2015 Toyota Yaris: First Drive

September 24, 2014
The 2015 Toyota Yaris is one of the better-looking subcompacts on the market; yet in too many respects—especially from the driver's seat—it feels like a small car from another era.

Putting it tersely—after driving several versions of it this past week, on the mostly leisurely roads of the Big Island of Hawaii—that's how we feel about the Yaris, which just received a relatively extensive mid-cycle refresh.

First the beauty: It didn't take any of Hawaii's natural beauty to convince us that the facelift given to the Yaris is a very good thing. This is a model that already verged a bit away from U.S. small-car convention in going hatchback-only; and it seems like the refresh distances it even a bit more from Toyota's current mainstream U.S. models, like the Corolla and Camry, which seem to take aim at what will sell the best, at the cost of some personality. The frisky new look grafted to the front end definitely ramps up the sharp, Euro-influenced hotness—we even see some rally-racer in the SE.

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Made in France, styled in France

It's French, by the way. Most of the design work was actually done in France, where it's assembled, and with the bulk of the engineering work done in Europe and Japan, it's a foreign entity through and through.

The cabin's been spruced up, too, with the revamp bringing soft-touch materials to the instrument panel, a new sport gauge cluster for the SE, and new metallic and chrome accent trim throughout. At last, the upholstery has been upgraded to something other than the lint-attracting mouse fur the Yaris has had for a long time.

Infotainment systems in the new Yaris are pretty great for this class of car—yes, even the base Yaris L, at $15,670, includes a 6.1-inch touch screen head unit with six audio speakers, HD Radio, a USB port, voice recognition, and Bluetooth (audio and hands-free calling). About the only thing it doesn't have versus Toyota's more expensive models is Entune App Suite compatibility. Windup windows and manual mirrors are also a thing of the past.

Amidst all this value-packing, something has to give. And its abundantly clear from the moment you drive away that what's under the hood is it.

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Screaming, not thrilling

The engine in the Yaris, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, making 106 hp; and in most Yaris models that the U.S. will see, it's mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Toyota boasts of a broad torque curve, but by today’s standards, this is a rather peaky powerplant. Its peak torque of 103 pound-feet arrives at 4,200 rpm, and it needs to be revved past 3,500 rpm to access what feels like the bulk of the power. Peak horsepower doesn’t arrive until a screaming 6,000 rpm—screaming, because if you rev past that (or even near it) the engine sounds like it's going to self-destruct. It won't, of course. You get a lot of engine boom whenever you press the Yaris to move quickly, or as you near the 70 mph mark.

Both the costs of the transmission, as well as the engine, which dates back to the Echo, have certainly long ago been amortized; Toyota passed the reason for a lack of engine updates and the four-speed automatic for much of the lineup off as a way they can keep the Yaris entry price low—a sort of “we’re passing the savings along to you” argument—only we can’t help but wonder then why nearly every other competitively priced model in this segment has either a six-speed automatic, a CVT with different driving modes, or a combination thereof. And that's in addition to the direct-injection engines that have been arriving in this segment, in the base versions of models like the Honda Fit, Kia Rio, and Hyundai Accent.

Unfortunately, the Yaris SE, with the manual gearbox, is a model that likely won't arrive to very many dealer lots, yet at $17,645, it's feels like the best use of the money, if it's going to a Yaris. You get lots more features in the SE, a somewhat sportier suspension tune, bigger brakes with rear discs (base and LE cars have drums), and nice-looking 16-inch alloys. And with the greater noise insulation added to the underfloor this year, there's no longer a surplus of road noise to worry about here. That makes the Yaris a win-win in this combination—with a zippy low-speed driving experience that some urban commuters are going to enjoy—although again, only if you enjoy using the neat manual gearbox to wring the (often boomy) power out of this engine.

Toyota has taken 44 pounds from the Yaris body structure, yet bolstered it by adding more welds to the body structure—although adding more noise insulation reduces the differential to about 20 pounds less than last year's model.

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Refreshingly straightforward, but not all that flexible

The Yaris's lack of adjustability is another minor point that adds into the retro-small-car feel from the driver's seat, however. It feels like it’s apportioned for those slightly shorter than average, with average-length arms, take it or leave it. The driver’s seat adjusts up and down, but not by much, and even on top SE models the steering wheel doesn’t adjust telescopically; it only tilts somewhat. And the seat folding here, as we've pointed out in the past, doesn't quite bring a flat cargo floor.

Overall, the interior impresses as refreshingly straightforward and intuitive next to the gimmicky interior layouts of some other models in this class. The dash has horizontal, shelf-like lines and the controls are simple, cheerful, and easy to understand. There’s also a large cohort of built-in storage spaces, in the form of trays, cupholders, bins, and the like—including a long tray at the bottom of the dash for the passenger. Still there's no leather, no heated seats—definitely no heated steering wheel or heated mirrors—and few of the little convenience items that are gradually filtering down into subcompact cars' feature lists. Navigation is newly available, but as a port/dealer option, Scion-style, that Toyota didn't have any examples of at our early drive.

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In all, the refresh that Toyota has given the Yaris for 2015 feels remarkably short-sighted. And that, of course, is because the focus really isn't very long on this generation of the subcompact. In as little as two years, it's due to be completely replaced by a model based on the all-new Mazda2—one that we're especially eager for, with anticipated direct-injection (Mazda) engines, new six-speed transmissions, and almost certainly, much better gas mileage than the current model's ratings of 30 mpg city, 35 highway with the automatic or 37 with the manual (we saw trip-computer averages of 32 and 34 mpg, respectively, on a couple of touring loops).

Until then, the Yaris has some things to cling to—like its reputation for reliability and super-low running costs over years of ownership, its zippiness with a manual, and that better-dressed look overall. But even considering that, those who'll find the 2015 model charming are an increasingly small lot.

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