Review: 2008 Toyota Yaris Liftback

2008 Toyota Yaris – Click above for high-res image gallery

Read a few car reviews and it's easy to walk away with the impression that we're a jaded lot; only interested in performance, luxury, and price. Any vehicle that doesn't have stupendous amounts of the first two for the tiniest pile of the latter gets kicked to the curb. It's true, driving cars that don't belong to us facilitates a certain view into how the other half lives that could definitely ruin one on lesser vehicles. On the other hand, there's an entirely different type of enjoyment to be extracted from cars that forego ostentation without ratcheting up the crap factor. Toyota's Yaris will never be mistaken for a Lexus, but it's neither the absolute nadir, nor ultimate zenith of autodom, meaning it has a shot.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

We're not exactly sure what to make of the little three door Yaris. It wears Toyota badging, yet the design is deliberately weird enough to wear Scion indicia. Indeed, Toyota's supposedly hipper sub-brand offers the xD, a five-door on the same architecture as the three and four-door Yaris models. You'd think that Toyota could get away with more conservative styling. Once upon a time, Tercels wore lines cribbed from E36 BMWs, while the Yaris team apparently looked toward the Elgin Pelican for inspiration.

The S version tries a little harder visually with Toyota's half-awkward bodykit and a red "S" on the liftgate denoting nothing at all. If the three-door shared the nose of the sedan, it wouldn't be so bad. As it is, Nunez nails it when pointing out the Yaris belongs in the PokeDex. Someone, somewhere, will undoubtedly love the looks, so let's just say that we think the true beauty (if yould call it that) of the Yaris lies inside.

While stubby on the outside, the interior is surprisingly accommodating both front and rear. Six-footers might not be pleased getting stuck in the back seat, but fill the Yaris with a quartet of mid-five-footers and nobody can honestly gripe. All four seats even slide fore/aft. Cargo capacity behind the rear seat is limited for loads of pea stone, but holding the carpool's laptop bags won't be a problem. Hatches are excellent at packing big functionality into small footprints, and when piloted solo, folding the rear seats ups the usefulness tremendously. For the way many folks use their cars, a 3 door Yaris is more than enough.

Attentive interior design is what lends the Yaris a bigger feel inside than its tinytastic dimensions initially suggest. Driver and passenger cupholders cleverly fold out of the dashboard, and the slender center stack with its vertically arrayed HVAC controls stays well clear of kneecaps. There's even storage cubbies on either side of the center stack, as well as two covered bins in the top of the dashboard and a conventional glovebox on the passenger side. Those dual bins are made possible by the centrally located gauge cluster. The merits of such an arrangement have been debated ever since the Echo debuted, and we kept losing our place when trying to glance at the cluster. Given some time with the car, it'd become a non-issue.

The big inside-small outside execution has charm, though the Yaris doesn't lead its class. Honda's Fit, admittedly a little larger, can be crammed with more gear, and the materials Toyota renders the interior of the Yaris with aren't particularly inspiring. On the plus side, there are power windows, locks, and mirrors, air conditioning, and the audio system has an auxiliary input, as well as the de rigeur CD slot, though we did miss cruise control. Less pleasing is the collection of slightly-different plastics, each wearing a separate surface texture and variation on black. Some areas of the dashboard and door panels are quick to pick up unsightly scuffs, and the lids of those dash storage compartments felt vulnerable to being snapped off in a fit of overexuberance. None of this proves detrimental in practice, and perhaps only auto writers addicted to sybaritic luxury will care. The interior is very cleverly thought out, with a lot more space and storage than expected, and on-target ergonomics.

Another invisible area of Yaris beauty can be discovered at the scales. At 2,340 with the four-speed automatic like our car had, the Yaris weighs what small cars used to weigh. That moderate weight means the handling feels nimble and maybe even a little flingable. Ride quality is supple enough that the Yaris once again masks the fact that it's just a little thing. Bumps are absorbed, rather than bouncing the Yaris all over the place. Crosswinds and passing semis likewise leave the Yaris unperturbed. None of this is to say that the Yaris feels sporty, it doesn't, and again, the Fit will whip it. On the plus side, the decent ride and minimal chassis slop won't fatigue in the daily grind, and even deliver mild entertainment.

Hauling the chassis around is Toyota's 1NZ-FE four cylinder. VVT-i variable valve timing allows the 1.5 liter to belt out 106 horsepower and 103 ft-lbs of torque with a husky voice. While the motor is throaty, it's not rough. Even though some of us feel automatics are out of place in small cars, the Yaris is still plenty responsive and has enough snort to handle everything short of leading a police chase. The best part of the Yaris, and possibly the most important given the historic fuel prices we're currently paying, is the mileage. We were surprised and pleased to discover that not only did the 11 gallon tank last a week, but when that week is filled with less than gentle mixed driving, the Yaris will cheerily deliver 36mpg, besting its EPA estimate.

Four dollar per gallon gasoline has fueled a firestorm of interest in smaller, more efficient cars - as evidenced by the latest sales numbers. The Yaris has a low buy-in price, under $12,000, and ours rung the register for a reasonable $17,000, about the same as the more attractive Suzuki SX4 Crossover that also offers AWD and now a navigation system, and is a more willing dance partner. The SX4 can't attain the fuel economy of the Yaris, however. While the Yaris is not designed for extroverted excitement, high mileage is newly sexy, and the design kinkiness will likely attract eyes attached to wallets, too.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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