The Toyota Camry set a standard for the car as appliance, an unexciting machine that got you from point A to point B without hassle, a car for people who don't particularly like cars. The Toyota Yaris can be seen as a stepping-stone to the Camry, an unexciting car that will do its job and do it well, demanding minimal investment from its owner, both in initial and running costs.
The unassuming little Yaris that arrived in our garage was a 2009 sedan model, featuring Toyota's unique design language with the badge pushed out from the hood, over a narrow grille. Inside, the ergonomics are a little weird. Lacking a wide range of adjustment, the steering wheel sat at lap-level. The seat doesn't have height adjustment, either, dictating a somewhat odd driving position.
As a car designed to be easily convertible from right- to left-hand drive at the factory, the instrument cluster sits in a pod at the center of the dashboard, leaving a sweep of empty plastic in front of the driver. The stereo and climate controls also seem unbiased toward the driver or passenger.
Our model came with the optional Power package, equipping it with an upgraded stereo capable of playing MP3 CDs and ready for satellite radio. Suggesting how basic the Yaris can get, the Power package also upgraded the windows to power operation, no cranking required.
Browsing MP3 CDs is made easy by simple controls to sequentially choose folders and tracks, and the stereo display is nice and big. The only other digital music option was an auxiliary input jack, mounted on the side of the console conveniently in a pocket, making a good storage area for an MP3 player.
Four door-mounted speakers make a credible attempt at reproducing music, but they largely fall short. You just can't expect to get clear highs, mids, and bass all from the same loud speaker. Instead, you get the usual muddiness rising up from floor level. The amplification seemed powerful, adding a little punch to music.
That's about it for factory tech, but Toyota offers many dealer accessories. Both iPod integration and Bluetooth mobile phone support work with the installed stereo, according to Toyota. Surprisingly, there are also many accessories available from Toyota Racing Development, such as a rear sway bar, 18-inch alloy wheels, sport muffler, and a lightweight clutch.
If you're interested in real electronics in the Yaris, you can order it with the Convenience package rather than the Power package, which uses a conventional-looking double-DIN head unit in the dash. That stereo should be easily replaceable with an all-in-one unit bringing in navigation, Bluetooth, and iPod support.
On the road, the Yaris can be a fun little car. Its little 1.5-liter four cylinder engine uses Toyota's variable valve timing technology, and produces 106 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 103 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Getting up to those engine speeds can be a challenge with the four-speed automatic transmission, but fortunately, Toyota includes three low ranges along with the drive mode. Those ranges amount to a sequential shifter.
To get a little fun out of the car, we used the low ranges to hold gears, getting into the engine's power bands. Running up a mountain road, we let the little engine wind up by keeping the transmission in its number two range, then pushed the shifter into the number three range as the tach needle headed toward the redline. We found the car performed much better in hilly terrain when we used the ranges, as opposed to letting the car shift by itself.
The Yaris isn't quick to get up to freeway speeds, but the power seems distributed pretty evenly during acceleration, with no odd peaks. In normal drive mode, the transmission doesn't seem to like downshifting, adding drama to passing maneuvers.
Surprisingly, the Yaris uses electric power steering, although the assist is pretty minimal, requiring some force to turn the 14-inch wheels when stopped. Handling is reasonable, but under stress, in a corner for example, the car feels on the verge of losing it earlier than we would expect. Antilock brakes are standard, but there isn't a stability program. There is a full range of airbags, including front and curtain.
Economy is the name of the game with the Yaris, and it earns ratings of 29 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. Likewise, the base price for the 2009 Toyota Yaris sedan is $13,765. The Power package on our car added $1,500. A few other options and the destination charge brought our total up to $16,214.