With all the talk about hybrid systems and clean-diesel powertrains as the current be-all and end-all for green-car shoppers, it’s easy to forget that there are a few simple small cars out there that are nearly as frugal—without paying thousands more.
You still can get a basic, lightweight hatchback or sedan with a smaller-displacement four-cylinder engine for way under $15,000—and that’s before you count any discounts you’re likely to find at the dealership. The Honda Fit is our overall favorite—and the priciest of the bunch—but there’s also the Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa, and Toyota Yaris, and we might even include cars like the high-mileage Chevy Cobalt XFE, the Ford Focus, or the Toyota Corolla in this group. Among all of these, the one that’s the lightest—the Yaris—is also the one that TheCarConnection.com editors have consistently seen the highest mileage figures in. The Yaris is also ridiculously cheap to maintain, repair, and insure; in 2008 it was ranked by Intellichoice as having the lowest cost of ownership in its segment.
And with the manual transmission, the Yaris is the most fuel-efficient “normal” car in the U.S. market, not counting hybrids, diesels, or the two-seat Smart Fortwo. The manual-transmission Yaris comes with EPA ratings of 29 mpg city, 36 highway, with the four-speed automatic getting 1 mpg less on the highway.
We recently took a follow-up drive in the latest version of the Yaris—the five-door hatchback. Like the rest of the Yaris lineup, it’s powered by a 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, but oddly the five-door is only offered with the four-speed automatic transmission that’s optional on the three-door and the sedan.
As such, the five-door weighs just 2,340 pounds, which is enough to give it just adequate acceleration with three occupants in the car or a considerably livelier feel with just the driver (trust me; on this light of a car, you can feel the difference). With the four-speed automatic, performance is just adequate; it’s one of the more decisive units we’ve driven with a smaller four-cylinder and resists bouncing back and forth between gears. Any demand for a serious burst in power is accompanied with quite a bit of drama as the otherwise quiet engine becomes thrashy in its upper ranges and the gears are quite widely spaced. Keep the revs down and be gentle on the throttle and you won’t hear the engine much at all.
The five-door Yaris has a suspension that’s clearly tuned to favor ride over handling. In normal driving, there’s less of the pitchy, fore-and-aft feeling that we’ve grown accustomed to in shorter wheelbase cars, but the narrow tires and plenty of soft suspension travel basically function as a stern slap on the wrist.
In many drives of the Yaris and its Scion cousin, the former xA, we’ve never warmed up to the center-mounted gauge cluster. At one time, Toyota said that it’s closer to the driver’s natural line of vision, but I don’t find this the case—perhaps because I’m especially tall. Anyone who’s tallish will find the seats skimpy and small as well. Materials feel cheap as cheap can be—not so cheerful either—however it’s all put together with a tightness that belies a car that starts at less than $13k in three-door form.
2009 Toyota Yaris 5-door
There’s no tachometer, which somehow serves as an ever-present reminder that the base five-door that we had is soundly in the no-frills category, and not trying to be sporty either. Power windows and locks are optional, as is cruise control, but air conditioning is included. Like any good hatchback, the back seats fold forward flat, though the cargo floor isn’t as low as that of some models, especially the Honda Fit.
After several model years in which the Yaris has lagged behind the other small-car models with respect to safety features, this year Toyota has stepped up its standard equipment to include front seat-mounted side airbags, along with front and rear curtain bags, plus anti-lock brakes, a feature that many automakers are still omitting on their cheapest vehicles.
Here’s where it gets especially interesting to eco-geeks. To get a good gauge on the Yaris’s fuel economy, I went out in the evening when traffic was light on a 44-mile loop, which included about 15 miles of 30-40-mph suburban driving, about 25 miles of 60-70-mph highway driving, and the balance low-speed city stop-and-go. Keeping light on the throttle, but keeping with traffic and not using any extreme hypermiling tactics like turning off accessories, turning the engine off at long lights, or coasting great lengths, I averaged 41 mpg with the Yaris.
I’ve been using virtually the same loop for years to compare a number of different vehicles; I’ve recorded 44 mpg with a first-generation (2001) Prius and 48 mpg with a second-generation Prius.
The EPA figures seem unusually low compared to real-world driving in this case. Over a week and about 100 miles of driving—much of it cold starts, stoplights, and short city-driving errands—I averaged a very respectable 33 miles per gallon. What does this mean for you? If you can keep your speed slow and steady on the highway, you’re likely to see over 40 mpg in the Yaris. And if you stick with the manual transmission and drive it carefully, you’ll likely see mid-30s or higher in everyday commuting.
For comparison, I’ve recently observed 25 mpg in a Nissan Versa 1.8 S and 24 mpg in a Kia Soul with the 2.0-liter—both in city driving. Both are heavier than the Yaris.
The message to take along as you're pondering your next car is that depending on how much you drive, how long you plan to keep the car, and what you’re gambling on the price of gas to be, you might find it considerably cheaper to go with a basic $14,000 hatchback like the Yaris versus a more expensive hybrid. And to help ease your troubled mind about using slightly more fuel, it’s fair to say that the Yaris took considerably less energy to build than a Prius.
If you’re watching every penny, there’s a lot to think about. It’s not easy being a cheapskate.