesta), GM (Sonic), Honda (Fit), Hyundai (Accent), Kia (Rio), Mazda (Mazda2) and Nissan (Versa). All but the Fit are new or have been seriously upgraded in the past 18 months.
In an attempt to stay in the game, Toyota gave the Yaris a new set of clothes on a slightly bigger body for 2012.
To my eyes, it's a lot better looking, with sharp creases and angles replacing the jellybean shape of the outgoing model. The overrall effect is a more masculine appearance.
The Yaris comes in three trim levels and four-door sedan and three and five-door hatchback configurations.
The hatchback, which is the subject of this test, is 500-mm shorter than the sedan, rides on a 50-mm shorter wheelbase.
The new model is also 35-kilos lighter than the previous version thanks to the use of aluminum in some areas.
As much as the exterior appearance has been upgraded the interior has been transformed.
The new Yaris has a contemporary instrument panel with the speedometer where it belongs – in front of the driver instead of an imaginary centre passenger.
It also now has MP3 playback capability and USB and auxiliary inputs – which have become standardsin the class.
In addition to the design, the materials used are vastly improved as well. There is a contrasting slash of light grey accent trim for a visual break and soft touch surfaces replace the hard plastic used in the outgoing model.
The HVAC controls are a trio of rotary knobs – easy to decipher and operate.
My mid-level LE had a $1,100 "convenience package" that included the features most buyers will expect: air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise and remote keyless entry.
Unfortunately it also had that annoying Toyota "feature" of a warning light to inform you there is someone in the passenger seat and that airbag is activated. A warning light should be used as a warning, to advise of a problem!
One unique feature that deserves praise is the single windshield wiper. It clears an amazing amount of glass and reduces complexity and weight. Neat! It also utilizes what is known in the industry as a "wet arm" which means the windshield fluid is sprayed from the arm instead of jets on the hood, so the majority of the liquid goes where intended instead of everywhere else.
While the new Yaris, with its 5-cm longer wheelbase, has more interior and cargo space, it in no way could be classified as roomy. Although the five-door I tested is capable of carrying four people in some semblance of comfort.But this is still a small, sub-compact car. Two adults will obviously fit up front, but unless they're a lot smaller than me, they'll will have to move their seats forward to make provision for two others to sit in back,.
The sitution is not helped much by whichever transmission is used – both are at least one gear short of enough. My test car had a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic is optional. The four-speed automatic, in fact, is two gears shy of optimal and competitive.
An additional gear in either would allow a ratio spread that includes lower first and second gears for improved acceleration and a taller top gear for even better fuel economy.
Compounding the problem is a torque peak north of 4,000 rpm so any effort to extract performance requires serious revs – and patience. The Yaris is a happy camper in the city but climbing hills on the open road requires a downshift or two simply to maintain speed. Passing requires a whole lot of empty road and lots of patience.
The good news is lots of black ink on the other side of the ledger. The Yaris is a fuel-sipping dervish. Transport Canada rates it at 5.5 litres per 100 km on the highway. I couldn’t come close to that number but despite my very heavy foot I did manage 7.1 litres/100 over several-hundred kilometres of mixed use.
The Yaris rides like a much larger car. Kudos to the suspension engineers fro managing to make a small, light car, riding on a short wheelbase provide a comfortable ride. It is no sports car in the corners, but will rarely be driven that way.
Toyota has given the Yaris a significant update for 2012 but it may be a case of too little too late in a field where the competition offers much more. On the upside, build-quality, reliability and resale value are unmatched. And that may be enough for many buyers.
My biggest disappointment is the Yaris's engine-transmission combination. The 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine is well into adulthoodf if not senior citizenship and its meagre 106 horsepower output is merely adequate in today's vehicle fleet.