2012 Toyota Yaris SE: First Drive

January 6, 2012
Toyota has the small-car market pretty well covered. In addition to the 2012 Toyota Yaris, there are the Scion xB and iQ models, which share in many places the same showroom and the same sales lot. And that's before even considering the only somewhat larger Matrix (and Corolla), as well as the nearly like-sized 2013 Toyota Prius C that's on the way this year.

Against those Scion models, the all-new Toyota Yaris—especially in the SE trim that we drove—seems like the obvious pick.

But that's not to say we're in love with the new Yaris—or that we think it's the strongest pick in this value-minded class. While it drives light-and-nimble, gets impressive mileage without hybrid hardware, and has a well-packaged interior that doesn't feel cheapskate-grade, it will still ignite old memories of why some shoppers didn't like so-called economy cars of the not-so-distant past.

A few years ago, when the xD joined the lineup, it got an added aesthetic zing compared to the Yaris—along with somewhat better performance. This time, the 2012 Yaris seems to have inherited many of the very same cues (in the roofline, the edgier lower air dam, and dash). The exterior seems have about the same stance as the outgoing model from the front or back, but from the side it looks longer and lower (it's slightly longer). We see a pretty heavy Subaru influence in the beltline, with the chunky door handles and the side crease leading into flared-out taillamps—as well as the rally-racer-ish, chunky rear fascia.

More wannabe rally-racer, less charmingly Euro

To our eyes, from some steps back, the finished product just isn’t as charming as the previous model. On the outside, where the previous model has an outgoing, Euro-hip design that never seemed to look dated, that’s a bad thing.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE - First Drive

2012 Toyota Yaris SE - First Drive

Inside, where the instrument cluster was a centrally mounted oddity, and controls and displays weren’t quite as straightforward as they could be, we welcome the changes. In fact, the interior and IP are quite cheerful and well-designed. The dash of the 2012 Yaris has more of a horizontal, shelf-like orientation, and there are various bins built into the center tray as well as the doors and lower dash. Just in front of the front passenger is a shallow shelf; with no texturing at the bottom, we were puzzled as to what to place there that wouldn't slide annoyingly back and forth with every corner...

What's under the hood is familiar; it’s a 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter DOHC in-line four with variable valve timing—essentially the same engine as in the last generation. It feels inherently more flexible here than either the 1.6-liter in the Hyundai Accent and more refined than the base 1.8-liter in the Sonic, but it's impossible to overlook that both of those engines have 30+ horsepower more. 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.

The meat of the engine's revband is pretty wide; keep it in the 2,500-to-5,000-rpm range and it feels quick and responsive. But the engine gets quite a bit more vocal as the revs rise, and even at 70 mph engine noise is ever-present if you don't have the audio on.

A joy in urban areas--but not all that perky

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 Toyota 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. The pedal feel is quite firm and positive—far better than the mushiness you get in the Sonic or the uneven actuation of the Accent.

If we had a consistent complaint about the last-generation Yaris—in just about every variation we drove—it was that the suspension just felt too mushy, making it prone to early body lean and understeer in corners, as well as (thanks in part to the short wheelbase) an almost buoyant feel over rough surfaces. This Yaris—especially here in SE form—felt much more buttoned-down. Toyota has not only tuned the suspension to be a bit firmer, but stabilizer bars are a bit thicker, and these changes go a long way to make it feel more planted in quick maneuvers. While it doesn’t quite approach the quick, Miata-influenced feel of the Mazda2, or the uncanny isolation of the new Chevrolet Sonic, the 2012 Toyota Yaris comes closer to striking a middle ground that will appeal to those who want a small and nimble yet comfortable urban car.

Better seats (in the SE)

For now the Yaris is only offered as a three- or five-door Liftback (hatchback), though a four-door sedan is due (the outgoing Yaris Sedan is still available at dealerships, as a 2012). With a couple more inches of wheelbase and length than before, there's more cargo space in back as well as a bit more passenger space in the new Liftback, compared to the previous one. In the front seats, we like the rather high seating position, where you get a good view out and yet have plenty of spare headroom. On the other hand, it does feel a bit like you're sitting ON the car rather than IN it. We can see some drivers annoyed at the lack of telescopic steering adjustment, but everything felt right to this lanky driver.

Front seats (admittedly, the SE's “exclusive sport seats”) feel much improved compared to what you got before in the Yaris, or what you presently get in the Nissan Versa. They're somewhat wider and noticeably longer, and have a little bit of natural contouring and side support, and they no longer feel like short benches, cutting off circulation to the thighs. But we did note that the fabric acted as a lint brush of sorts to our clothes, collecting stray pet hair and the like.

Ride quality feels better, too, even though the suspension seems to keep body motion more under control—likely a product of the added wheelbase.


Otherwise, in looking at the Yaris' features list, what you see is really what you get here. Of note is the large single-wiper system, which worked great—seeming more effective with the washer than dual-arm systems. But on the other hand, the Yaris was one of the few vehicles we've been in as of late that didn't, from what we observed, automatically turn on the A/C when you turn the dial to defog.

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.

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