2009 Toyota Yaris front view
 2009 Toyota Yaris front view
 2009 Toyota Yaris interior
 2009 Toyota Yaris has plenty of cargo space
 2009 Toyota Yaris rear shot

The 2009 Toyota Yaris is today, just as the Ford Expedition was 1999. You remember how in 1999 the economy was great, gas was cheap and Al Gore was just the vice president, not a guy who was telling us Inconvenient Truths about the environment? Well, a big, bold SUV like the Ford Expedition seemed right for those times. Now, however, not so much.

With the economy needing major surgery, gas not quite as high as it had been but poised to shoot back up at any moment and people finally waking up to the fact that we've been doing atrocious things to the planet, we need a car that is right for these times. The Yaris is that car. It has a low sticker price and is miserly at the pump. But just because we should value those qualities in our rides today, doesn't mean we can't have a little fun. The Yaris is fun, too.

It scoots all over the road with nimbleness and far more power than you would expect. The Yaris, which came out in 2007 as Toyota did away with the Echo, comes in three body styles: a sedan, a three-door hatchback and a five-door hatchback, which is the one we tested. The Yaris comes with a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 106 horsepower. That might not seem like a lot, but for a vehicle this small, it is plenty; the Yaris does not seem at all underpowered. That engine is linked to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

Fuel economy is outstanding. The manual gets 29 mpg city, 36 highway, and the automatic, which is what we had, gets 29 and 35. In a mix of city and highway driving, we got about 34 mpg. Boy, that was cool. The Yaris hatchback has a 96.9-inch wheelbase and is a shorty, at about 150 inches long, and weighs less than 2,300 pounds. But be advised that not everyone will appreciate its looks.

I found it to be kind of cute, and trust me, that's not a word I use often, especially in describing cars. A friend, who wasn't quite so enamored, said its looks were reminiscent of the old AMC Pacer. Ouch. When I went through the carpool lane to pick up the kids from school, a teacher walking by said the car was "interesting looking." Again, I don't think that was necessarily a complement.

Oh, what do they know? This car drives great, is perfect for long commutes, can squeeze into the snuggest of parking spaces, and, in case I failed to mention, is great on gas. But if the looks really bother you that much, check out the sedan, which has a much more traditional (my way of saying boring) design. Its wheelbase is about three inches longer and its body is about two feet longer. The Yaris, with its taut suspension and assured steering, provides quite a smooth ride.

The interior of the Yaris has a nice, neat design. But it also has the only point of objection that we had with the car. The speedometer and gas gauge are in the middle of the dash, a la the Prius, rather than behind the steering wheel. Toyota says the objective behind that was to give an unobstructed view of those gauges, but instead I believe it serves as a distraction, since most drivers are naturally trained to look for those things right in front of them, rather than off to the side.

Other than that, the cabin is good, with quality plastics used throughout the dash, reasonably comfortable seats and great head and legroom for such a small vehicle. If you want a few extra goodies, you can get the Yaris Liftback Sport model, offering body-color bumpers and side rocker panels, sport seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter knob, 15-inch wheels, a rear defroster, a rear wiper, and an audio system with MP3 capability and an auxiliary jack.

Of course, with all of the features the Yaris offers, you also get Toyota's fantastic reliability. So when you add it all up, the starting price of around $12,895 for a manual-transmission Yaris is great. And given the times we're in today, it makes a lot of sense.

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