Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
Toyota executives introduce the 2012 Toyota Yaris at a trendy Culver City eatery overrun with cartoonlike sculptures and angst-ridden paintings; it's the kind of place that calls itself a "café/shop/art space." The youthful vibe of the location is no accident, what with Toyota hoping to snare a younger buyer (via an all-digital campaign, naturally) with this new, second-generation Yaris.
Of course, you need more than just targeted marketing to make this happen. Though last year's modest 106-horsepower 1.5-liter engine remains, more emphasis has been placed on making the Yaris fun to drive, and our test car is part of an all-new SE trim that features sharper steering and a sport-tuned suspension. Every Yaris gets assertive new sheet metal and spruced-up cabins — no more awkward, center-mounted gauges. And the previous generation's pitiful cargo capacity sees some improvement, with the current model offering up to 68 percent more room for your luggage.
Toyota also hopes to set the Yaris apart on the strength of its safety features, and the car is equipped with nine standard airbags and front seats designed to mitigate whiplash injury.
Overall, it's not a bad package, but it's not enough to make us forget the well-rounded Ford Fiesta, the versatile Hyundai Accent. Still, this new 2012 Toyota Yaris is undeniably good-looking and pleasant to drive. Factor in its impressive safety amenities along with Toyota's record for reliability and it's easy to see the car striking the right balance for certain buyers.
The 2012 Toyota Yaris is powered by a 1.5-liter inline-4 good for 106 hp and 103 pound-feet of torque. It's the same engine seen in the outgoing model, but this time around it has less weight to move, since the current Yaris is lighter by about 40 pounds or so. In our test car, the engine is teamed with a new four-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is also available). A four-speed automatic may seem low-tech given that there are many six-speed automatics in this segment, but the setup deserves credit for going about its business without the excessive, fuel-conscious downshifting seen in transmissions offered by larger compact sedans like the Chevrolet Cruze.
While the Yaris certainly isn't one of the quicker choices in this segment, there's enough pep on hand to allow you to navigate both city and freeway traffic with no panicked moments. And what our SE test car lacks in speed, it makes up for by way of its affable handling; it feels light and spry on the road, and maintains its composure in corners.
Our test car's driving dynamics represent an improvement over those of the previous Yaris, and that's exactly as Toyota planned it; the SE features a sport-tuned suspension designed to make the daily commute more enjoyable. Steering is quicker as well, and the chassis has been engineered for a tauter, more together feel even as a wheelbase that's 2 inches longer makes the ride more stable and comfortable.
With the automatic transmission, the Yaris gets EPA-rated mileage of 30 city/35 highway mpg and 32 mpg combined. These figures are quite respectable — the base model Honda Fit gets 28/35/31 and the Nissan Versa gets 24/32/27. Still, buyers who want an even more frugal choice will want to take a look at the Hyundai Accent (30/40/33) and Ford Fiesta with the SFE option (29/40/33).
One consequence of the SE's keener suspension is ride quality that falls on the stiffer side of the spectrum, but there's still enough comfort in the mix to keep the car well-behaved on the road. Most surface unpleasantness is capably neutralized.
The front seats are perched high to present commanding views of the road ahead. The SE model features sport seats, but they're flatter and less aggressively bolstered than most others we've encountered, which makes them suitable even for wider drivers. The chairs are well-padded and supportive, and serve as an agreeable roost throughout the three or so hours we spend piloting the Yaris through Los Angeles and Santa Monica on our test loop.
There's some road and tire noise to be heard as the 2012 Toyota Yaris navigates surface streets, and when we hit the highway, wind noise also makes an appearance. None of it is excessive, but if you're a stickler for cabin serenity, keep in mind that the Accent offers a quieter time behind the wheel.
As is the case with most economy cars, the Yaris boasts a control layout that's blessedly intuitive; heat and air-conditioning are governed by a familiar three-knob setup. Audio controls are managed via a handful of logically placed buttons and knobs; four buttons to the left of the center stack allow you to select a band, and they're joined by a large volume control knob, and buttons to the bottom right that allow you to assign or select your favorite stations. The display screen is on the small side, but there's enough real estate to present information in an easily legible way.
Once upon a time, you didn't expect much by way of tech from cars in the Yaris' humble price range, but those days are well behind us. Our SE features Bluetooth with phonebook access, music streaming via Bluetooth wireless technology and an iPod interface. There's also a USB port, though we wish it had been placed in a less awkward location; it's found deep in the roof of the glovebox.
One tech feature you won't find in the 2012 Toyota Yaris is a factory-installed navigation system. However, we suspect that this is less of an issue these days than it was in times past, since there are currently tons of portable and handheld navigation units on the market that do the job for thousands less than the costly factory-installed systems you get with a new car.
There's not much by way of in-cabin storage. There's no center console bin and the door bins are small, though they are equipped to fit taller water bottles.
On the plus side, though, the Yaris' backseat is surprisingly spacious, with lots of legroom. Additionally, since the front seats are mounted high off the ground, they offer ample space underneath where those seated in the second row can plant their toes and feet if they need to.
At 15.6 cubic feet, cargo capacity in our SE represents a big improvement over that of the previous Yaris. Still, it trails that of many others in this segment; you'll get more utility with the Fit (20.6 cubic feet), Accent (21.2 cubic feet) and Versa (17.8 cubic feet).
Visibility is decent from most angles, thanks to the car's generous greenhouse.
Design/Fit and Finish
With its heroic square jaw and lower stance (0.6 inch shorter than its predecessor), the 2012 Toyota Yaris speaks a design language that's more forceful than that of the previous generation. The cabin design is simple yet attractive; the center stack, especially, is intuitively laid out, while at the same time reflecting modern flair.
Materials quality is good for this segment, though not especially ambitious. Buttons feel stable and secure, and knobs turn with precise, well-damped movement.
Who should consider this vehicle
Though the 2012 Toyota Yaris is marketed toward younger drivers, the car is a decent fit for drivers of all ages who want a small, inexpensive car with amenable driving dynamics and good-looking sheet metal. It trails cars like the Accent and Fiesta in highway mileage; still, its respectable city and combined mileage figures make it a solid pick for fuel-conscious drivers who spend lots of time on surface streets.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.