I'm A Boy Racer!

2012 Toyota Yaris SE 8
2012 Toyota Yaris SE 5-door. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2012 Toyota Yaris

A few years ago, the subcompact market received a boost in the North American market.

That boost came from the skyrocketing price of crude oil, a global financial crisis, and an overall lack of consumer confidence. The talk amongst some automakers circled around the notion that subcompacts would help save the industry and boost the economy.

Maybe.

There has been an interest in smaller automobiles when fuel scaled back up (and over) $4.00 a gallon. This time, some of the promises of the automotive industry were delivered. General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Fiat, MINI, smart, Honda, Nissan and Toyota established this market segment with a variety of products emphasizing efficiency and packaging. On some level, there was a variance in quality – perhaps instilling fears from consumers that any small car they would buy would fall apart more rapidly than their larger brethren.

A slew of new subcompacts have been permeating North America within the past several months offering loads of promise in terms of quality, comfort, space, performance and efficiency. The result is a shocking price jump where the sub-$10,000 car no longer exists here.

Look beyond price and you will be surprised what goes into today's subcompacts. It is as anything larger had been downsized into one of the mighty mites.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE 12

Until recently, my driving experience in these small cars had revolved around a few vehicles. The one vehicle that topped the small car food chain for me has been the Toyota Yaris. The last generation offered a no-nonsense driving experience, despite a few quirks. Globally, it was a huge success.

Recently, the Yaris ran into a small problem – the competition. While everyone improved, the Yaris soldiered on. This year alone, the Yaris found itself knocked off its top position by an ambitious new Korean subcompact – the Kia Rio. I found out that a few people were not too happy to see this happen. Therefore, I asked Toyota to send out the latest Yaris to see whether this is all a fluke. They did. Now, we will find out whether the new Yaris is (a) better than the old one and (b) still considered one of the best subcompacts in the marketplace.

What Toyota sent was a different kind of Yaris – the SE 5-door hatchback. The sporty trim level takes the diminutive Yaris from a mere appliance to a boy racer. The redesign for 2012 sharpened up the lines and created a different glasshouse for the four-plus-hatch door model. This impetus behind the redesign was to unify Toyota's latest design language throughout its passenger car lineup. So far, so good…

The boy racer SE received further tweaks to the body. The front fascia was swapped for a mesh-like black upper grille and a lower air dam with a chrome-framed lower grille. Side sills were extended and the bumper received some aggressive lower extensions. The package is topped off with a set of gray 16-inch alloy rims and a single chrome exhaust tip. The Yaris SE follows a formula that several of its competitors employ for its sports package, yet some of these cars pull these body modifications off better.

Oddly enough, this is the first time I have driven a five-door Yaris (my usual shared car rental – HourCar of the Twin Cities – was the standard three-door with a few upgrades). I was surprised by how easy it was to get in and out of the car, as the doors were accommodating to many bodies. The hatch opens high enough to clear the heads of tall people when loading groceries or their bounty from Best Buy.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE 16

It is when you step inside where the questions began comparing the two generations of Yaris. The prior Yaris had comfortable, spongy seats with the instrument binnacle in the middle of the upper dash canted towards the driver. This generation of Yaris moved the speedometer and gauges in front of the driver, but positioned lower just below the cowl. The advantage of the previous Yaris instrument panel was to keep the attention of the driver ahead all of the time. For tall drivers, the lower binnacle created a challenge to check on key functions while in motion. In the SE, the tachometer was a bit small and scrunched for the average driver to decipher where the revs are. The controls were as good as Toyota gets – they work very well.

The SE’s seats offered great bolstering that gives to the width of the person while locking the driver on spirited drives. Between the bolsters are firm cushions and backs that lacked a center lumbar adjustment. After a while, they give a bit as well. Rear room is decent for most people and the rear seat offered a reasonable amount of comfort.

Audio-wise, the SE received a familiar faceplate from Scion – a Pioneer-based audio system. As with the Scion, some of the switches were finicky and the Bluetooth connection was a challenge to maintain. When playing audio files from my Blackberry, there would be interruptions in playback. The good news is that the Yaris' six speakers emitted a good sound around the cabin. The phone part of the Bluetooth worked just fine.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE 20

Under the hood is an old familiar 1.5litre dual overhead camshaft four-cylinder that is traced back to the Echo (also called Yaris outside of North America way back when). The 1NZ-FE engine yields only 106 horsepower with 103 pound-feet of torque. These numbers put the Yaris close to the bottom of the North American automotive food chain, but do not let those numbers fool you. It has enough power to pull this small car anywhere. Not only that, the longevity of the 1NZ-FE also meant optimal reliability – something that is measured in the real world compared to a brand new engine.

The Yaris' biggest Achilles' heel was its four-speed automatic transmission, another component dating back to the Echo. Normally, the transmission would work just as well to maintain the revs, especially in the overdrive gear. Instead, it induced revs towards the limiter at every upshift. If you are cruising on an Interstate at 70MPH and find that the revs are sticking at 3,000RPM, you are probably asking yourself whether there is a real overdrive gear in that transmission. To resolve this problem and to stay competitive in this segment, Toyota would have to install another one-to-two gears to their automatic.

When you are on the road, the Yaris showed off more than its Boy Racer aspirations. The ride was a bit firm, with some feedback from the worst bumps on the road. Minor bumps are dampened enough not to shock you through the cabin. There was some present roll and lean on the corners, but the Yaris managed to stick to the road competently. Braking action was sharp and sure with all discs on every wheel and anti-lock to keep it under control. When you turn the wheel, the Yaris reacted sharply with Boy Racer reflexes. Though it would be nice if the steering had a smaller turning radius compared to its competitors.

On the road, the Yaris was quite noisy. Whether it was the road noise from its low profile tires, the wind noise around the car or the whine of the revvy engine, quiet and serenity is not one of the Yaris' hallmarks. In this class, noise buffeting may not be a standard compared to a larger car. Perhaps, this noise is forgivable – a sound of a willing and able Boy Racer.

In the subcompact field, there is an expectation where fuel economy will win consumers over to these small vehicles. In the Yaris, I managed 30MPG.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE 14

As with all automobiles, prices are not what they used to be. In relative terms, the Yaris remains a bargain. Prices start at $14,875 for a three-door L model with a manual transmission. The automatic SE five-door tester came in at $18,140. For those of us who would rather just fulfill Toyota’s claim that the Yaris is just "a car," the middle of the road LE five-door with automatic and cruise control is your best bet at $17,290.

Despite some of the down points on the Yaris, one should never rule out this car from their shopping list. Toyota has done a good job ensuring the Yaris as a solid part of its lineup by pricing it competitively and increasing the features from previous years. The market has seen some leaps and bounds with more powerful cars, higher content and better quality and execution.

Many of the pundits have already written off the new Yaris from contention. Perhaps one look would convince you to keep it on the shopping list. It does not hurt to give the Yaris a try.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

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