No one wants to be the kid at the front of the bus who loses his lunch money to the school bullies. It’s sad for the Toyota Yaris, then, that it’s so easily beaten up on by others in its segment. Our testing shows it to be slower, louder, less comfortable, and less useful than the other kids on the small-car bus, including, inexplicably, some of those riding in the back of the sales race. They eat its lunch.
When 10 is a Poor Grade
For starters, it’s impossible to ignore the Yaris LE’s subpar, 106-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and wildly outdated standard four-speed automatic transmission. A 2015 update designed to smooth gearchanges seems to have improved shift quality, but it would take more ratios to quiet the Yaris’s loud protestations when coaxed to highway speeds. Getting it to 60 mph took 10.2 seconds; competitors with more power and six-speed automatics are quicker, including the Ford Fiesta at 8.7 seconds, the Hyundai Accent at 9.9 seconds, and even the forgotten Kia Rioat 9.5 seconds.
Acceleration from 50 to 70 mph in our top-gear test took an alarming 7.3 seconds; we categorize this statistic as a measure of “passing time,” but it’s also a key metric when merging onto a freeway. Competitors with stronger engines and more gears for their automatics to choose from when downshifting generally are a second or more quicker in this test. Our suspicion that engine revs were pegged near the top of its range during even moderate acceleration will have to go unconfirmed, because Toyota neglected to install a tachometer. The Yaris is quite a bit quicker when equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, but that’s not available in the LE four-door hatchback we tested, only the three-door base L model and the top-dog SE. Even so, it’s still a five-cog manual gearbox when many competitors have six-speed transmissions.
Dressed Like a Cut-Rate Superhero
In our opinion, the Yaris’s exterior design, despite the 2015 update, also trails the pack. The nearly flat pieces of metal that make up the door panels look cheap when compared with the undulating curves of the Scion iA—a Mazda 2 in Clark Kent glasses which will adopt the Yaris nameplate for 2017. Our test car’s black-and-red paint scheme was its only extra-cost option ($500), although several staffers said they would pay extra to forgo it. (One driver said it looked like a dollar-store knock-off version of a Superman action figure, the kind that uses the wrong colors to skirt copyright infringement.) Give Toyota its due, at least, for the recent facelift that added character to the Yaris’s nose in the form of a much larger grille and overstated air intakes. At least the front end is distinctive, if not exactly attractive.
One of the main draws of a subcompact hatchback is that such cars often are quite fuel efficient, thanks to their low curb weights and small engines. The Yaris’s 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes just 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque, and all signs point to it being a fuel-sipper. EPA rated at 32 mpg combined, it delivered 30 mpg during our testing. That’s about par with the 29 to 32 mpg we’ve recorded for others in the class, but the iA earns a whopping 37-mpg combined rating from the EPA, and we got 36 mpg in our real-world test of the automatic version of that car.
Reluctant to Turn—and to Stop
The Yaris’s lateral grip of 0.83 g falls just about in the middle of the pack, although the car suffered excessive understeer on the skidpad, and we found a similar propensity to plow on highway ramps. The 185 feet it required to stop from 70 mph is a figure usually seen from much larger cars (the gargantuan Lexus LX570 SUV stopped two feet shorter). This is a disquieting trait shared by many inexpensive subcompacts, most likely attributable to relatively small all-season tires tuned for long life and fuel economy, not short panic stops. If you get a Yaris going fast, leave plenty of stopping distance ahead.
It’s hard to imagine any driver patient enough to mat the accelerator for the long wait to achieve the Yaris’s drag-limited top speed of 108 mph. High speeds are accompanied by significant road noise despite Toyota’s efforts to mitigate the drone with the 2015 update. Both the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Accent are quieter at wide-open throttle, the Fiesta by one decibel and the Accent by five.
Inside, there are a few appealing details. A large windshield and low beltline offer excellent visibility, so attentive drivers should never be surprised by a vehicle hiding in the blind spots. A standard 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity also includes an auxiliary jack and a USB port; its operation is both intuitive and useful. You’ll look in vain for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in any Toyota, though, as the company is going its own way on smartphone connectivity. The cloth seats are a bit thinly padded for our taste and feel cramped for larger drivers, but they at least have aesthetic appeal, which is more than we can say about some budget-car interiors.
Many Better Alternatives
Bumping up to the automatic-transmission SE trim level for an additional $1260 brings a six-way adjustable driver’s seat and leather touches on the steering wheel and shifter. The tachometer we missed in our test car comes standard in the SE, as do LED running lights. A rear spoiler is a perplexing addition, but it adds some character. The bottom-level L trim is two-door only and loses the aluminum wheels, power mirrors, and chrome detailing that came standard on this LE. The Yaris’s lone windshield wiper, standard on all trim levels, is perhaps its most endearing feature, softening some of our frustration with this little guy.
But even the cutest little rain-wiping system around couldn’t offset these serious gripes. The gas and brake pedals are placed unusually close to the driver—push the seat back to get some legroom and you find the non-telescoping steering wheel rather too far away, necessitating a bent-knees, extended-arms posture worthy of its own asana. Admirers of the Honda Fit’s super-versatile seats and surprisingly functional cargo hold will be disappointed by the Yaris’s stowage area. With all seats up, the difference between the two cars is barely more than one cubic foot. However, with the Yaris’s rear seats folded flat, which we appreciate, its compact spare tire raises the load floor and precludes hauling bulkier items that the Fit can accommodate.
Cargo volume would seem adequate for this segment if it weren’t for the Fit and its flexible interior layout or the Hyundai Accent’s comparatively huge space behind the rear seat. The Yaris’s persistent understeer and numb driving dynamics might be forgivable in such an inexpensive car—indeed, they used to be the norms in this class—if it weren’t for the bucket-of-fun Ford Fiesta. Ditto bland styling and the more handsome Accent. The Yaris is an affordable car that might pass muster for Toyota loyalists, but the segment has moved on. Instead, we’d recommend the 2017 Yaris iA (née Mazda 2), already available as the 2016 Scion iA.