With gas prices north of $4 a gallon and a crowded clutch of subcompact cars for shoppers to choose from, Toyota has a lot to prove with this 2012 Toyota Yaris. Last year's troubles in Japan and lackluster reception here put the Yaris well back of its peers, with the Kia Soul outselling the Yaris 3-to-1. Now Toyota's promising an "edgier" Yaris, with an ad campaign that drolly announces "It's a car!" Yes, but is it enough of one?
At first glance, its shaper external contours are less polarizing than its pudgy, jellybean predecessor. In other words: less girly, more androgynous. But its mass-market styling anonymously blends into the any grocery-store parking lot, even with the cursory sporty touches on the five-door SE like the tweaked bumper and steel-grey alloy wheels. Toyota did manage to get the body-to-glass ratios correct, something that's difficult on a small car; it's not offensively disproportional like a Versa.
Step inside though and things get better, where Yaris designers pulled off an ergonomically engaging layout. Most of all, that means no more center-mounted speedometer, a frilly feature that drove many would-be buyers to another vehicle. The racier style is more akin to a Scion TC, but the Rubbermaid plastics and hollow-feeling panels still remind you to pick up that MegaMillions ticket. The SE trim does have its highlights: the seats offer solid lateral support, and the compact, leather wrapped steering feels a step above the class. There's great visibility all around, and the Yaris five-door gains a couple inches in wheelbase, contributing to a 68 percent increase in cargo capacity. But in spite of its minibus profile, the stat sheets show it's less useful than a Honda Fit—with the latter having more cargo capacity as well as hip and leg room.
The strengths of the Yaris come to light when you turn the key and start driving. Although not as darty as the go-kart-like Fit with a slower turn-in, its suspension tuning is more refined, despite using a bargain front MacPherson struts and a torsion-beam rear. Understeer comes gradually with mild body roll, and the traction control gently intervenes at the limit, preventing mild increases in heart rate. Unlike some of its subcompact competitors with a semi-independent rear suspension (Hyundai Accent, Kia Soul), the Yaris remains composed even when driving on pothole-ridden roads. Steering is surprisingly responsive and communicative, in contrast to the novacaine-induced feedback typical for competitors. This bodes well, and when you consider Toyota is now run by racecar-driving family heir Akio Toyoda, could be a harbinger for better handling in all future Toyotas.
Whatever fun the suspension wants to have, the engine limits. With 106 hp on tap, you eventually get to passing speed, though the engine momentarily bogs on tip-in. The five-speed manual shifter is nicely positioned near the driver, but gear changes feel sloshy, like stirring a bowl of potato salad. Although lead-footing it didn't pay off with excitement, it still averaged 33 mpg, in line with its federal rating of 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.
So the Yaris is no weekend autocrosser to take on a Mazda2, and the fashion-conscious will probably prefer a Fiat 500 endorsed by a sultry Romanian model. Maybe that's the middle ground Toyota intended, but considering the blips of fine engineering seen in its underpinnings, it's a shame they didn't go further to shed its risk-adverse skin.