- Straightforward hatchback shape
- Manual version zippy under 30 mph
- Front seats supportive, well-sized
- Entune infotainment system
- Slow passing at highway speeds
- Outmoded 4-speed automatic transmission
- Steering wheel tilts, doesn't telescope
- Space efficiency beaten by competitors
- No standout features in its class
The 2016 Toyota Yaris is Toyota's least expensive model, but it doesn't stand out in any particular category.
The 2016 Toyota Yaris subcompact hatchback is the company's lowest-priced car sold in the U.S. It's smaller than the Corolla compact and Camry mid-size sedans, both of which greatly outsell it. And it's a different take on a small car than the Prius C subcompact hatchback that may sit next to it on dealership floors. It's the traditional small car, including a few unfortunate echoes of the bad old "econobox" days.
Back in the 1990s, a small engine, a low sticker price, and great maneuverability were together enough to appease budget-strapped commuters. But these days, the Yaris has tough competitors. Its underpowered engine and archaic drivetrain are noisy, the Yaris is slow, and its fuel economy isn't that good. Overall, aside from Toyota reliability, the French-built Yaris has very little that causes it to stand out above other subcompacts in this increasingly competitive market segment.
The Yaris design, now in its fourth year, is tall yet nicely proportioned from the side, and comes in either three- or five-door versions. Last year it got new hood sculpting, a swooping line of brightwork around a large Toyota emblem, and a larger trapezoidal grille with new black mesh design texturing. The result is a bold, even startling, front end on an otherwise straightforward hatchback shape. Inside, the practical and intuitive layout includes lots of storage areas, and the instruments are located in front of the driver, unlike previous Yaris generations. The dash has horizontal, shelf-like lines and the controls are simple, cheerful, and easy to understand.
Front seats are comfortable and supportive, with plenty of headroom. But the rear seats are smaller than those in many competitors, particularly the Nissan Versa Note, and the Yaris is more suited to use by two adults than four. The class-leading Honda Fit handily dispenses the Yaris in both cargo space and flexibility. Ride quality is good, though, and with more sound insulation for 2015, the Yaris is now a relatively quiet cruiser—if you're comfortable with slow progress.
But what could be a good package is greatly let down by mediocre powertrains. The 1.5-liter inline-4 puts out a meager 106 horsepower, low for the class, and a 5-speed manual transmission provides performance that's tepid at best, though it can be perky at city speeds if you work it hard. The 4-speed automatic option is far worse—and one of the few such units left in any small car. Ratios are widely spaced, downshifts are loud and dramatic, and the fuel economy is below the class average for either version.
The Yaris is a light car, and suspension and noise-insulation improvements last year both improved the ride and lowered wind and tire noise inside the cabin. The engine's still noisy when pressed, though. The Yaris has better electric power steering than many other Toyotas, and the sporty, top-of-the-line Yaris SE model has a stiffer suspension with thicker anti-sway bars. The result is flatter cornering without much impact on ride comfort, which remains good. The brake pedal in the Yaris is firmer and less mushy than in some competitors, and the brakes work well.
Safety ratings for the 2016 Yaris are a mixed bag, with four stars overall from the NHTSA and "Good" ratings from the IIHS on all tests except the new and tough small-overlap front crash test. On that one, the Yaris was rated "Marginal," just one step above the lowest "Poor." While it has nine airbags as standard, electronic safety systems are confined to the mandated minimum. A rearview camera is available.
The Yaris comes in three models and has relatively few options. They are base L, the mid-level LE, and the sporty SE. With 16-inch machined-finish alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, projector-beam headlights, LED daytime running lamps, a black front grille, a rear spoiler, upgraded seats with sport fabric, a sport instrument cluster, and leather trim for the steering wheel and shift lever, the top SE models really stand out.
But every Yaris—even the base L—comes with a height-adjustable driver's seat, a split folding rear seat, and an Entune Audio system wtih a 6.1-inch touchscreen, along with HD Radio, six speakers, a USB port, an auxiliary input, voice recognition, and Bluetooth audio streaming—complementing Bluetooth hands-free calling. Navigation is now a dealer- or port-installed option, but note that Yaris models do not offer the Entune App Suite connectivity now found in most other Toyota models.
With EPA ratings of 30 mpg city, 37 highway, 33 combined for the 5-speed manual version and 30/36/32 mpg for models fitted with the archaic 4-speed automatic transmission, the Yaris just doesn't offer very good gas mileage.