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2012 Toyota Yaris: First Drive

Small Is the New Big

The Yaris, in one form or another, has existed in the global market since 1999. But it didn’t reach stateside until 2005.

2012 brings the birth of a second generation, and all-new Yaris. Though it might not look it, it’s much bigger than the previous version. It’s 2.9 inches longer and has 68-percent more cargo room.

Americans once scoffed at small cars like the Yaris. But these small commuter cars are becoming increasingly relevant. In fact, industry experts anticipate subcompact sales to double from 2012 to 2015, totaling 800,000 annual sales in the US alone.

There are three 2012 Yaris models: L, LE, and SE. The L has a base MSRP of $14,115 for the three-door lift back version. At the top of the Yaris heap is the SE model, which, believe it or not, is slightly different than its little brothers. The SE is sportier and has a quicker steering ratio, to accommodate its “big” 16-inch alloy wheels, and stiffer more springs to enhance road feel and driving enjoyment.

A Puff of Wasabi

The last generation of the Yaris looked a bit like a cherry tomato, especially in red. It was round-y with no real discernable features. Its looks didn’t differentiate it on the road much.

The 2012 is far more stylish than the previous generation. It has much more angular lines. The new Yaris has presence, confidence, and looks quite a bit sportier than its previous incarnation. And the SE model’s 16-inch alloys complete the handsome, sporting look.

The bumpers are the most striking part of the Yaris’ new looks. In the front you have a jutted-out front air dam complete with fog lights. And, delightfully, the rear is just as sporty with a big rear.

Unlike the previous, Toyota has made a styling statement with the new Yaris. Instead of doling out another bowl of porridge, they’ve given subcompact buyers a blast of wasabi.

Remember the Spartans

Over the last several years, Toyota has listened to their customers and tried to improve interior aesthetics, appearance, and amenities. The idea being that though exterior good-looks are important, customers would rather see more style on the inside than the out. The simple fact being the occupant spends their time inside the car. A sleek looking bumper is nice, sure. But you don’t spend your 40-minute to work every morning on the bumper. You spend it inside. So a soft-touch dash, heated seats, and satnav go along way.

Unfortunately the Yaris has none of these things. We know Toyota is capable of a dapper interior on the cheap. The 2012 Camry has one of the best interiors the company has ever produced. The interior in the new Yaris, several years ago, would have been acceptable in the subcompact market. But since the launch of the all-new 2012 Kia Rio, and their segment leading interior comfort and quality, subcompact customers are coming to expect more.

This isn’t to say the Yaris interior is bad. It’s actual quite nice-but in an early 2000s kind of way. The black cloth seats have silver and turquoise patterned inserts and the nicely formed, black plastic dash has dozens of cubbyholes, which remind us of an Afghani hillside. The steering wheel does have stereo control buttons and tilts but doesn’t telescope. It’s a utilitarian but very functional interior. You get exactly what you need but nothing more.

For 2012, Toyota has upped the sound deadening and road noise has been greatly reduced in the 2012 Yaris making long trips quiet enjoyable. Add to that the bumping stereo in the SE model and you’ve got yourself one enjoyable commuter.

Four-Cylinder Fun

Toyota has carried the all aluminum 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine from the last Yaris generation into the second. It produces 106 horsepower and 103 foot-pounds of torque. The EPA has estimates it’ll get 30 MPG in the city and 38 on the highway. Both are quite reasonable and easily achieved. Behind the ‘little four-cylinder that could’ is a five-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed automatic. Our Yaris had the manual and once we found the right gas to clutch ratio, we found it well sorted and a very smooth combination.

A Tiny Bit of Elegance

Here, however, is where the Yaris really surprises. Most economical four-cylinders are hateful little buzz-boxes. But the Yaris’ 1.5 isn’t. It is pleasantly refined. It’s elegant-that’s the best way to describe it.

When Rolls Royce makes a car, they want it to be like riding a wave of power. You apply the accelerator and rather than viciously rocketing you forward, the Rolls Royce eases you seamlessly into light speed. Though the Yaris isn’t capable of time-altering acceleration, it never jams, jolts, or flogs you around; you simply glide up to your desired speed and if you don’t pay attention, well past it.

The Yaris is quick off the line. No matter the gear, when you put the skinny pedal to the floor, acceleration isn’t noticeable at first but within seconds you’re flying along, whizzing past other motorists on the freeway. Like most good four-cylinders, the Yaris’ 1.5 is most peppy around 4,000 RPM but unlike most fours, it isn’t loud. You simply don’t know you’re high revving the little chunk of aluminum. You just feel like you’ve suddenly got loads more power. It’s simply a treat.

As tested, our Yaris SE four-door had an MSRP of $17,340. For that money you get a sporty, good-looking four-door five-seater that is quiet, peppy, and won’t leave you penniless at the pump. Though the interior could use some more sprucing up, the 2012 Yaris has brought dignity and elegance to a previously rather unrefined class.

With the new Yaris, Toyota has eliminated most the reasons why people in the past have steered clear of subcompacts. Old economical cars were tin can-y, unsafe, slow, loud, and embarrassing. But with the Yaris you don’t have to sacrifice much to have a reasonably sized, fuel-efficient, and downright fun urban vehicle.


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