You could say that for a long time Toyota was able to build competitive small cars with one hand tied behind its back. Without major competition from the Americans, plus the benefit of global market knowhow, Toyota's small cars were among the most capable and efficient around. Then, at some point, the world changed around them.
Gas prices went up, small cars gained status (see: Mini Cooper) and competitors honed in their efforts. We live in an exciting time now where simply offering a competent, frugal car isn't enough. Subcompact cars, also known as the "B-Segment" by nerds who follow this sort of thing, need to offer more these days. They need to be desirable.
Toyota enters this newly-hostile ground with the newly updated 2012 Yaris – is it enough? Is it... desirable?
With its small wheels pushed to the corners, angry headlights and a taut stance, the Yaris looks more purposeful than ever, although admittedly that doesn't say much. The sparkly "Black Sand Pearl" paint suits it well.
Toyota styling of late usually falls into two categories: Too bland or too overwrought. It's a "darned-if-you-do, darned-if-you-don't " type of situation that must surely frustrate the company's stylists when the criticisms are lobbed on.
But without added bulk to try to hide visually, the Yaris strikes a balance better than almost all of the current Toyota lineup. It has tension and does without the visual flab that permeates throughout the rest of range. Toyota still knows how to style small cars.
Large mirrors and large windows all around give the Yaris excellent visibility.
The Toyota Yaris faces small-but-fierce competition from all over. Ford's FIesta is the same size, while the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Hyundai Accent are all slightly larger.
Our 5-door Liftback SE tester came in at a little over $18,000.
For a tiny car, the Yaris has a pathetically bad turning circle. Officially rated at 36.7 feet, you'll find yourself doing a lot of three point turns. But the 'basic' nature of the Yaris makes it feel refreshingly connected and lively to drive. Steering is direct and precise, the brakes don't feel overly power-assisted and the modestly-powered throttle is responsive and well geared.
Because it's so simple there isn't a lot of stuff to get in the way and numb the inputs. The SE model, with 16-inch tires, has plenty of grip and only 106 hp -- so if you so choose, you can flog it everywhere without ever getting into trouble.
Despite the surprising connection to the road, the Yaris never feels rattly or overly noisy — at freeway speeds it's quiet and feels solid.
The simple, back-to-basics dash is still well-designed and feels unique. The materials are familiar to anyone who drives a current Toyota.
A sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel sets a tone that this Yaris is sportier-than-your-average-econobox.
One of our favorite features: the huge, clever single wiper sweeps the entire windsheild better than most cars can manage to do with two. It actually moves as it wipes, forgoing the traditional arc pattern in favor of a unique sweep that covers nearly all of the glass.
Under the hood, a 1.5-liter engine provides a modest but usable 106-horsepower and 103 lb-ft. of torque. A four-speed(!) automatic transmission seems lifted from a bygone era when read on the spec-sheet, but is fully capable and seamless in real life. The Yaris is rated at 30mpg city and 38mpg highway.
Overlapping, white-faced guages are easy to read and well laid-out.
The 16-inch wheels appear to be tiny versions of the alloys on the big-big-big brother Lexus GS350 F-Sport. Not that we're complaining — they look great.
Seating for five and a good-sized hatch epitmoze the B-segment: Large interior volume despite compact exterior dimensions. The 'diffuser' styling underneath the rear bumper is a bit over the top.
The Toyota Yaris has always been a sensible choice, so we weren't surprised in the least to rediscover this on the 2012 model. What was unexpected was the newfound aggression in the small hatchback, and how enjoyable it was to drive around town. Because it's small, lightweight (under 2,300 lbs) and free of all the sensory-deadoning fluff so common on most modern cars, the Yaris is one of the most fun cars in Toyota's lineup.