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Ten years ago an inexpensive, comfortable, well-built car like the 2007 Toyota Yaris would have been a slam dunk. In fact, it was a slam dunk. It was called the Corolla and it was one of the best-selling compact sedans of its time.
But over the last decade, compact sedan buyers got greedy. They asked for more room, better features and increased horsepower. Toyota listened, building a larger Corolla with more standard features and a bigger engine.
Now with gas prices at nearly $3 a gallon, those same buyers suddenly have a conscience. They've joined Greenpeace, bought hemp socks and started looking for smaller, cheaper and more fuel-efficient sedans. Cars like the Yaris.
Not always inexpensive
As the cheapest machine in Toyota's lineup, the Yaris competes with other new subcompacts like the 2007 Honda Fit and 2007 Nissan Versa, as well as the Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Aveo.
There are two body styles — a slightly cheaper three-door Yaris hatchback and the four-door Yaris sedan — but only the sedan offers an upgraded "S" model. Yeah, even subcompacts get the sport treatment these days. A Yaris S sedan, like our test car, gets extra body cladding, bigger 15-inch wheels and a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack.
With the optional four-speed automatic, the Yaris S starts at $14,050, but equipped with nearly every available option like our test car, the price tops out at $17,045. The extra $3 grand added the Power package with antilock brakes; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; a tachometer; and upgraded interior trim, along with stand-alone options like side curtain airbags, foglamps and keyless entry.
Despite its subcompact label, the Yaris is longer, wider and heavier than the Echo it replaces and about the same size as that best-selling Corolla from a decade ago.
It also has a longer wheelbase, which is why the Yaris doesn't feel like a subcompact from inside. In fact, the Yaris has more front legroom than a current-generation Corolla and the Yaris is only half an inch shy of its bigger brother in the headroom department. Shoulder room, however, is 2 inches tighter compared to the Corolla.
Passenger room in back is surprisingly good, with slightly more rear legroom than the Corolla. With the driver seat adjusted for a 6-footer there's enough space behind the seat for an average-sized adult to sit without bumping his head or knees. There's good toe room under the front seats as well.
Classing it up
Toyota calls the Yaris' interior design "class-up" styling, and at first glance it looks a little more stylish than your average econobox. Surely, the optional metallic trim on our test car helped.
The V-shaped center stack uses a pedestal design, which looks interesting, but with no room for cupholders it's not very practical. All the controls on the stack itself are well organized, and the center-mounted gauges that sit on top look to be Camry-grade stuff. Putting the gauges in the middle isn't our preferred setup, but in a car with 106 horsepower you don't spend much time worrying about your speed.
Standard height-adjustable front seats and a tilt steering wheel are unexpected features for this segment. If you're tall the driver seat still doesn't adjust low enough, however, and the vinyl steering wheel feels cheap no matter how perfectly you adjust it.
Trunk space is about average at 12.9 cubic feet. The hatchback versions of the Yaris and the Fit offer more cargo room, but the trunk in the Hyundai Accent sedan is slightly smaller.
Style comes at a price
As slick as the Yaris looks on the inside, the design botches simple things like decent cupholders. Instead of putting them between the seats where they should be, Toyota placed one on each side of the dashboard. They're not only poorly placed; they're too shallow to hold big cups and too high to trust with a hot cup of coffee.
Storage space is a problem, too, as the only accessible bins sit behind the base of the center stack. Try fishing your Razr phone out of there a few times and the cool pedestal design suddenly seems as dumb as the cupholders you can't reach.
Those bins house the auxiliary plug for the stereo, however, so they are useful for holding your iPod. Sound quality from the upgraded MP3-capable stereo is decent, but with black numbers on a dull green background the faceplate isn't always easy to see.
Only one engine is offered: a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder with Toyota's latest VVT-i technology. It produces 106 hp at 6,000 rpm and 103 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Decent numbers for the segment, but the engine is loud at full throttle and with so little power you find yourself digging into the gas often.
The good news is that it's easy on the gas card. We averaged 32.9 mpg over a week of daily driving.
Shifts from the four-speed automatic are reasonably quick and the gearing feels about right. At the track, our Yaris turned in a 0-60 time of 10.8 seconds. A Honda Fit with a manual will do the same in 9.2. The quarter-mile takes 17.8 seconds in the Yaris; the Fit does it in 16.7.
Like the Fit, the Yaris has excellent brakes. Its best stop from 60 mph was 122 feet.
Imported, from Europe
Although the Yaris has been on sale in Europe since 1999, the U.S. version is an all-new vehicle built on a unique chassis. Toyota claims its MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion bar rear suspension result in better handling, less interior noise and a smoother ride.
It got part of it right. The Yaris blew through our slalom at 65.9 mph, slower than the Fit (67.5) but faster than a Pontiac Solstice. Despite that athleticism, the Yaris S isn't much fun to toss around due to its substantial body roll and minimal steering feedback.
Ride quality on the highway is much improved over the Echo. You don't feel every crack in the pavement and wind gusts no longer redirect you into the next lane. There's less road noise, too.
When you're driving the Yaris around town, the word "competent" often comes to mind. Not "refined" or "sporty" or "fun": just "competent." The steering is light for easy parking maneuvers and the turning circle is tighter than the Fit by 2 feet. Basically it feels secure and comfortable, nothing more.
Some are more valuable than others
Ten years ago the Corolla was the standard against which every other subcompact was measured. These days, however, it's clear the competition has looked to a higher standard than the Yaris.
For $2 grand less than the price of our test car, you could get a similarly equipped Hyundai Accent with a better warranty, an equally spacious interior and decent cupholders. Or for $16K you could go with the loaded Honda Fit Sport, which is more fun to drive and has a better stereo, superior ergonomics and a more flexible interior.
Any way you look at it, the 2007 Toyota Yaris is average. And when you're trying to save the world, average doesn't cut it. Even people who wear hemp socks know that.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
While this vehicle doesn't speak to me, I can certainly understand its appeal: renowned Toyota quality, reliability and miserly fuel economy at a bargain price. Then why don't I like it? I had the misfortune of spending a particularly difficult, two-and-a-half hour, bumper-to-bumper commute in the Yaris, so my two dissenting opinions might be tarnished. However, my right knee and shin were in constant contact with a hard bit of plastic on the center console that in many other cars has some sort of accommodation to avoid this discomfort.
Also, for a "commuter car," the Yaris seems to offer precious few places to easily place everyday items like a mobile phone, bottle of water and parking key card. My larger complaint, which won't apply to most people who would find the Yaris attractive, is that it doesn't have a soul. The Yaris isn't unique in this case. Why economical cars in general are necessarily appliancelike is a mystery. Perhaps because their primary mission is simply to get from A to B for the least amount of cash, but that doesn't have to mean the styling, chassis tuning or gestalt all need to follow that lowest common denominator, does it?
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says:
I'm having a tough time with the little Toyota's name. It makes me yawn, like it's a natural reflex. Come on, marketing people, Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris? Which name is more likely to lure broke, young, wannabe-hip buyers into new-car showrooms?
Beyond the terrible name, the Yaris isn't bad; it's simply forgettable. Styling beats the pants off the dead Echo, but there's not one exterior feature that's easily recalled after you turn away, and the interior is more of the same. Other than the bright chrome dash trim, the cabin mirrors your average rental car. At least the simple knob controls are well placed, and the seats, although not overly cushy, are adequate for commuting.
If I were shopping the subcompact segment I wouldn't hurry into a Yaris. I'd save my $17K for the Honda Fit, and get a four-door with the versatility of a hatchback to boot.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our Yaris was an S sedan and it includes the convenience package that's optional on the base sedan. That package includes a four-speaker stereo with the ability to play MP3- and WMA-coded CDs, plus it has a mini-jack connection for playing handheld MP3 devices.
Performance: With just four speakers, the Yaris' basic stereo will never trick anyone into thinking it's a premium unit, but the sound quality isn't bad. Still, stereos in cars like the Honda Fit, Kia Spectra and Suzuki Aerio sound better on the whole.
The Yaris' stereo produces adequate bass response but it's somewhat muddy, and the sound has almost no separation. Every instrument and/or vocal track just runs together. At higher volumes, there is noticeable distortion but we like the gradual progression of the volume knob.
When adjusting the bass or treble, we found it helpful that the screen for each of those functions doesn't instantly time out. By adding a few seconds to the time that screen stays up, it makes it easier to get just the right setting. However, we'd like to see an adjustable midrange.
Another high point is the auxiliary MP3 jack and the CD player's ability to play MP3s and WMA files. Ultimately this gives its score a slight boost.
Best Feature: Flexibility in playing various types of music files.
Worst Feature: So-so sound quality.
Conclusion: Given the Yaris' sub-$15,000 base price, we really can't complain too much. This stereo is adequate and nothing more. — Brian Moody
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