Toyota was selling subcompact cars when subcompact cars weren't cool.
A decade ago, the competition was limited to Hyundai and Kia, and neither was putting up a formidable fight. 2003's subcompact cars were vehicles to be settled for, not sought out.
But that's changed, with the biggest market shift coming in just the last few years. In this reviewer's comparison of subcompact hatchbacks, the Toyota Yaris – despite a 2012-model redesign – placed a distant last. Because the tested Yaris LE five-door, the heart of the lineup, was still designed as if Toyota misjudged the fact that there were competitors that were desirable rather than merely basic, and that they were neither no less practical nor less expensive than the Yaris. (The car is also offered as a three-door hatchback.)
Some reviewers, though, have said that there's a comparatively rare Yaris that makes all the difference for this car: the SE with a manual transmission, as opposed to the LE automatic. The SE offers a stiffer suspension and some exterior styling touches designed to elevate the car above basic.
A weeklong test demonstrated that the SE's changes make the Yaris more worthy of consideration than it otherwise would be, but it's still a tough sell in a highly competitive class.
First, the good news
For buyers who want a manual transmission, a five-speed unit is competitive in a class divided between five speeds and six. The automatic Yaris, meanwhile, makes do with four speeds while every competitor has more, allowing their engines to settle down at highway speeds for more refinement, readier power, and better fuel economy. The manual transmission has short throws and decently precise shifts, placing it among the best in the class, if short of downright joyful to use.
The Yaris LE is available only with an automatic; the SE offers a choice of transmissions.
Also, the suspension changes and grippier tires on the Yaris SE have helped the car's handling compared to the LE. A small, light car – under 2,300 pounds – has an inherent agility, but the LE's soft suspension, numb steering and skinny tires lend little confidence that the car can be flung around a fast corner. The SE not only has higher limits, but it feels more natural to push the car closer to them.
The Yaris SE also retains the strong points of the tested LE. The front seats are among the most comfortable in any subcompact – nicely shaped and well-padded, and trimmed in a high-quality two-tone cloth. (Blue and black in the tested SE.) An especially small engine provides excellent city fuel economy – 30 miles per gallon with either transmission – and tidy exterior dimensions (it's the smallest four-door on the market) make it easy to park. A well-designed cargo cover is less finicky to remove than other subcompact hatchbacks'. And the Yaris has done well in crash testing.
Despite the small engine and lack of six-speed transmissions, the Yaris also gets decent highway fuel economy. The tested 2012s are rated for an excellent 38 miles per gallon with the manual and a still-okay 35 mpg with the automatic. Tweaks to the 2013s, which are just now filtering into dealer inventories, boost automatics to 36 mpg and drop manuals to 37 in the EPA test cycle.
The tested Yaris SE manual returned 35.8 miles per gallon during a weeklong test, with more highway than city driving but a mix of both. A stretch of highway driving that stayed below 60 miles per hour returned well over 40 miles per gallon according to the car's trip computer.
The bad news
Perhaps the biggest issue that will cost the Yaris SE prospective sales is its numb, relatively slow steering response. Compared to its closest competitor – the similarly small, light and designed-for-fun Mazda2 – the Yaris SE has similar agility but none of the Mazda's zest. Turn the Mazda's steering wheel, and the car reacts quickly, and you feel resistance build naturally. Turn the Toyota's, and you can see that the car has changed direction, but you might as well have pushed a button.
Admittedly, some reviewers have had better luck with the Yaris's steering when they are playing around with the car's absolute limits on a racetrack. But the Mazda2 is alert and responsive at all speeds, making it far more enjoyable to drive on the street.
The car's other issues are the ones that the SE updates are unable to address.
-Even with the five-speed manual instead of the four-speed automatic, the little 106-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder – which dates to 2000 – is turning at nearly 3,000 rpm at 65 mph.
-The manual transmission makes the Yaris feel less lethargic, but it requires a lot of noisy revving to get moving in any semblance of a hurry.
-The car still feels insubstantial on the highway, and the stiffer suspension makes the ride quality even more unsettled.
-Toyota has maximized space efficiency, but rear seat space remains tight. Also, the head restraint must be removed to fold it down, and it doesn't lie even nearly flat.
-A relatively wide turning circle of 36.6 feet dings it as a city car, making it less practical for its most natural environment.
-Other than the seats, the Yaris has dull interior trim and messy stereo controls. The SE turns the LE's two-tone dashboard from dark gray and white to two shades of gray, though it adds more attractive gauges.
-The tested Yaris, which is well short of decadently equipped, has a sticker price of more than $17,000, and surpasses $18,000 if you choose the automatic. Discounts do not appear to be generous, making the Yaris as expensive as the competition, and more so in some cases.
In the marketplace
Even with its last-place finish, the Yaris LE is hardly a wretched choice for everyone. Its comfortable seats, small dimensions, smooth low-speed ride and excellent city fuel economy make it a decent city car despite the wide turning radius. The Yaris SE adds handling agility, and the manual transmission makes it feel less lethargic while returning even better mileage.
The customer to shop the Yaris SE is someone who's looking for a fun-to-drive subcompact yet who is for whatever reason turned off by the competition: the sharper Mazda2, the more upscale Ford Fiesta, the quicker Nissan Juke and Chevrolet Sonic turbo, the more well-rounded Hyundai Accent, and the roomier Honda Fit. To be sure, as good as today's subcompact cars have gotten, it's not inconceivable that a discerning customer might find a deal-breaking flaw in each yet none in the Yaris.
But the discerning customer is also the most likely to establish conclusively that although the current Yaris is a huge step up from the competition of a decade ago, the rest of the class has come farther.
More photos of the 2012 Toyota Yaris SE
Comparison review: Subcompact hatchbacks
Review: 2012 Toyota Yaris LE
Review: 2011 Mazda2 Touring
Review: 2012 Toyota Prius c Three
All Cars Examiner reviews
Vehicle tested: 2012 Toyota Yaris
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $14,115
Version tested: SE
Version base price (MSRP): $16,400
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $17,389
Estimated transaction price as comparable*: $16,586
Test vehicle provided by: Toyota Motor Sales USA
Key specifications: Length: 153.5 inches
Width: 66.7 inches
Height: 59.4 inches
Wheelbase: 98.8 inches
Weight: 2,295 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 15.6 cubic feet
Cargo volume with rear seat folded: Not published
Turning circle: 36.6 feet
Engine: 1.5-liter I4 with 106 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 5-speed manual
EPA city mileage: 30 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 38 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 33 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 35.8 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Japan
For more information: Toyota website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.