Fuel-efficiency and sticker price are still among the major reasons why shoppers will look at the Yaris, and it's still very appealing on both counts. Over about 100 miles, we averaged 30 mpg over nearly all city stop-and-go and short trips. Then, over a 40-mile economy-minded loop that we’ve done with many cars in the past—a near-equal mix of suburban boulevards, low-speed streets (and stoplights), and 55- and 65-mph highway portions, driving for efficiency but not blocking traffic—we averaged nearly 42 mpg. Over an additional, pretty level 10-mile stretch at 70 mph, we could only average 35, though—a number we match in many larger compact sedans. To sum, the Yaris is a great city car, not a highway hauler.
Bluetooth, HD radio simply work, and work well
Our Yaris SE—along with Yaris LE models—included an all-new Toyota-branded head unit with HD radio, six-speakers, and built-in Bluetooth hands-free calling and Bluetooth music streaming. Pairing the phone was an absolute cinch—done in about 30 seconds following text prompts—and the microphone for the system dealt well with any road noise. The system was also one of the better-sounding systems we’ve heard in HD mode, which can sound compressed and dithered in some situations—although we did notice that HD reception was quite limited. All models, even the base L, include USB and aux inputs this time. But some features, such as heated seats and navigation, are still lacking. And leather? No way.
Toyota is placing a greater emphasis on safety this time, though. With nine standard airbags—including front seat-mounted side bags, a knee airbag for the driver, and roll-sensing side bags for front and rear occupants, it's a big step forward compared to the outgoing model. And the IIHS has already helped confirm this, awarding its Top Safety Pick accolade to the Yaris after it earned top scores in all categories.
That was one of many factors that left us wondering what Toyota is going to offer across the dealership lot. The Scion iQ is roughly the same price, while the Scion xD is only slightly quicker, less fuel-efficient, and no longer spunkier and edgier in looks or driving personality (at least compared to the Yaris SE). With the xD due for a refresh, and the iQ a very specialized tool for a very specialized need (shoehorning into compact-only spots), the Yaris SE has its merits as a fresh, well-rounded hatchback for U.S. big-city commuters.
Driving a hard bargain...or a hard bargain?
Toyota has a rock-solid reputation for reliability and low running costs in this segment, but with a bottom-line price of $17,160, our 2012 Toyota Yaris SE is by no means in the same category as a base ($11,750) Nissan Versa. Competing against better-equipped versions of the Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, and Honda Fit—all of which are either more engaging to drive or simply offer more features and performance for less money—it's hard to get very excited about the Yaris from a value standpoint.
What we couldn’t help but wonder by the end of our drive was how will a $17k Yaris fit into an ever-tighter and price-cramped Toyota lineup. With those other Scion models, the Matrix, and the upcoming Prius C expected to start under $20k, the Yaris has strictly niche appeal.