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Drives, Toyota — April 16, 2012 at 10:20 am

2012 Toyota Yaris LE: Drive Review

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Toyota’s least expensive car is by no means luxurious. But it is safe, comfortable and economical. And even a little fun to drive.

Young, first-time car owners are among the most likely to buy a subcompact car like the Toyota Yaris, but they certainly aren’t the only drivers making such economical choices today. Those with long, expensive commutes are selecting efficient subcompact vehicles, too. So are drivers that want to replace an aging vehicle with a safe and reliable brand new car that doesn’t break the bank.

Fuel efficiency and overall economy – sure, those are common characteristics of subcompact cars. And all new cars should be reliable. But safety? Aren’t these subcompacts too small to be safe? And what about performance and comfort? No one expects a subcompact to be as quick as a sports car or as comfortable as a luxury sedan, but is driving a subcompact even tolerable? I spent a week with a 2012 Toyota Yaris LE to find out.

Redesigned for 2012, the Yaris is available as a three-door or five-door hatchback, with a starting price of $14,115. The sticker price for the three-door test car, including optional cruise control and floor mats and an $815 destination charge, totaled $16,909. The LE includes a four-speed automatic transmission, an option on both the base S and top SE models. Those get a base five-speed manual.

Under the hood of the front-wheel drive Yaris is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 106-horsepower. While the little motor is not terrifically powerful, it is reasonably economical in the three-door Yaris, returning an EPA-estimated 30 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, or 38 mpg highway with the five-speed manual.

Compared with competitors like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Kia Rio and Nissan Versa, the Yaris is near the bottom in power. But it’s also comparatively light in weight, so it can get away with less muscle. Still, the Ford and Kia – along with its sister model, the Hyundai Accent – not only make more horsepower, but also deliver better highway fuel economy, thanks to their six-speed automatic transmissions. The automatic in the Yaris could certainly benefit from more ratios.

With just four speeds, the little four-cylinder has to work a bit harder. It certainly shows at highway speeds, where the Yaris makes considerable noise maintaining cruising speed. But around town, the engine and transmission deliver acceptable performance. An “eco” light on the instrument cluster encourages thrifty driving, but the Yaris’ small size means good economy regardless of driving style.

Should your style be a bit more spirited, you’ll enjoy that the Yaris is nimble and light on its feet. It may not be particularly quick, but it is a relatively fun little car to drive.

Its small size and light weight are not, however, cause for concern about safety. The Yaris includes ABS, brake assist, traction control and nine airbags. Rear-seat LATCH anchors are available for securing a child safety seat. While the three-door Yaris has not been safety tested by either major safety group, both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) give the 5-door Yaris good marks. The former awarded it four of five stars. IIHS, meanwhile, calls the Yaris a Top Safety Pick for scoring the highest possible marks in each test category.

The vehicle’s good handling characteristics have a safety benefit, too. Lightweight and nimble cars that can stop and turn quickly can more easily avoid an accident in the first place.

Interior features that reduce distraction and fatigue, keeping the driver comfortable and alert, can also improve safety. Bluetooth hands-free is standard on the LE, as is a six-way adjustable driver’s seat, power windows and locks and a tilt steering wheel with audio controls. The test car’s optional cruise control makes highway driving easier.

Fresh from the redesign, the Yaris interior has a look that’s simple but attractive. Gone is the center-mounted instrument cluster of the old Yaris, replaced by a more conventional design that looks grown up compared to some competitors. Materials are still economy-grade, but the new “brushed” plastic trim looks sharp. And generally, controls are well-placed and easy to use. The six-speaker audio system is iPod-ready and includes HD radio.

While small, the interior of the Yaris is relatively versatile, thanks to 60/40 fold-down rear seats. Space for adults in the back is tight, not surprisingly in a car of this size. But with the rear seat folded, I could fit a bicycle (with the front wheel off) in the hatchback easily. Especially in three-door form, the Yaris is not the most accommodating people hauler, but it’s a champ with one or two people and a pile of cargo.

Gripes about the Yaris are few. The four-speed automatic is outdated. One or two more gear ratios would likely improve economy and performance. That “eco” indicator should be located higher on the instrument panel for better visibility. Fabric flaps on the inboard sides of the front seat bottoms look excessively cheap in an otherwise nice interior. After folding forward to allow rear-seat occupants in or out, the front seats should return to the set position rather than requiring front-seat occupants to readjust.

Still, the Yaris makes a great car for that typical subcompact buyer, like a student away at school. But it also serves well as a commuter vehicle, or a second car in a two-car household. It’s efficient and can carry five passengers in a pinch. It’s safe and versatile, and it’s relatively comfortable. The Yaris is not fast, but its light weight and small size mean it handles well and stops quickly. With a price in the mid-teens and very low operating costs, the case for subcompacts in general – and the Toyota Yaris in particular – is a compelling one not just for young, first time buyers, but for any driver who wants the reliability and safety of a brand new car without the steep price tag.

Photography courtesy of Dave May. See the full gallery.