Standard LCD, collision prevention tech, offsets meh driving

You get what you see with the Yaris iA, including camera-based collision prevention, but its low power and cheap suspension don't make for driving enjoyment.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
4 min read

In the driver's seat of the Toyota Yaris iA, I saw the 7-inch LCD sticking up from the dashboard and wondered how much this car cost over a base model. A look at the car's sticker gave the answer: Zero dollars. The Yaris iA comes standard with an LCD-based infotainment system.

The days of radio head units with tiny, single-line monochrome displays must be over, considering the Yaris iA is one of Toyota's cheapest models.

That is a positive sign of the times in my book, as the LCD display allows for much greater flexibility and an easy upgrade path, compared with plastic dashboard parts that stay with the car throughout its lifetime, fading, cracking and gathering grime while forcing manufacturers to redesign and retool for the car's next generation.

And there are more than a couple of updates I would like to see in the Yaris iA's infotainment, which would, hopefully, be just a firmware flash away.

2017 Toyota Yaris iA

The Yaris iA joins the Toyota lineup from the now-defunct Scion brand, where it was merely called the iA. The model comes about from a partnership between Toyota and Mazda.

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The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA came about with the dissolution of the Scion brand, an adoptee born of a union with Mazda that gives the base Yaris hatchback model a sibling sedan. Yes, the Yaris iA's pedigree is somewhat convoluted, with broken-home origins making it a mix of traits.

Its 85.9 cubic feet of passenger volume makes it a subcompact sedan under EPA definitions, while its base price of $15,950 puts it in entry-level, first-car territory. However, I think a hatchback serves first-time buyers much better, so right off the bat I suggest taking a look at the standard Yaris, or any of the worthy hatchback competition.

If a sedan suits your needs, though, the Yaris iA recommends itself with the aforementioned LCD-based infotainment, automated emergency braking and cabin materials of decent quality for the price. It owes its curvaceous exterior to the Mazda side of its parentage, and its high roofline contributes to good sightlines all around.

The infotainment, also inherited from Mazda, uses an indirect control pod on the console. A jog dial and buttons let me quickly learn the system's capabilities, which did not, however, include navigation. Rather than a factory option, navigation comes as a dealer-supplied accessory, basically an SD card that will cost somewhere under $500.

Absent that, the Yaris iA left me with a Bluetooth hands-free phone system and stereo. Audio sources look complete, ranging from AM radio to app integration supporting Aha, Pandora and Stitcher. For music, I tended to either stream audio through the Bluetooth connection, or plug my iPhone into one of the car's two USB ports.

Don't expect much from the Yaris iA's six-speaker audio system, as its fidelity equals that of your typical earbuds.

Toyota's newest sedan experienced past lives as a Scion, Mazda

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Considering the likely lower age bracket purchasing the Yaris iA, its lack of support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is a big miss, as those features make for very useful and deep smartphone integration. And because of the Yaris iA's difficult parentage, it does not even include Toyota Entune Apps, a neat integration of third-party location and audio apps available in other Toyota models.

2017 Toyota Yaris iA

The Yaris iA's standard LCD includes a rear view camera, making it easier to tuck into tight parking spaces without playing bumper tag.

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Sadly, no strain of Mazda's Zoom Zoom shows up among the Yaris iA's DNA, as the little sedan's driving character feels perfectly in line with its budget price. Tuned for comfort and ease, the electric power steering lags just a bit, giving a little play in the wheel. The suspension, using a torsion bar at the rear, bounces around without any sense of purpose. It doesn't really insulate passengers from rough pavement nor does it pretend to hold the car all that steady while cornering.

No sleeper sports car here, the 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine may include direct injection, but it only delivers 106 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers rank low even among the subcompact competition.

Low horsepower does not necessarily doom a car, but I could feel the Yaris iA's adversity to acceleration every time I hit the gas, even in the zero to 30 mph range, where many small cars do just fine. Going up San Francisco hills, I had to use all the pedal travel.

The Yaris iA comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, which might have been more satisfying, but I had the optional $1,100 six speed automatic. This combination of engine and transmission did not do the driving feel any favors. I felt every gear change and frequently heard the engine winding out.

Fuel economy partially saves the Yaris iA's bacon. At 32 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, it rates very well among the competition, making up for its mediocre driving characteristics.

Safety may have to serve as the Yaris iA's secret weapon, as it not only comes standard with a backup camera, it also gets camera-based collision prevention. A forward-facing camera, visible through the windshield, monitors everything in front of the Yaris iA, and if it senses an impending collision, will automatically hit the brakes.

2017 Toyota Yaris iA

A hatchback makes a better choice for first-time buyers due to greater cargo versatility, but if you really want a sedan, the Yaris iA offers a few standard features to recommend it.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

At a base price of $15,950, the 2017 Toyota Yaris iA fits many budgets, and comes with some surprisingly nice features as standard, such as the LCD infotainment and collision prevention systems. The meh driving character and low horsepower won't impress anyone, but might be acceptable.

However, I really think a hatchback better serves young buyers, who usually move house at least a few times before finding a life of settled bliss. Hatchbacks, such as the standard Yaris, the Honda Fit or the Chevrolet Spark, offer far more versatile cargo space. For ultimate choice, consider the Nissan Versa and Ford Fiesta, two competitors that can be had in either hatchback or sedan from.