Considering Toyota's expertise in democratic, affordable transportation — Corolla, Camry, Prius — you'd think it would rule the realm of entry-price cars.
Instead, with global-style subcompacts finally leaving their petite tire prints on American soil, the Honda Fit has established itself as the roomy, sporty benchmark. Chevrolet, of all brands, has a high-mileage hit with the peppy Sonic. The smart Hyundai Accent and Euro-sleek Ford Fiesta are firmly in the mix.
Toyota, for its part, had been laying weirdly shaped eggs like the Echo and its even paler echo, the depressingly chintzy Yaris. But with a surprisingly sharp-handling Yaris, which was redesigned for 2012, most of Toyota's subcompact sins are forgiven.
Again, that's "most" of its sins: with just 106 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque, Toyota's hatchback is among the slowpokes of its class. Strapped to either two- or four-door models, the carry-over 1.5-liter 4-cylinder buzzes its way from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about nine seconds. Compared with, say, the 140-horsepower Sonic Turbo, you can hear and feel the Toyota working hard to overtake, or just climb to highway speeds.
The other remaining weirdness is a barstool-high seating position — think of the Fiat 500 — that's exacerbated by the lack of a telescoping steering wheel. I sit closer to the wheel than many drivers, but even I had to slide uncomfortably close to get the arms-to-wheel relationship right.
But the little Toyota gets nearly everything else right. The Yaris is affordable. The scrunched proportions remain odd from some angles, despite a two-inch stretch of the wheelbase and four inches in overall length. Yet like many of the current crop of subcompact hatchbacks, the Yaris is cheek-pinching cute. (The former Yaris sedan, that vacation buzz kill at the nation's rental counters, is history).
The Toyota remains the smallest car in its class, a significant eight inches shorter than the Honda. (It's only about seven inches longer than a Mini Cooper.) Despite that, the remade Toyota carves out a surprisingly decent back seat for two adults. A formerly cramped cargo area is nearly six inches longer and 2.1 inches wider, increasing overall capacity by a remarkable 68 percent for the four-door, Toyota says.
True to its name, the larger Honda Fit remains the clown car of this segment, packing in bigger people and more gear than seems possible.
The Yaris' bite-size body lets the car glide into Manhattan curbside spots with enough room left over for a Smart car. At the curb, the Lagoon Blue paint was striking enough to draw unsolicited compliments, a turquoise-y shade that really fit the car's personality.
That personality is spartan but stylish. The cabin's well-bolstered, pattern-cloth seats; leather-wrapped three-point steering wheel; simple but useful audio unit; and rice paper-inspired material on the doors and dashboard left a low-key impression of quality.
The windshield fluid sprays ahead of the single wiper from the arm itself, just as in some luxury cars, rather than blasting hither and yon from the base of the glass.
The Yaris doesn't officially reach the 40 mpg bragging zone, with a rating of 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway with its 5-speed manual transmission. An automatic with a mere four speeds is an $800 option, but it lowers the highway rating by 3 mpg. Given that Chevy, Ford and Hyundai offer thriftier 6-speed automatics, Toyota had better get with the program.
But as I tell small-car shoppers who ask my opinion: don't get distracted by the industry's rampant oneupmanship on fuel economy. The 40 mpg claims of several small cars are proving dubious. Most notoriously, several of the Hyundai and Kia small fry have been caught with their knee pants down — the companies agreed to reimburse customers for overstating mileage claims, in the case of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, by 3 to 4 mpg.
Consumers should also realize the penny-wise, pound-foolish nature of focusing on slight mpg gains among cars that already enjoy low fuel costs. The Chevy Spark, a microscopic 84-horsepower city car, squeezes out a combined city-highway rating of 34 mpg, which is 1 mpg better than the Yaris or the most frugal versions of the Sonic and Fiesta. Congratulations: You just saved $1 a week, based on the Environmental Protection Agency's calculation of an annual fuel cost of $1,500 versus $1,550 for the other cars. Buy yourself a cup of coffee with that buck, though at a cheaper place than Starbucks.
The Yaris, the lightest car in its league at less than 2,400 pounds, did show excellent mileage where it counts. I managed 34 mpg overall through the course of a week and 40 mpg at highway cruising speed, beating the EPA estimate.
I've saved the best for last. I'll swear on a stack of Toyota owner's manuals that the Yaris is actually fun to drive. As such, it's the antithesis of the comatose conveyance pod we've come to expect from Toyota.
Despite its underdog power, the endearing Yaris is a grippy little monster on curving roads. The steering is lively and connected, and the chassis is composed, especially for the SE model, which has quicker steering and attractive 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, fog lamps, other body additions and secure-feeling disc brakes at all four wheels.
The Yaris is also competitively priced, at $15,165 for the basic L two-door. My four-door SE started at $17,275 and, with options, totaled $17,504.
While the Yaris doesn't offer the optional navigation system of some higher-price subcompacts, it is well stocked. All models get nine air bags, including side curtains and a driver's knee bag; stability and traction controls with antilock brakes and brake assist; and Bluetooth and USB connections. Satellite radio is available.
The ride can get a bit choppy on chewed-up surfaces, a function of the short wheelbase and a torsion-beam rear suspension that's par for budget-price cars.
But slap a set of stickier performance tires on this Toyota, and it would keep up with the average Volkswagen GTI on winding back roads, where cars like the GTI can't take advantage of their superior acceleration.
Toyota is rightly known for popularizing the hybrid. A redesigned 2014 Corolla is on the way, aiming to regain an edge against an onslaught of compact competitors.
But with this improved Yaris, Toyota seems to recognize that an ultra-affordable car can play a small but important supporting role. Buyers should expect nothing less from a company that helped revolutionize mainstream cars in America.