2016 Toyota Yaris Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 27, 2016

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.

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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.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Styling

The 2016 Toyota Yaris has a straightforward, even bland, shape and interior with an oddly aggressive front end.

In an era of more sharply styled small cars with swoopy lines, the Yaris stands out from its siblings on the show floor in having straightforward, restrained, almost European lines. With most of the design done in France, where it's built, the Yaris is a foreign entity through and through. It's also offered only in hatchback form—no sedan—though a low-volume three-door lowers the entry price at the cost of challenging rear-seat access.

A redesigned front end last year gave the Yaris 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 resulting frontal appearance is not just bolder, but more flamboyant—and somewhat related to the more extravagant lines of the Mirai fuel-cell sedan and the latest Prius hybrid.

New headlight units incorporate some attractive detailing and SE models get a more aggressive look, from wheels to bumpers, that looks almost influenced by rally racers—complete with fog lamps and a rear diffuser panel. (It also gets its own gauge cluster with more operating information.)

Inside the 2016 Yaris, the cabin is straightforward and intuitive. It's a vast improvement on the center-instrument oddity of previous Yaris generations. The dash has horizontal, shelf-like lines and the controls are simple, cheerful, and easy to understand. It comes with lots 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. The instrument panel has soft-touch surfaces, metallic and chrome accent trim is used throughout.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Performance

The 2016 Toyota Yaris just doesn't live up to the performance, handling, and drive quality of most cars in its class.

The 2016 Toyota Yaris is a small car that fails to deliver much driving excitement—unless you get the top-of-the-line Yaris SE with the manual transmission, get your kicks mostly under 30 mph, and are willing to look past some rather obvious shortfalls.

There's only a single engine offered, a 1.5-liter inline-4 that puts out a meager 106 horsepower. It's low-tech and, frankly, slow enough to be a 1960s "econobox." The engine has to be revved well past 3,500 rpm to reach its peak torque of 103 pound-feet, by which point there's a lot of engine roar. If you want peak horsepower, you'll have to get the engine truly screaming, way up at 6,000 rpm. It all adds up to an old-fashioned driving experience with a lot of noise for not a lot of forward motion.

The transmissions don't help the underpowered engine. You'll get the best performance by using the 5-speed manual gearbox to shift on your own, and you'll have to keep the revs up to keep it moving smartly around town. It runs out of breath at highway speeds, though, and isn't particularly fast given its light weight of just 2,300 pounds.

The aging, optional 4-speed automatic is one of the few left in any small car these days. It's badly matched to what little power the engine has, and it produces loud and dramatic downshifts among widely spaced gears when asked for more power. Every one of its competitors now has 5- or 6-speed automatics or continuously variable transmissions; their better fuel-efficiency ratings reflect the newer technology.

At low speeds, we like the feel of the electric power steering, where it loads up rather nicely from center and tracks well. The Yaris has better electric power steering than many other Toyotas, which have historically been vague and numb. The steering in the Yaris stays on center at higher speeds, but progressively increases the effort at lower speeds—making it fun in the city and confident on the highway.

The somewhat soft spring rates reduce the amount the Yaris is thrown off-course by bumps and rippled roads. Suspension tuning is good, and it handles better than you might expect—though it's still no German hot hatch. A stiffer suspension and thicker anti-sway bars on the sporty SE model provide flatter cornering and roadholding without much impact on ride comfort, which is good. Brakes on all models work well, and the pedal is firmer and less mushy than in some competitors. If you want rear disc brakes, they're only offered on the Yaris SE.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Toyota Yaris has neither the most nor the least cabin space in its class, but its engine remains noisy.

The Toyota Yaris is far from the largest car in the expanding segment of subcompacts. It's unusual in offering not only a five-door hatchback, but a three-door version as well, but no sedan at all. While it's easy to park and maneuverable in tight urban settings, it's neither particularly space-efficient nor roomy in the rear.

The front seats have plenty of room, and we found them more comfortable than those in the larger Nissan Versa. In particular, they don't suffer from the short-lower-cushion syndrome that many makers use to disguise a lack of room in front. They're wide enough for U.S. frames, too, and the upgraded seats in the top-of-the-line SE model offer better side support and contouring. Leather isn't offered on any Yaris model, however.

Still, finding a comfortable driving position can be tough if you're tall and lanky. Seat adjustment is limited, and the steering column only tilts, without the telescoping found in most competitors. Head room is generous even for taller occupants, however. Back-seat space is cramped for adults, unless you're willing to do a lot of horse-trading with front-seat occupants, and then you'll find you can get only just enough knee room. The three-door model is really only usable by two people, given the challenge of getting into the back seat for an adult. (It's one reason that three-door body styles are such a rarity even in this small-car category.)

The instrument panel is straightforward and sites the gauges in front of the driver, rather than in the center of the dashboard as in previous generations of Yaris. Storage is good, with several well-placed bins, including one ahead and to the left of the driver that neatly holds a wallet or smartphone. A divider in the shallow shelf ahead of the driver should help keep small items from sliding around.

The split rear seat backs fold forward, but the cargo floor isn't completely flat—and it sits higher than in some competitors, including the supremely flexible Honda Fit. Still, there's plenty of space for groceries and the like without folding down the seat—and the Yaris's 15.3 cubic feet of cargo volume is respectable.

A mid-cycle update last year gave the Yaris a retuned suspension, which gave the car relatively good ride quality for its class and mostly eliminated the bobbing motions suffered in some small cars with short wheelbases. It also got significantly more sound insulation, plus a new acoustic windshield, off of which improved the ride and reduced road and wind noise. The engine remains noisy and strained when it's revved above about 3,000 rpm, though, and the archaic 4-speed automatic transmission doesn't have enough ratios to keep it quiet at 70 mph or more.

Fabrics were upgraded at the same time, reducing the "econobox" appearance. A glove box damper lets the compartment door open in a smooth manner; and dual extendable sun visors with vanity mirrors are a standard fitting.

In the end, the Yaris can be taken at face value for versatility and interior space. If commuting is the main priority, it's perfectly adequate for that task—even if it doesn't maximize the space available, as the Honda Fit or even the Nissan Versa Note hatchback do.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Safety

The 2016 Toyota Yaris has adequate but far from stellar safety ratings, and no more than the expected safety features.

Now in its fourth model year, the 2016 Toyota Yaris is not one of the better picks for safety. Its ratings are mixed, and there are no electronic safety features offered beyond now-mandated systems.

The IIHS rates the five-door hatchback as "Good" (the highest rating) in four of its five categories—moderate-overlap front crash, side crash, roof crush, and head-restraint/seats tests. The Yaris doesn't do well in the new and tougher small-overlap frontal impact test, where it received only a "Marginal" rating, one notch above the lowest "Poor" rating. The NHTSA gave it a four-star overall rating, with four stars for frontal crash and rollover safety, but five stars in side crash protection.

Safety equipment is predictable, with electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist included in all models. The Yaris is above average in having a total of nine airbags, including a driver knee bag. But we might suggest that if safety if your top priority in a small car, there are better picks.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Features

The 2016 Toyota Yaris has a limited offering of features and options, but with navigation available, it covers most of the bases.

The 2016 Toyota Yaris comes in three trim levels, with relatively few choices of additional options of packages. The base model is the Yaris L, the mid-level version (and volume seller) is the Yaris LE, and the sporty high-end alternative is the Yaris SE. The lack of choice, however, has the benefit of keeping the bottom line on the sticker relatively close to the car's starting price.

All Yaris models, including three-door or five-door models of the base L, include power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; a rear-window defogger and wiper; and plastic wheel covers over steel wheels. They also include a split-folding rear seat and height-adjustable driver's seat, which were optional in earlier model years.

As of last year, all Yaris models also gain an Entune Audio system that has a 6.1-inch touchscreen, HD Radio, a USB port, an auxiliary input, voice recognition, and Bluetooth audio streaming—complementing Bluetooth hands-free calling. (Yaris doesn't get the Entune App Suite connectivity now offered on most other Toyota models, however.) Unusually for a subcompact car, even the base models get six speakers for the audio system.

Moving up the range, the Yaris LE adds 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless ignition, and audio controls on the steering wheel. The Yaris SE gets its own, larger 16-inch alloy wheels with a machined finish, along with 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. It also gets disc brakes on the rear wheels, as opposed to the rear drums on the lower-line versions. LE and SE models also include an engine immobilizer.

There's now an optional navigation system offered on the Yaris—it's not from the factory, but installed either at the port or the dealership—although every model also now has a "Nav" button, regardless of whether there's any software behind it.

Still, some options aren't offered at any price. There's no leather upholstery, heated seats are unavailable, and most significantly, the Yaris has no active-safety system options or parking assistance.

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2016 Toyota Yaris

Fuel Economy

The 2016 Toyota Yaris has only middling fuel-economy ratings; if you want better from Toyota, buy the Prius C subcompact.

The 2016 Toyota Yaris is now substantially below par in fuel efficiency for the small-car category, not only against its 50-mpg Prius C sibling, but against a number of newer competitors that deliver combined EPA ratings of 35 to 37 mpg.

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. If it were more fun to drive, or bigger inside, that would be understandable. These days, the 37-mpg Scion iA sedan is fun to drive, and the 36-mpg Honda Fit has it all in cabin flexibility and interior volume.

On a test last year, our Yaris SE with the 4-speed automatic, driven rather aggressively over a 45-mile route on two-lane rural roads—including full-throttle passing and climbs to almost 4,000 feet of elevation and back down—returned about 32 mpg, according to the trip computer (matching its combined rating). A 5-speed manual model over a shorter and more level route returned just over 34 mpg (beating its combined EPA number by one mpg).

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April 14, 2016
2016 Toyota Yaris 5-Door Liftback Manual SE (GS)

Very good balance between quality and comfort.

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To be my first Toyota, this model (called ETIOS in my Country) is a very well done car.
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