CAIRO, Ill. -- Crossing the Mississippi River on the lofty I-87 span at Cairo, we're tripping into southern Illinois steering a cutie little Toyota car which conforms as a notchback-style four-door sedan with a streamlined-stubby body outside and a surprisingly spacious cabin inside with seats for as many as five riders.
Sized for the subcompact class and riding on a car's chassis with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction format, the slick Toyota bears the name badge of Yaris.
And the model we're driving carries the S (as in Sport) equipment package which adds foglamps, air dams, sill extensions and spoilers to the body and sport seats in the cockpit with a leather-bound steering wheel and shift knob, remote keyless entry device and power controls for all windows and door locks and the pair of exterior mirrors.
Yaris looks cool in a racy way, although its price tag even with S package equipment aboard barely breaks $19,000.
Actually, Yaris is the low-price leader in Toyota's 2011 line of cars and it's the fuel economy champ too, excluding Toyota's hybrids.
Pricing for a Yaris base sedan begins at $13,615.
Toyota also configures the Yaris as a curvy tall liftback in three-door and five-door versions, with price points dipping even lower.
MSRP for a 2011 Yaris liftback three-door is only $12,855, or $13,155 for the five-door.
The Sport Package for either liftback variation or sedan adds about $3,205 more to the bottom line.
With its small-fry scale and pint-size engine, Yaris earns money-saving fuel economy figures.
Through independent testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a Yaris equipped with the manual five-speed gearbox comes up with frugal fuel consumption numbers like 29 miles per gallon for city driving and as much as 36 mpg on the highway.
With the optional four-speed automatic transmission aboard, fuel scores total to 29 miles per gallon in town and 35 on the road.
For anyone who must commute some distance each day to work or school, high fuel economy figures like these could have a significant impact in deflating an annual fuel tab.
Actually, it's rock-solid as a substantial vehicle that's quite comfortable and downright fun to drive.
The platform for Yaris feels extremely rigid, no doubt because of multiple crossmembers and braces in place.
A compliant suspension includes stiff MacPherson struts in front and a hydroformed torsion beam in back which brings anti-roll stabilization.
Tuned steering gear ratios in the rack and pinion steering system set up agile maneuverability, and a turning circle of only 30.8 feet (liftback) or 32.6 feet (sedan) sets Yaris on top of the class.
Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Yaris, with dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above front and rear outboard seats, as well as front seatbelt pretensioners with force limiters, height-adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts in all five seating positions.
Standard on all editions is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA), plus a vehicle stability control (VSC) device and Traction Control (TRAC).
For motivation Yaris totes a highly efficient 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cam (DOHC) design.
Constructed from lightweight aluminum and plastic composites, the plant features direct ignition and an electronic throttle plus sophisticated combustion controls for a multi-valve system.
Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) device works to balance the power output with thrifty fuel economy. The engine reaches to 106 hp at 6000 rpm and 104 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
Further, the EPA has certified Yaris and its 1.5-liter engine with the designation of ULEV II as an Ultra-Low Emission vehicle.
Yaris configured as a four-door sedan rides on a longer version of the platform, with a 100.4-inch wheelbase versus 96.9 inches for both of the liftback versions. The sedan has an overall length of 169.3 inches compared to 150.6 inches for liftbacks, and its roofline is 2.5 inches lower than the liftbacks at 57.5 inches tall.
Yaris the sedan reveals a wedge-shaped profile and arching beltline plus a dramatic sloped face composed of a large raked-back windshield and brief hood accented by oversized halogen headlamp clusters flanking a terse T-shaped grille.
Virtually all body parts are tinted to the same shade in monochromatic mode, save for a few streaks of black trim such as on center pillars separating side window sections or surrounds for front grilles and foglamps.
Yaris feels fun to drive, particularly in an urban environment on city streets. It zips to speed with a quick run through the lower gears, while handling seems acute with the responsive steering conducive to quick-cut maneuvers.
More fun comes on the inside with the two buckets up front pitched on either side of a console, and a bench in back with room for three.
Cargo space with rear seats upright in liftback versions amounts to 9.53 cubic feet. With the seatback folded, Yaris has a spacious back bay of 25.7 cubic feet.
The sedan has a trunk which measures to 13.7 cubic feet in volume with the rear bench seatback split 60/40.
The instrument cluster mounts at the top center of the dashboard, leaving the area immediately in front of a small and sporty steering wheel airy and uncluttered. Gauges glow with vivid orange-on black faces.
Big and easy-to-reach audio and climate controls appear on the center dash stack, while storage spaces dot the cabin including the center console with multiple cupholders.
Standard features on Yaris range from air conditioning and a tilting steering wheel to intermittent wipers and adjustable front seats.
Yaris S models carry the front and rear spoilers plus a tail spoiler, foglamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and audio gear with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA and a mini-jack port for iPod connectivity.