The Toyota Yaris, last redesigned four years ago, is a traditional subcompact hatchback and is Toyota’s least expensive U.S. model. Smaller than the compact Corolla, which sells far better, the Yaris is reminiscent of old, basic econoboxes, and it does not stand out. Little has changed for the 2016 model year.
The 2016 Toyota Yaris comes in three-door and five-door hatchback versions, all with the same engine and a choice of automatic or manual transmissions. Yaris is front-wheel drive.
A couple of decades ago, a small engine, low price, and agile maneuverability were sufficient to satisfy budget-conscious commuters. Nowadays, the French-made Yaris goes against strong competitors in the small-car segment, led by the Nissan Versa Note.
Straightforward in shape, the Yaris comes as either a three-door or five-door hatchback. Buyers benefit from Toyota’s reputation for reliability, but in several ways the Yaris lags its rivals. First off, an underpowered engine and outmoded drivetrain make the Yaris noisy and sluggish. Fuel economy isn’t as frugal as expected, for such a light car. Still, the Toyota has nicer seats than the Nissan, and the Yaris is smooth and quiet. It’s functional and convenient as an around-town errand runabout.
The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine issues a puny 106 horsepower. With the standard 5-speed manual gearbox, performance is generally tepid, though peppier at urban speeds, as long as you shift gears properly.
Worse yet is the optional 4-speed automatic transmission, an anachronism at a time when nearly all subcompact automatics have at least five speeds. Because the gear ratios are widely spaced, each downshift is loud and dramatic. Passing at highway speeds is a leisurely undertaking with either transmission.
Ride comfort is good, and the Yaris is comparatively quiet on the highway, apart from engine noise. Tire and wind sounds are muted.
Front seats are comfortable, suitably sized and supportive, with plenty of headroom. Not so in back, where seats are smaller than in its competitors, including the Nissan Versa Note. Honda Fit, the class leader, also beats the Yaris for cargo space.
Yaris is not among the top choices for safety, with only basic safety features installed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives Yaris a four-star rating overall, but five stars for side-impact crashes. Except for a Marginal score on the small-overlap frontal crash test, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated Yaris as Good.
The 2016 Toyota Yaris 3-door L manual ($14,895), or automatic ($15,620), includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; rear-window wiper; height-adjustable driver’s seat; split-folding rear seat; and plastic-covered 15-inch steel wheels. A six-speaker Entune Audio system has a 6.1-inch touchscreen. Yaris 3-door LE automatic ($16,555) adds 15-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, keyless ignition, and steering-wheel audio controls.
Yaris 5-door comes in similarly equipped L automatic ($15,995) and LE automatic ($16,930) trim levels.
Yaris 5-door SE manual ($16,870), or automatic ($17,670), is the sporty edition, with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lamps, black grille, rear spoiler, and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift lever. Most important, Yaris SE upgrades to four-wheel disc brakes. (All prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Nine airbags are standard on all 2016 Yaris models, and a rearview camera is available.
Even though the overall Yaris hatchback profile is restrained, if not outright bland, the front end ranks as unusually bold, indeed, flamboyant. Added for 2015, the oversize trapezoidal, black-mesh grille almost looks as if it belongs on a different car.
Most of the Yaris design was developed in France, where the cars are manufactured. Three- and five-door hatchbacks are available, but no sedans. Offering a three-door keeps the base price low, but entering the back seat can be a challenge. SE models get a more aggressive appearance, including foglamps up front and a diffuser panel at the rear.
An intuitive, practical cockpit layout puts gauges ahead of the driver. Controls are easy to understand on the horizontally oriented dashboard. Soft-touch surfaces are evident, and the front passenger benefits from a long tray at the dashboard bottom.
Yaris SE models have a more comprehensive instrument cluster.
Front seats provide plenty of space, and feel more comfortable than seats in the Nissan Versa Note. Bottom cushions are sufficiently long. They’re also wide enough to accommodate American-size physiques. Upgraded seats in SE models provide greater side support.
Because seat adjustment is restricted, establishing a comfortable driving position isn’t so easy for taller folks. Yet, headroom is generous.
For adults, the back seat is cramped. Even though rear seatbacks fold forward, the cargo floor is a tad tall and not totally flat. Still, cargo volume totals a respectable 15.3 cubic feet.
Compared to most subcompacts, the Yaris comes up short on performance and handling, as well as overall drive quality. Only if you pick the top-rung SE, with manual shift, can you expect a taste of driving exhilaration.
Small-car buyers don’t necessarily crave roadgoing excitement, of course. Still, the Yaris provides a rather old-fashioned experience, yielding plenty of noise but not so much action. The low-powered, low-tech engine must be revved high to reach its peak torque output; and when it does, that engine is roaring.
Performance is best with the manual gearbox; but again, you have to keep engine revs high in order to elicit useful responses in around-town driving.
As for the obsolete 4-speed automatic, it’s poorly matched to the ineffectual engine. Push the gas pedal to elicit more power, and you’re likely to get loud, dramatic downshifts.
On the plus side, the electric power steering feels better than comparable units in other Toyota models. Steering effort eases at higher speeds, just as it should, and the Yaris stays on-center for confident control on the highway. Easy to park, a Yaris maneuvers smartly in urban traffic.
Rather soft spring rates limit the impact of pavement bumps and ripply roads. Roadholding improves with the stiffer suspension of the SE model, without impairing ride comfort appreciably. Brakes behave well, with less pedal mushiness than some rivals.
Expect comparatively good ride comfort for a car in this class. Bobbing up/down motions, common to short-wheelbase small cars, are minimal in the Yaris.
Fuel economy isn’t as appealing as expected, EPA-rated at 30/37 mpg City/Highway or 33 mpg Combined, with manual shift. With automatic, as most Yaris’s are equipped, the EPA Highway figure dips to 36 mpg.
Engine noise and lack of power in highway driving might be forgiven if the Yaris got better gas mileage. Among the competition, the Nissan Versa has more back-seat space, and Honda’s Fit offers greater cabin flexibility. All three beat Yaris in fuel economy. For far greater thriftiness, Toyota’s subcompact Prius C is worth considering. On the plus side, Yaris is less expensive than Fit, has more comfortable seats than Versa, is smooth and quiet, and is convenient for running errands.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. NCTD editor Mitch McCullough and correspondent James M. Flammang contributed to this report.