Toyota's new small-car entrant to the U.S. market, the Yaris, showed up at CNET's doorstep, so I took it for a drive over the wild and woolly streets of San Francisco. I'd recently watched a soccer match on an episode of Top Gear, which was played with the Toyota Aygos, a car very similar to the Yaris, and felt compelled to thrash the car around. In an industrial area down 3rd Street, in the colorfully named neighborhood of Dogpatch, there were plenty of desolate and destroyed roads to test out the Yaris's cornering and low gear response. And it was a lot of fun, more due to the car's very basic nature than to any exceptional performance notes.
The 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine combined with the five-speed manual transmission in our hatchback test car could make the front-drive wheels chirp, but acceleration isn't impressive. This transmission is designed to move the car through a wide range of speeds and doesn't do much for low-end torque. Second gear takes the car up to 30mph and comfortably holds it there, while third gear runs all the way up to 60mph without much problem. Fourth gear is content at about 55mph, and fifth gear just keeps the fuel consumption low at 80mph.
The small size of the car is conducive to throwing it around but also helps considerably in heavy city traffic, where the smallest gaps will still permit a lane change. I ran it on to the freeway and found it pretty capable. It's maneuverable and fast enough, although acceleration could still be a problem in emergencies. The Yaris's ride comfort is surprisingly good for such a small car--it doesn't exactly float over the bumps, but it dampens them reasonably. Toyota quality is evident throughout the car, from its materials to fit and finish. With the hatchback version, there are rear seats, but legroom is almost nonexistent. However, the rear seats easily fold down, creating quite a bit of cargo space. There's a sedan version if you have more than one friend.
The Yaris sits at the bottom of Toyota's U.S. car lineup, and electronics are minimal. Navigation and Bluetooth are not offered, but the upgraded stereo system, part of the $1,290 Power Package, isn't half bad. It comes with an auxiliary input and a CD player that reads MP3s and WMAs. There are only four speakers, but the quality of the audio is OK at moderate volume levels. Turn it up, and the separation disappears, while distortion enters the picture. I found the control layout decent, with easy folder navigation and ID3-tagging information in the single-line display. A text button cycles through the tags on any particular track, displaying song title, artist, and album.
The Yaris's safety equipment is pretty minimal. It does have front air bags and side-impact door beams, but that's about the extent of it. After one skid made clear the lack of antilock brakes, I figured the traction control was also out of the question. At a base price of $10,950, you wouldn't expect traction control, but when you find yourself spinning off the road on some rainy night, you might think an upgrade to a Scion would have been wise.