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The 2012 Toyota Yaris has been redesigned this year, but this small car is perhaps more muddled in purpose (at least in the U.S. market) than before. With the Scion xD and iQ models, which share in many places the same showroom and the same sales lot, overlapping quite a bit in purpose with the all-new 2012 Yaris, and a new Prius C expected later this model year at a $19,000 price point, with a 53-mpg rating, what's the appeal of the Yaris?
On one side, it's styling. Toyota has placed more of an emphasis on its sportier Yaris SE package, which gets chunkier-looking air dams, distinct wheels, color-keyed details, and more of a rally-racer look in general. But across the lineup, the Yaris sheds the 'Euro-chic' look of the last generation and actually looks a bit more conventional and ordinary, we think. Inside, materials and details are a step up, with a straightforward new instrument-panel design and gauges back in front of the driver where they belong.
At a time when many rival models either get a modern direct-injection engine (Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio) or available turbocharged versions (Chevrolet Sonic), Toyota sticks with a very tried-and-true layout for its new 2012 Yaris. The 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter DOHC in-line four carries over into the new car virtually unchanged from last year. While this engine is adequate with the five-speed manual, it's weak with the four-speed automatic, which is missing a gear or two next to the competition. The electric power steering is nicely weighted, though, and SE models get a stiffer but still comfortable suspension tune that doesn't sacrifice comfort.
The Yaris is all-new as a hatchback this year, while a new sedan version is on the way next year. In the mean time, Sedans are relegated to fleet-only status. Seating has been improved throughout, with front seat cushions longer and now better for tall people. In back, too the bench isn't quite as hard as before. But packaging remains far from the best in the class, with rear seats that don't quite fold flat; cargo space has been improved a bit, though. Refinement is barely par in this class, with engine noise noticeably present from about 70 mph.
Safety is a bright spot for the 2012 Toyota Yaris. It now comes 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--and it's an IIHS Top Safety Pick.Features are still very much in the economy-car vein. You won't find touch-screen navigation, heated seats, or leather upholstery in the Yaris, and the options list is quite limited. But sound systems have been refreshed, and they all come with delightfully simple (and effective) Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, USB and aux-in plugs are standard, and LE and SE models get HD Radio.