Driven: 2017 Toyota Yaris

July 30, 2018

“It’s a mouse car,” said my dad.


“It’s a shoebox,” said my colleague.


“It’s unsafe!” cried my mother.


 Optional wheels boost Yaris appeal. My base model had the 15" standard steelies with hub caps.


It’s tiny, shiny, and spunky. It’s a Yaris.


I’m willfully assuming that “Yaris” is an ancient word Toyota discovered that roughly translates to “diminutive”. Or, more accurately, it’s a term dreamed up by the marketing department when the big wigs marched in and said, “Come up with something that sounds small and fun.” Yaris! 


I’ve always heard it pronounced YAH-ris, but Yaris no stopping someone from pronouncing it like yare-is . . . first and last one, I swear.


Right, so now we know its name. What does it do?


As detailed by my acquaintances, the Yaris’ pint-sized physique evokes various reactions, some of derision, some of dismay. Mine was more akin to delight. I have a certain affection for small cars. They’re bound to be light, simple, and efficient. There’s just something charming about petite dimensions and neat packaging. 


 With the optional SE package shown here, Yaris gets that nifty roof spoiler, too. 


Styling-wise, however, I’m not a fan of Toyota’s chosen direction. Like every other major brand, their current offerings have sprouted sharp edges and angular lines, from the Corolla all the way up through the Lexus range. Even the new Yaris received this treatment, and I just don’t feel it suits the car. The first generation Yaris was round and bubbly; it looked like a pea had sprouted wheels and decided to pursue a career in private transportation. I adored it. The look of it perfectly suited the personality I’d want it to have, one that’s fun and happy and never serious. How can you take such a car seriously? The new Yaris, with its pointy face and big mouth, looks like it’s going through a sort of awkward puberty, where it takes itself seriously and demands everyone else take it seriously too. The proportions are right, but the visual attitude is a bit off the mark. 


What you can take seriously is the Yaris’ fun-to-drive factor. The access road to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX is a winding one, fraught with bumps and undulations. The Yaris dove right in, rarely unsettled and enjoyably agile. Even with an automatic transmission, all-season tires, and low power, there’s quite a lot of fun to be had in chucking the Yaris about. The steering is light but not lifeless, developing decent weight as lateral loads increase. Understeer makes its expected entrance as you push harder into turns, but the chassis still provides a nice sense of mid-corner rotation. Given the car’s spec, it felt playful and composed over imperfections, even at speed. Speaking of speed, you can’t pile on much of it, but here we have yet another car that delivers smiles without being speedy. 


 Affirming the Yaris' handling chops is the GRMN edition, with 209 supercharged horsepower on tap.


Generating what little thrust the Yaris can muster is a 1.5L I-4, which packs a mighty 106 hp and 103 lb-ft. However, with an amusingly short 98.8 inch wheelbase and just 2335 pounds to shift, the engine doesn’t feel totally overwhelmed. Texas’ 75 MPH highways are readily (but noisily) traversed in the Yaris, and, with the proliferation of massive, jacked-up redneck monster trucks, one can even enjoy a sort of inverse self confidence. Those particular drivers are often suspected of, ahem, compensating. Well then, if I’m driving along in my tiny Yaris, what does that say about me? By golly, I’ll tell ya. It means I care about the environment, because the Yaris gets up to 35 MPG. Yeehaw!  


Pairing the diligent engine is a dated 4 speed automatic gearbox. Shifts in both directions are carried out with relatively little drama, but hill climbs and quick accelerative moments can be problematic. Often, the transmission requires an annoyingly firm throttle kick to drop a gear. It’s during these moments that the Yaris betrays its humble specs and price tag. The engine is quite buzzy above 4000 RPM, and the gearing does little to aid attempts at building forward velocity. I found myself several times looking askance at the gear selector, wishing I could just change gears myself. Thankfully, Toyota still offers a manual option to customers; in Rentalville, from which my Yaris was acquired, automatics have completed their hostile takeover. 


 The venerable 1NZ-FE engine has powered Yaris models since 2007. Variable valve timing can actually be heard at high RPM.


I strongly suspect that my particular Yaris was due for an alignment. At highway speeds, it wandered around and picked up cambers, imitating a puppy on a walk that can’t decide which side of the pavement has the better smells. A second Yaris I drove behaved better in a straight line, but Texas hill country winds pushed both Yarii around, regardless of toe angle. What better way to liven up a long drive than fighting to stay out of a roadside ditch? 


I wouldn’t for a second consider having this car with anything less than 5 doors. First of all, hatchbacks are rad. Secondly, the hatch and rear seats accepted luggage for two in an otherwise minuscule space, a feat that might not be possible with the 3 door version. Driven solo, I never felt cramped in the car, but stick someone in the shotgun seat, and you’ll feel like you’re traveling on a budget airline, where the center armrest’s real estate is more valuable than on Park Place. Except, the Yaris doesn’t have a center armrest, so the space between you and your passenger is about the width of a sparrow’s wingspan. Furthermore, with people up front, back seat legroom is suitable only for small spider monkeys. For those reasons, I strongly discourage arguing in a Yaris—your position in the driver’s seat is, at all times, vulnerable to a good right hook. 


Otherwise, the cabin is spartan, but livable. Several pockets present themselves for phones and/or stunner shades. The touchscreen was mercifully trouble-free and simple to use, housed in a soft-touch dashboard. The letdowns here include the aforementioned cheap shifter and a muddled audio system, which can’t quite reproduce a given song’s textures and details. Fiddling with the hi-fi settings yielded no distinct improvements, and wind noise is a constant factor. In fairness, one can’t really expect aural clarity in this segment. Nor can you expect great seats or luxurious legroom, but a new Kia Rio I drove had a much more deluxe interior, with better chairs, a more comfortable driving position, and a positive gear selector. The Yaris, by comparison, feels quite basic. On drives exceeding 2 hours, Yaris pilots are strongly urged to make rest stops, lest the seating causes spinal rebellion. 


 The Yaris cockpit is functional, but lacking in character and comfort. 


Even with its predictable shortcomings, the Yaris is a car that lives up to its small-and-fun-sounding name. Despite its proportions and my mother’s worries, it actually earns high marks for safety, with Toyota’s trademark quality evident even in their subcompact offering. It made me ponder a troubling quandary: is this all the car that most people actually need for daily duty? The answer is probably yes, unless you’re a tradesman, a mother of six, or 7’ 19” NBA center. I spiraled into a dystopian vision of a world dominated by fuel-sipping compacts, with no allowance made for sports cars, luxury saloons, or anything remotely inefficient. The conservationist in me cheered. The enthusiast in me wilted. Honestly, both sides are in frequent despair, given SUVs’ and crossovers’ chokehold on the current market. Held up against current car industry initiatives—green this, electric that, emissions, efficiency, etc.—that seems rather backwards.


In the meantime, I think most people could happily get along with a Yaris. It might wear a new face, but the smile is still there.


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