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.
The engine is, as the specs say, weaker than just about every other engine in this class. It does have variable valve timing and manages to feel more flexible than either the 1.6-liter in the Hyundai Accent and more refined than the base 1.8-liter in the Sonic. But even though the Yaris is one of the lightest cars in this class, acceleration is tepid at best.
The Yaris' five-speed manual gearbox is one of the lightest, most precise-feeling gearboxes in this class, even if the throws are a bit long—go with it if you can, as the four-speed automatic is a dinosaur next to much of the six-speed competition, with its widely-spaced gears and dramatic highway downshifts. Keep the revs up in manual versions and the Yaris feels perky enough. You'll notice more engine noise with the automatic, as well, or whenever you rev it much past the 3,000-rpm mark.Just like the previous Yaris, the 2012 model is a joy to drive in tight urban areas. We liked the way the electric power steering felt—it’s secure on-center at higher speeds, and even at lower parking-lot or S-curve speeds it seems to load up with a nice, progressive feel off-center. That said, we feel like the Yaris should feel a little perkier than it is, given the fact that it's one of the lightest entries in this class, at around 2,300 pounds.
We tested the sportier, upmarket trim of the Yaris, the SE, which also gets rear disc brakes at a time when they're not even available on any trim of some models, like the Chevrolet Sonic (lower-level versions of the Yaris get drums). The pedal feel in the SE is quite firm and positive—far better than the mushiness you get in the Sonic or the uneven actuation of the Accent.
SE versions also get thicker stabilizer bars and a somewhat stiffer suspension tune—although even that is plenty comfortable. Overall, it feels nicely buttoned-down, with much less of the buoyant fore-and-aft feeling we've noticed in former versions.