SAGUARO LAKE, Ariz. -- Twisty switchbacks on Route 88 through Arizona's Superstition Mountains fail to impede our momentum due to the sure-footed stance and easy-to-drive nature of an eensy-weensy econo-car which carries a teeny-weeny price tag. This five-door hatch-hinged liftback, sized for the subcompact class and riding on a car's chassis with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction format, goes by the tag of Yaris.
It's the low-price leader in the 2009 lineup of cars bearing the badge of Toyota and the fuel economy champ too, excluding Toyota's hybrids. And it's a way-cool cutie little car which conforms as a conventional notchback-style four-door sedan or a wild-style liftback with a tall yet streamlined-stubby package outside and a surprisingly spacious cabin on the inside with seats for as many as five riders.
Originally, the liftback version of Yaris provided only three doors -- two to access the passenger compartment and a third one at the tail to reach the aft cargo bay. For 2009 editions, however, Yaris the liftback adds a five-door variation with front and back doors on each flank for cabin access and the fifth as a tail-side liftback.
Out of the box as the entry edition, the 2009 Yaris three-door liftback with a zippy four-cylinder engine and manual five-speed transmission carries a bottom-line MSRP of only $12,205. Yaris as a four-door sedan tallies to $12,965. And the new five-door liftback lists for $13,305.
Upscale Yaris S trim for sedan or liftback adds gear including an electronically controlled four-speed Toyota automatic transmission and the MSRP bumps up to $14,825 for the three-door liftback, $15,125 for the five-door liftback and $15,880 for the four-door sedan. With its small-fry scale and pint-size engine, Yaris earns money-saving fuel economy figures.
Through independent testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Yaris equipped with the manual shifter comes up with frugal fuel consumption numbers like 29 miles per gallon for city driving and as much as 36 mpg on the highway.
With the automatic transmission aboard, the fuel scores total to 29 miles per gallon in town and 35 on the road. For anyone who must commute some distance each day to work or school, high fuel economy figures like these could have a significant impact in deflating an annual fuel tab.
But what kind of car can you get for less than $15,000?
Actually, it's rock-solid as a substantial vehicle that's comfortable and downright fun to drive. And the slick body style of the liftback version looks unusual in the best way. At Toyota, designers develop a theme for styling and for Yaris the theme translates to "powerful simplicity."
It's tall with a wedge-shaped profile and arching beltline plus a dramatic sloped face composed of a large raked-back windshield and brief hood accented by oversized halogen headlamp clusters flanking a terse T-shaped grille. Virtually all body parts are tinted to the same shade in a monochromatic manner, save for a few streaks of black trim such as on center pillars separating side window sections or surrounds for front grilles and foglamps.
At the tail the top-hinged liftback door dominates in a bulging curve down to the step-notched bumper. The platform for Yaris feels extremely rigid, no doubt because of multiple crossmembers and braces on board. A compliant suspension includes stiff MacPherson struts in front and a hydroformed torsion beam in back which brings anti-roll stabilization.
Tuned steering gear ratios in the rack and pinion steering system set up agile maneuverability, and a turning circle of only 30.8 feet sets Yaris on top of the class. Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums, with electronic linkage to the standard ABS (anti-lock brake system). For peddle power Yaris packs a highly efficient 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with dual cams on top.
Constructed from lightweight aluminum and plastic composites, the plant features direct ignition and an electronic throttle plus sophisticated combustion controls for a multi-valve system. Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) device works to balance the power output with thrifty fuel economy. The engine reaches to 106 hp at 6000 rpm and 103 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
Also, the EPA has certified Yaris and this 1.5-liter engine with the designation of ULEV II as an Ultra-Low Emission vehicle. On-board safety equipment includes dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners for front and rear seats, as well as front seatbelt pretensioners with force limiters, height-adjustable headrests and three-point seatbelts in all five seating positions.
Yaris feels fun to drive, particularly in an urban environment on city streets. It zips to speed with a quick run through the lower gears, while handling seems acute with the responsive steering conducive to quick-cut maneuvers. More fun comes on the inside with the two buckets up front pitched on either side of a console, and a bench in back with room for three. Cargo space with rear seats upright in liftback versions amounts to 9.53 cubic feet. With the seatback folded, Yaris has a spacious back bay of 25.7 cubic feet.
The instrument cluster mounts at the top center of the dashboard, leaving the area immediately in front of a small and sporty steering wheel airy and uncluttered. Gauges glow with vivid electroluminescent orange-on black faces. Big and easy-to-reach audio and climate controls appear on the center dash stack, while storage spaces dot the cabin including the center console with multiple cupholders.
Standard features on Yaris range from air conditioning and a tilting steering wheel to intermittent wipers and adjustable front seats. Sporty Yaris S models show front and rear spoilers plus a tail spoiler, foglamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and audio gear with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA and a mini-jack port for iPod connectivity.