Toyota's Latest: A Car of Compromises
As reports rolled in detailing the new pint-sized models from the big three automakers in Japan, I wondered, "Why do they even bother?" This is America, land of the free, home of the brave and protector of all things ridiculously large. What allure could a tiny econobox hold in the realm of eight-lane freeways?
But as gas prices hover around $3 a gallon, it seems consumers are embracing the fuel-sipper. May sales of Toyota's Yaris (base price: $11,530, including destination charge), which debuted this spring, equaled those of the popular Prius. The Honda Fit ($14,400), recently delivered to dealers, showed strong initial sales, too, and Nissan is set to introduce its Versa (around $12,500) this summer.
I recently spent several days driving the Yaris. Simply put, it's a car of compromises. The price is nice, and it's rated by the EPA at an easy-to-take 34 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. Here's the trouble: The quality is inconsistent.
Functionality is foremost
Sitting in the driver's seat, I could imagine myself in any number of cars -- there's space to spare. Even climbing into the back with the front seats fully moved back, I had a few inches of knee room (but I'm only 5 feet 4 inches -- six-footers, don't try this).
2007 Toyota Yaris
The mini mobile wasn't made for long hauls with the family, but it would make a nice ride for a road-trip for two. With the optional 60/40-split rear seat, you can slide one or both halves forward about 6 inches and fold both flat. A variety of cargo configurations can follow -- a necessity if you intend on packing more than one standard-issue carry-on suitcase. Cargo space behind the rear seats is a paltry 9 cubic feet but nearly triples with the seats folded.
When I took to the streets, this low-rider hugged the road and handled turns well with light, but responsive, steering. Braking was good, but the manual transmission could use some work. I shifted into the wrong gear a couple of times, and the clutch must be on the floor to engage it (expect a few leg cramps getting used to it). Pickup was fair at best -- about what you'd expect from a 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine.
The diminutive size is the best thing about this car and the very last thing with which I expected to fall in love. With a bumper-to-bumper length of only 12#189; feet (just slightly longer than the Mini Cooper), it fits well in the tiniest of parking spaces. Zipping around town, even on a routine grocery run, is fun.
Options agrave; la carte
The sleek, pod-like exterior of the liftback (read: hatchback) was designed with style and flair. That image faded quickly when I lost my balance getting into the car for lack of a center console or armrest. My eyes traveled up from my wayward elbow to a cheap-looking dash replete with plastic dials for heat and air-conditioning.
Air conditioning, by the way, is one of the only amenities that come standard on the car. Toyota nickel and dimes buyers, charging $150 for floor mats, $129 for the missing center armrest and $1,290 for a power package, including power windows and door locks. If you want an automatic transmission, expect to pay another $900.
Even safety features will cost you -- $650 for front side bolster and side curtain airbags, $300 for anti-lock brakes (ABS is included with the power package).
Bottom line: The Yaris won't break the bank, but if you long for style through and through (even on a subcompact), this isn't the car for you. Try the Mazda3 ($14,270) or the Mini Cooper ($18,000). Or, if you can make the stretch, consider Volkswagen's new GTI ($22,620). It exudes cool and has a commanding 200-horsepower engine. If you can make peace with the compromise, enjoy the ride.