Toyota built its reputation in the U.S. with small cars, starting with the original, diminutive Corolla in the 1960's as the first serious entry. Today's baby Toyota is the Yaris, and for 2009, you can get one as a five-door liftback for the first time.
Why is this significant? Well, there's been a three-door liftback available here-I tested it three years ago-but if you wanted more doors there was only the longer, lower four-door sedan. Even though Europeans could buy a five-door, we never got it.
Finally, you can have the cargo-carrying capacity of 25.7 cubic feet (with the rear seat folded) plus four-door convenience in one affordable Toyota.
Other changes for 2009 include standard anti-lock brakes, front seat-mounted side airbags and front and rear curtain side airbags. There are some exciting new colors, too, including Yellow Jolt and Blue Streak Metallic.
If you're going for that sweet combination of low price, high fuel economy, and compact proportions, a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine is about right. My 1980 and 1991 Toyota Tercels each had one. Today's high-tech engines perform well, in this case delivering 106 horsepower and 103 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels, thanks in part to variable valve timing with intelligence, a Toyota specialty. My first Tercel, with carburetors, had just 60 horsepower.
Even with the standard four-speed automatic transmission, my little Carmine Red Metallic tester moved along peppily and never left me feeling bogged down at onramps or on uphill grades. The optional automatic features uphill/downhill shift logic to reduce annoying hunting for gears when driving on hills.
The EPA posted fuel economy is top level-29 City and 35 Highway, 31 combined. That's without the expense or complication of a hybrid powertrain. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide numbers are high, as expected: 7 for Air Pollution and 8 for Greenhouse Gas scores, good for SmartWay status.
The 2,300-pound Yaris definitely has the feel of a tidy little European family car. The split rear seats slide and recline (as part of the Power Package), which is very handy-you can maximize passenger space or cargo capacity, as needed. Regular-sized people actually fit with no problem, thanks to a tall roofline-a full 3-1/2 inches taller than the sedan's.
Despite a blunt 150.6 inches to work with, the junior Toyota wears the same mid-first-decade styling as the latest Camry and Corolla-more dramatic and interesting than econoboxes of yore.
Outside, buglike cuteness is the theme, with wheels placed at the corners. They're stamped steel 14's with wheel covers, but you can upgrade to 15-inch alloys if you want to pay extra. The face features big eyes around a goatee-style grille with a little bump for the Toyota logo. Taillamps curve around the sides in a crescent, a little more interesting than they have to be.
Inside, the car's international aims are obvious with a central instrument panel, similar to a MINI Cooper, but simpler. This takes some adjustment, but the high-mounted information is easy to see at a glance, and drivers get their own glovebox! I used it to store my iPod, which I plugged into the auxiliary jack while traveling. Front passengers get two gloveboxes. There are also convenient side pockets on the console for little stuff like your Bluetooth or knickknacks.
Naturally, materials are modest in a car like this, but they are well fitted, with sober, dark-gray plastics brightened up by some silvery trim and a light gray strip that runs along each front door armrest and onto the windshield pillar. Modest cars have come a long way.
The Power Package in my tester ($1,580) added several items that buyers not seeking the absolutely lowest price might want. These include power locks, windows and mirrors, an audio system with AM/FM, CD and satellite radio capacity. You also get a rear window defroster and wiper, an upgrade to larger wheels and tires, and to top it off, an engine immobilizer to protect your now upgraded car.
Despite the abundance of gloveboxes, I found no coathook. The remote for the power locks didn't include a trunk release button. The optional center front armrest supplied extra storage capacity but felt flimsy. One oddity-two sets of power lock buttons-on the doors and between the front seats.
Prices for the five-door liftback start at just $13,305, plus $720 for delivery (these charges have been creeping up over the years). My tester, with options, came to $16,213.
Toyotas provide high quality, reliability, and familiarity, but the Yaris has plenty of competition, even from its Scion cousins. This model, popular with both kids and seniors, has even more to offer now in its new five-door flavor.