Subcompact five-door sedan offers more to love

2012, Toyota, Yaris

When the architect, Mies Van Der Rohe, said "less is more," he summed up a philosophy which has guided generations, not only of designers but engineers as well. Why use five parts when two will do the same job better?

When Toyota redesigned its subcompact Yaris for the 2012 model year, the objective was, to paraphrase Mies, offering more for less. Available as either a three or five door lift-back, the new Yaris has a roomier interior and cargo area than the models it replaces, yet uses less gasoline.

The new model's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine produces the same horsepower and slightly less torque than the former block, but with better gas mileage: about one mile-per-gallon more around town. Equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, the 2012 Yaris averages 38 mpg on the highway: two miles-per-gallon better than the 2011 model.

Engineers reduced the car's aerodynamic drag with some careful work in the wind tunnel, and also lowered the chassis for better high-speed performance. What this means for the customer is that the new Yaris looks and feels like a more substantial vehicle. Taller passengers will be more comfortable thanks to increased headroom, and buyers with active lifestyles will have a larger cargo area to load their gear into.

Pricing starts just over $14,000 for the three-door version with a five-speed manual transmission. The upscale five-door SE grade with a four-speed automatic transmission begins at $17,200. Prices do not include a $760 delivery charge.

Priced for the real world

As the average transaction price for new vehicles creeps towards $30,000, drivers are finding that buying a new car is significantly more difficult. Stricter financing guidelines don't help.

One of the positive outcomes of the economic down-tic has been a renewed emphasis on affordable cars which don't feel like a compromise. Including convenience features such as remote keyless entry, Bluetooth interface, a MP3 compatible audio system and air conditioning as now standard equipment has become the norm rather than the exception. As a result, the MSRP comes closer to the price out the door.

The test car is the mid-grade five-door LE, priced from $16,100. In addition to the comfort and convenience features listed above, the five-door sedan comes with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, power windows and door locks, nine airbags, and electronic stability control. Toyota even throws in a free tank of gas.

The only options are cruise control ($250) and carpeted floor mats ($180). Price as tested, including the delivery charge is $17,290.

Although a 1.5-liter engine seems small by American standards, it works well in the Yaris due to the car's light curb weight. The automatic version weighs in at a scant 2300 pounds. In former models, its lack of mass impacted the car's high-speed performance. It didn't feel sure-footed on the highway. Lowering the chassis has solved the problem. I felt quite comfortable traveling at speeds up to 80 miles-per-hour.

Acceleration is also improved, especially off-the line. Drivers should have no problems merging out of toll booths, or accelerating into highway traffic. There's enough power on the high end to pass slower vehicles at speed.

Visibility to the front and sides of the car is quite good. I had no problems monitoring traffic in adjacent lanes, thanks to the Yaris' narrow B pillars. The fact that the seatbelt for the center second-row passenger is anchored to the ceiling is annoying, because it bisects the view out the back. I wish engineers had found a better way of anchoring the device into the chassis architecture.

Engineers made the engine run slightly lean, which causes some vibration through the steering wheel at idle. I wasn't bothered by it. The four-speed automatic transmission is well matched to the engine, and progresses smoothly through the gears.

The suspension on all models consists of an independent MacPherson setup in front and torsion beams in the rear. The system works fine on the small chassis. A power electric steering system is well tuned to the car, providing adequate feedback at all speeds. The car's 30.8-foot turning diameter makes it a snap to slip into small parking slots on the street.

The base L and LE grades have front disc and rear drum brakes. Stopping is fine on dry roads, but I hate drums in wet weather. They accumulate water which can make stopping uneven. Drums are also harder to service. Buyers in climates with severe winters should consider the upscale SE grade which comes with four-wheel discs.

Contemporary styling

Styling is much improved throughout the vehicle. Designers used angular lines and larger head and tail lamps to give the Yaris a contemporary, upscale appearance. A strong beltline accentuates the new model's wedge profile.

The difference in interior space is most noticeable in back. There is a surprising amount of room, not only in the outboard positions, but in the middle as well.

The cloth upholstery on the test car is attractive and practical for active buyers who need to clean their car seats on a semi-regular basis. I found lower lumbar support on the driver's seat adequate for a test drive of two hours.

What the interior lacks, however, is pizzazz. When compared to competitive products from Kia, Hyundai, Fiat and Toyota's sister brand, Scion, the Yaris interior seems a bit plain Jane. For example, the center stack screen doesn't display radio song selections, as it might on competitive models. The gearshift lever seems a bit anemic, although I'm sure it's plenty sturdy to do the job.

Front passengers have plenty of cupholders, but three passengers in the second row have to share a single unit in the back of the center console.

The cargo area is fairly spacious for a subcompact car, with plenty of room for groceries, smaller luggage and camping equipment. The second row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor for larger items.

Standard safety

The Toyota Yaris comes with front, side, side curtain and driver's knee airbags, antilock brakes, vehicle stability and traction control. Active front head restraints and a tire pressure monitoring system are standard on all models.

The 2012 Yaris is on display in Toyota dealerships nationwide.

Likes: An attractive, fuel efficient subcompact five-door hatchback with a roomy interior and high level of standard safety features.

Dislike: Lack of cup and bottle holders for rear passengers.

Quick facts:

Make: Toyota Model: Yaris 5-door LE liftback Year: 2012 Base price: $16,100 As tested: $17,290 Horsepower: 106 Hp @ 6000 rpm Torque: 103 lbs.-ft. @ 4200 rpm Zero-to-sixty: N/A Antilock brakes: Standard Side curtain airbags: Standard First aid kit: N/A Bicycle friendly: Yes Off-road: No Towing: No Fuel economy: 30/35 mpg city/highway

By Nina Russin

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Images of the 2012, Toyota Yaris

2012 Toyota Yaris
2012 Toyota Yaris
Contemporary Interior
Contemporary Interior
2012 Toyota Yaris
2012 Toyota Yaris
2012 Toyota Yaris
2012 Toyota Yaris