2012 Toyota Yaris Shows Spark Is Back At Toyota

By Paul Seredynski August 17, 2011

2012 Toyota Yaris SE lead.jpg

The 2012 Toyota Yaris may be the smallest car Toyota sells in the U.S., but it could be the start of something big for the beleaguered auto giant. Fuel and space-efficient, the 2012 Yaris subcompact is very nearly (dare we say it?) fun-to-drive. If this smartly-priced and spunky little B-segment player is any measure of Toyota's resurgence, the rest of the industry best take note. For Toyota, beset by recalls and then natural disasters, a fresh approach that finally addresses the real gains of its competitors couldn't come soon enough. The 2012 Yaris actually appears ready to do battle in the increasingly fierce sub-compact arena, one swarming with fresh young talent.

Perhaps as notable as the frisky new product is the marketing plan for the 2012 Yaris. The subcompact will be the first Toyota U.S.A product launched with an all-digital marketing campaign. Though Toyota claims a wide demographic for the Yaris, this cyber-only campaign will target first-time shoppers. “Our marketing is going towards a younger buyer,” explained Yaris Marketing Manager Mary Legallet. “We still have our traditional Toyota small car buyers who have been buying them for years and we don’t have to oversell ourselves to them. But all of our marketing research has indicated that we can bring in a different buyer with this so that’s why we’re targeting them.”

2012 Toyota Yaris SE prof.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE rear.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE r34.jpg

The Yaris and its all-digital marketing campaign will have its work cut out -- year-to-date Yaris sales are off over 50 percent compared to last year (26,058 vs. 13,080). The Honda Fit has seen 32 percent sales growth in the same inventory-challenged period. Once one of the few offerings in the U.S. B-segment minor league (launched as the Toyota Echo in 2000), the new Yaris will face a major league A-team including the new Hyundai Accent (and upcoming Kia Rio twin), the Sync-festooned Ford Fiesta, the U.S.-built Chevy Sonic, and Honda’s stalwart Fit. Toyota stated at the Yaris preview event that it sees that U.S. B-segment growing to 500,000 units a year by 2013, and that it expects to sell 2,000 Yaris a month in 2012. The subcompact fireworks should start soon, as the 2012 Yaris is scheduled to begin production at the Toyota City Shokki plant in Japan on August 31, with U.S. deliveries beginning in early October. According to Legallet, disruptions due to Japan’s natural disasters would not delay start of production for Yaris.

080911 Yaris Sales - AO.jpgHatchback Comeback
When the Yaris (as Echo) first launched in the U.S., it was available only as a four-door sedan and three door coupe. When the next-generation arrived in 2007, a three-door hatchback joined the sedan in the lineup, followed shortly afterward by a five-door hatch. For 2012, the Yaris will be available only as a hatchback -- ‘liftback’ in Toyota parlance -- though the previous-gen sedan version will continue on for fleet-only sales. Beyond the sedan evaporating, equally large news is the reduction in available trim combinations: the Yaris will go from 24 down to seven. “We packaged the car in a way which our customers told us they wanted,” said Rick LoFaso, Toyota U.S.A.’s car/van corporate marketing manager. “A vast majority are saying that’s the way we want the car, it’s prudent upon us to listen to the customer, content it in a way that they want it, and price it accordingly.”

“This car is a global car,” LoFaso continued. “They build it for us, they build it for Europe, they build it for Asia. In terms of the volumes, this car is much bigger in Europe where gas prices are a lot higher and consumers are much more accepting of the smaller, B-platform car. The European version of this car has a lot more levels of equipment and content and variability than we do. So in terms of impact to the company, they’ve got this big portfolio in the way that they can build this car, we just opted from the menu list. We have local control for all that decision making.”

2012 Toyota Yaris SE grille.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris engine.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE headlight.jpg

Entry-level pricing is up $960 from the current $13,155 base sticker, but content has seen a significant boost across the board. “We understand that the current generation of this car has a starting price that is lower,” LoFaso conceded. “But when you add in equipment that was optional last year and the additional equipment we put in, the actual cost to the consumer on a cost-per basis is down.” According to LoFaso, a comparably equipped volume leader LE 5-door will set consumers back about $200 less. The three-door 2012 Yaris will arrive in the base L ($14,115) and LE trim ($15,625), the five-door Yaris will be available in L, LE and a sportier SE trim ($16,400). There’s only one available option: cruise control on the Yaris LE, which is standard on the SE. The sportier SE model (top) is what speaks most to the shifts within Toyota.

Where previous “S” edition Toyota models have often been badge-and-sill-skirt cosmetic jobs, the new Yaris SE actually has real sporting upgrades, including unique alloy wheels and fatter tires, a tauter suspension with stiffer springs and revalved shocks, a quicker steering ratio, larger four-wheel disc brakes (vs. standard rear drums), and more supportive seats. Even the base model has been firmed up, making the Yaris feel more alert. The Yaris SE feels eager and almost chuckable, a paradigm shift from the last decade of marshmallowy offerings from Toyota. With such formidable competition in the class, the Yaris will need all the spunk it can get.

080911 Subcompact Sales - AO.jpgCost Of Content
The 2012 Toyota Yaris is almost is three inches (2.9) longer than the previous model, but checks in 20 kilograms (44 pounds) lighter. Overall width remains unchanged, but front shoulder room is up over an inch, while overall height drops 0.6-inches (the ample headroom is essentially unchanged). According to Yaris Chief Engineer Hirofumi Yamamoto, chassis rigidity is up 10 percent, even though the wheelbase on the Yaris has been stretched nearly 2 inches (1.9). The off-putting center-mounted gauges have finally been ditched, for a more legible and adult spot in front of the driver. Manual-tranny Yaris versions (L and SE only) even net a tachometer. Though the lighter Yaris chassis has seen some mods, the drivetrain remains essentially unchanged. All Yaris models are powered by the same 106-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, which carries over from the previous-gen model. Small aero tweaks see fuel economy bumped about 1 mpg (30/38/33 city/hwy/combined vs. the previous gen 29/36/32).

2012 Toyota Yaris LE-SE radio.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE gauges.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE dash.jpg

Knowing that tech is playing an increasing role in all car purchases, particularly among younger buyers, the 2012 Yaris seems to have the basic quiver of electronics covered. Though a navigation system (and hence Toyota’s new Entune setup) is not available, Bluetooth (including audio streaming – think Pandora), full iPod control via USB, HD Radio, and steering wheel mounted audio controls are all standard on LE/SE trims. The Yaris LE/SE also gets a decent sounding 6-speaker audio system as standard. The all-new dash is clean and attractive, and the tilt-but-not-telescope D-shaped steering wheel adds an unexpectedly rich touch. Other surprising content on the new Yaris is nine standard airbags, including front seat-cushion chambers designed to prevent seatbelt-submarining in the event of a crash. Clever is a single large windshield-wiper blade, with a simple design that keeps the washer spray out in front of the blade in both directions.

The engine uses port-, not direct-injection (see Hyundai Accent), and the power unit is still tied to a 5-speed manual or four-speed automatic. No direct-injection and sticking to an archaic four-speed automatic are both likely cost issues. Adding more standard content has to come from somewhere, and the Japanese makes will struggle on small car profit in the U.S. so long as the dollar/yen exchange rate remains unsavory. Toyota reps also admitted that the four-speed auto dings Yaris hwy mpg a bit, but note it’s still class competitive on the more important combined mpg figure. Though worth using on the SE, take rate on the ropey manual transmission is expected to be only 10 percent. It’s hard to argue with the hatch-only decision however, when you hear the liftback take rate was already over 70 percent.

080911 Yaris Pie Chart - AO.jpg"It's a Car!!"
Toyota claims the most frequently cross-shopped vehicles for the Yaris are the Honda Civic and Honda Fit. “The most common vehicle replaced is a compact, a sub-compact or a mid-sized car, but most of those vehicles particularly in the mid-sized segment are older,” Legallet said. “So when you look at price to size, they’re the same, it’s just a different segment. Then once you get out of those three segments, it’s really difficult to quantify because they are all over the map. Sometimes it’s a second or third car, sometimes it’s a replacement vehicle, sometimes it’s a commuter vehicle.”

The all-digital marketing campaign launched online earlier this week at tech-site Gizmodo (long sponsored by the Yaris), features a spot riffing on the online “unboxing” trend (think excruciatingly detailed uncrating of an iPad). The “Yaris. It’s a Car!!” campaign may sound like low-expectations, but it’s designed to target tech-savvy youths who will regularly tune in on the web to see the latest electronic device painstakingly removed from its original packaging. “I have a 20 year old daughter,” LoFaso explained. “If you try to reach her through broadcast media, forget it, she doesn’t watch TV. You’ve got to reach her through Hulu, those type of media. We cliniced this car, it’s very clear it appeals to a younger audience. The digital campaign makes sense to appeal to that audience and so we constructed a campaign around them. We think it will be very, very effective.”

Toyota has definitely brought a player to the class, and the Yaris seems remarkably well targeted for the swelling B-segment. “We think this car is very well positioned in terms of content, pricing, value, safety. We’re very bullish right now. I think our sales forecast for this [calendar] year was about 15,000. Next year, 25,000 over 15,000. That’s a substantial increase. So, yeah, we expect to become a larger share.” For the first time in many years after driving a new Toyota product, we must acknowledge the basis for enthusiasm. If the 2012 Yaris is any measure, it seems Toyota is not just coming back – they’ve been listening.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE wheel.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris hatch.jpg 2012 Toyota Yaris SE int.jpg

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