Vital Stats

Engine:
1.5L I4
Power:
106 HP / 103 LB-FT
Transmission:
5-Speed Manual
0-60 Time:
9.4 Seconds
Drivetrain:
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
2,295 LBS
Seating:
2+3
Cargo:
15.3 CU-FT
MPG:
33 City / 38 HWY
Plenty Improved But Facing Stiffer Competition Than Ever



Toyota lost much of its credibility with enthusiasts after killing off what few performance cars it offered years ago, and yet the average car buyer still seems drawn to most anything wearing one of its badges. Even so, there has been one vehicle in the Toyota lineup that enthusiasts and cars-as-appliance shoppers have seemingly agreed upon for all the wrong reasons: the Yaris.

The subcompact Yaris has never taken hold here in the U.S. like its larger Corolla and Camry stablemates – its awkward shape and unmemorable driving characteristics combined to keep this little Toyota from the top of the sales charts. The Yaris has always remained far behind the monthly sales talliess of the more engaging Honda Fit and practical Nissan Versa.

Toyota has gone back to the drawing board for the 2012 model year, combating the dullness of the old Yaris with a combination of more expressive styling and the promise of improved driving dynamics. It has even tuned the Yaris SE with a stiffer suspension and bigger tires as an olive branch of sorts to budget-minded enthusiasts, so we couldn't resist taking the reins of a five-door SE for a week-long test to see if Toyota's new, greener branch is worth taking.
2012 Toyota Yaris SE side view2012 Toyota Yaris SE front view2012 Toyota Yaris SE rear view

Whether in three- or five-door form, the outgoing Yaris offered polarizing styling, and the sedan was frumpier still. The good news? Toyota designers had nowhere to go but up, and our Absolutely Red tester finds the Japanese automaker taking a step in the right direction. The Yaris' new aesthetics reveal far more personality, with edgier contours and a more pleasing wheel-to-well ratio. These improvements are magnified with SE trimmings, as the front lower fascia is more aggressive and standard fog lights take the place of small black placeholders. We are also big fans of the SE's standard 16-inch aluminum wheels, which are wrapped in 195/50/16 Bridgestone rubber.

The 2012 Yaris is a big improvement on the outside, and the reclamation project gains steam upon entering the cabin. Once seated, drivers are greeted with a meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel with white contrast stitching and a frill-free gauge cluster. The large, simple-to-use climate system controls and audio system interface are a welcome development, save for one nagging issue that we'll get to shortly.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE logo2012 Toyota Yaris SE headlight2012 Toyota Yaris SE wheel2012 Toyota Yaris SE taillight

Toyota has also upgraded materials beyond the aforementioned leather-wrapped wheel, starting with clever soft-touch padding around the stereo that stretches over to the front passenger door. The dash top is predictably dressed in hard plastics, but this vast expanse is at least rendered in a crosshatch imprint that looks and feels good. Our favorite part of the upgraded Yaris materials? The blue plaid cloth inserts decorating a set of otherwise black seats. The dynamic blue pattern brightens up the cabin, giving it a more thoughtful and upscale feel. Room is generally quite good, though there are others in the segment that offer more flexible seating configurations.

Our Yaris SE also came equipped with a generous helping of technologies that even B-segment buyers demand these days. This SE model arrived equipped with a six-speaker sound system made more desirable with the addition of a USB input, auxiliary jack, Bluetooth streaming music and hands-free calling. The sound system is great for a vehicle that costs only $16,400 (plus $760 destination), but we did have one issue: Toyota has opted to go with a single control knob to tackle a number of different tasks. Unfortunately, we rarely used it correctly. The big knob works as audio control, and in most vehicles, that means pressing it like a button will turn off the stereo altogether. Not in the Yaris. When the knob is pressed, the radio goes into menu mode, and turning the knob left or right no longer controls the volume. That's frustrating – we don't know why more automakers just don't provide separate volume and tuning knobs.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE interior2012 Toyota Yaris SE front seats2012 Toyota Yaris SE rear seats2012 Toyota Yaris SE rear cargo area

Buyers have come to expect more amenities in subcompact offerings, and the Yaris does a nice job of delivering the goods. Today's buyers also look for a vehicle that delivers outstanding fuel economy as well, and the Yaris answers the call with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 106 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 103 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 revs. That's not a lot of juice compared to the 138-hp Chevrolet Sonic or the 117-hp Honda Fit, but the Yaris weighs in at only 2,295 pounds – almost 250 pounds lighter than the Honda and over 400 pounds less than the hatchback Chevy.

Even with its weight savings, the Yaris is still low on power compared to its rivals. Engineers have made up for the power deficit somewhat by gearing the five-speed manual model for spirited driving – at least in urban settings. The Yaris feels downright sprightly from a dead stop up to about 40 miles per hour, and Toyota's official 0-60 time is a reasonable 9.4 seconds. Unfortunately, those engineers haven't managed the same trick out on the open road – the 1.5-liter is a dud when trying to execute a pass on the interstate. And it's not like you can downshift to third gear to outpace slower traffic, because the little four is wailing away near redline the moment the clutch is released, and fourth often isn't enough help.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE engine

We weren't expecting a lot out of 105 horses, but we did have reason to hope for more excitement in the handling department. The reason for our optimism? Toyota says this SE model features a 20-percent stiffer chassis than the rest of the 2012 Yaris lineup, along with niceties like rear disc brakes shrouded by fatter tires. The sport-tuned independent MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion-beam rear setup do a fine job of keeping the Yaris planted, and it certainly helps that there's only 2,295 pounds to toss around.

The SE also boasts sport-calibrated electronic power steering. The wheel actually has good weight to it, though we'd prefer a broader spectrum of power assist variance to differentiate between grocery store parking lot cornering and taking tight turns at speed. When it comes time to chuck the Yaris into a corner, the experience can be a bit unnerving thanks to the seats. Because the front chairs are jacked up to give the driver an elevated seating position, tackling a winding road with gusto is a bit like like trying to slalom in a lawn chair. Also odd is the long-throw five-speed shifter, which sits at knee level and never quite manages to feel like a natural extension of the right hand.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE rear 3/4 view

It took us a few days to get used to the Yaris' unique driving position, but we instantly grew accustomed to its 34.5 miles per gallon. That's what we averaged during a week of mixed driving, a figure that splits the EPA's 33 miles per gallon city / 38 mpg highway estimates right down the middle.

Overall, the 2012 Yaris is a significant upgrade over its predecessor, with noticeable improvements inside and out. It's better looking, better equipped and better to drive. Unfortunately, enthusiasts still probably won't be compelled to consider this Yaris, mostly because of a serious power deficit compared to rivals from Honda, Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan and, well, just about every other serious subcompact on the market. That's something of a shame, because the Toyota's chassis is well executed in SE guise. Of course, even if enthusiasts don't bite, something tells us Toyota will have an easier time selling its entry-level hatchback than its Japanese rivals... if only because of the badge on the back.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 129 Comments
      Zoom
      • 2 Years Ago
      It actually meets EPAs estimates with auto journalists' lead feet and you want more power? Well, count me shocked. If it had more power, and you stomped on it, surely you'd be in the upper 20s along with those more sporting rivals. Glad to hear it weighs so little.
      th0mb0ne
      • 2 Years Ago
      I think this car's biggest competition will be the Prius C. Not sure why anyone (with a couple extra K's) would pick this over it.
        Bruce Lee
        • 2 Years Ago
        @th0mb0ne
        I definitely think that the Prius C is going to be this thing's worst competition since the difference in price is relatively small and gas is relatively expensive. That said, 34mpg isn't too bad to begin with so the savings going from 34mpg to 50mpg isn't as astronomical as if you went from a Camry to a Camry Hybrid.
      RedHoodJT
      • 2 Years Ago
      Honestly, this car isn't the best, but it's not the worst. It's a great car for someone who is looking for a affordable ride, and for a bit of sportyness, it's a good buy!
      SpikedLemon
      • 2 Years Ago
      It fits the bill of: low cost, low frills, high versatility and high reliability. It's boring to drive but people aren't buying these for fun-factor.
        SatinSheetMetal
        • 2 Years Ago
        @SpikedLemon
        Please explain to me what you think versatile means and how it applies to this car and not to others.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
      JC
      • 2 Years Ago
      I cannot believe that same engine in my 2005 Scion Xb is in this car and my Scion is slooowww with the 4 speed automatic. I sat in this car in my local car show and its actually very nice in person with a nice roomy interior and comfortable seats. Toyota seriously NEEDS to amp it up in its (non hybrid) engine and transmission department. Literally almost all other manufactures have powerful AND economical engine/transmission combos - Toyota cannot sit on its "reliability reputation" ass for too long for the competition has caught up and even surpassed it.
        The Blind Squirrel
        • 2 Years Ago
        @JC
        Keep going back. I think the last 'serious' development for the 1.5L was 1997, when it got ~107hp and variable timing.
        Frederick
        • 2 Years Ago
        @JC
        So true. I almost feel like Toyota has just put too many eggs into their Hybrid basket. They're really good about making incremental improvements to their Hybrid systems, (the RX's exhaust heat recycling comes to mind) but as far as I can tell they haven't been making any notable improvements to their gasoline drivetrains. Their V6 has been sitting at ~260 HP for how long now?
      BC
      • 2 Years Ago
      Seems dumb that you can't get the 3-door in SE trim. Most of the competition has abandoned the 3-door; Toyota hasn't but won't sell it except as a blase LE and grim L.
      msspamrefuge
      • 2 Years Ago
      Arguably what the Versa should've become. Aiming for the mass-market end of a segment doesn't mean a manufacturer has to cheap out the car to the point that it isn't good at anything.
      Ed
      • 2 Years Ago
      If a Toyotaphile ever forced me to by a Toyota at gunpoint, I'd go for this car. 106 horsepower sounds like something the brakes could actually handle.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        • 2 Years Ago
        [blocked]
          • 2 Years Ago
          [blocked]
        Justin Campanale
        • 2 Years Ago
        Now I know why we have more trolls now than ever before. It's spring break and they don't have to go to shool, so they just sit at home and troll auto websites all day long.
          mawhalen53
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          Anonymity + Audience = This is why we can't have nice things
      J
      • 2 Years Ago
      It seriously looks like someone shat out that turd...
      Justin Campanale
      • 2 Years Ago
      To all the usual "BUY AMERICAN TOYOTA JAP CRAP SUX!!!" trolls like Ed and TOYOTA RECALL: ........................./´¯/) ......................,/¯..// ...................../..../ / ............./´¯/'...'/´¯¯`·¸ ........../'/.../..../......./¨¯\ ........('(...´(..´......,~/'...') .........\.................\/..../ ..........''...\.......... _.·´ ............\..............( ..............\.............\
        Ed
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Justin Campanale
        Wow, you Toyotaphiles are such angry people.
          Justin Campanale
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Ed
          Oh so I'm a "Toyotaphile"? I have NEVER owned a Toyota made veicle and do not plan to. Toyota is actually one of my least favorite brands out there. Besides the FRS/BRZ twins, the IS-F, and the LFA, they're pretty much bland, underperforming, boring to drive vehicles, and nowadays they're not very competitive in interior quality and specs and stuff. But still, it enrages me to see you domestic trolls having so much hate for a company just because it's Japanese. Try to open your mind a little bit. Again, I am NOT a "Toyotaphile". I don't pick favorites. In my lifetime I have owned Japanese, American, and European cars. I find myself partial to cars from the BMW and VW group, so I've owned 3 BMW's (E30 M3, Z3 M coupe, Countryman All4) and 5 VW products (Jetta GLX VR6, R32, A3 TDI, Eurovan, '89 Porsche 911) . But I don't care about a car's brand. If it's a good car in its segment, has good performance, and is fun to drive, I will buy it. You really need to take your head out of your ass and be more open to cars which are not American.
          msspamrefuge
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Ed
          Yeah. . .except Justin doesn't even own a Toyota. FAIL.
          Justin Campanale
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Ed
          1)Did you even bother reading my comment on THIS article, which is critical of the Yaris? 2) I don't defend all Toyota cars. I just defended the FR-S from people who don't "get" the car. 3) Yes, I have owned all these "Eurotrash" cars. Tell me, what trailer trash mobile do you own which is so amazingly superior to my "Eurotrash"?
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Ed
          [blocked]
          Ed
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Ed
          I'm calling BS on all that. I don't believe you when you say you it's one of your least favorite brands. I regularly see you defending, praising and getting your panties all wet at every Toyota article. And if you actually did own all those Eurotrash cars, which I don't believe you ever have, it's no surprise you think a car like a FR-S is great.
        ZZ
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Justin Campanale
        Why are they trolls for not liking Toyota? Isn't that a little narrow-minded? Seriously theres some kind of nationalism or racial superiority thing going with all you Japanese and Korean made car lovers. If you question anything, they attack you for it. I don't hate Toyota all, but it's just the truth that their cars are garbage. I can see no true reason for you guys to love these cars without being driven by intolerance.
          msspamrefuge
          • 2 Years Ago
          @ZZ
          They're trolls because not only do they make no effort to substantiate that dislike with facts or a thoughtful opinion, they take a presumptuous, provocative tone with anyone who calls them out on it.
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