CULVER CITY, Calif.--With the 2012 Yaris, Toyota is promoting an image as much as a car. The automaker is gearing up to target the four-cylinder at entry-level buyers as likely to spend their money on video games and MP3s as they are a new set of wheels. ("Yaris! It's a car!" reads a cutesy little ad campaign with bright, cheery letters).
The youth-centric campaign is primarily marketing hype, as the Yaris is no more or less appealing to someone in a Captain America T-shirt in San Francisco as it is to a middle-class family in Milwaukee. An inexpensive car that saves you money on gas can sell itself in this repressed economy if it's put together correctly. And the Yaris is a fun, unassuming ride that falls a little short of adjectives like zippy or thrilling. It doesn't feel as cool as a Fiat 500, as powerful as a Volkswagen Golf, or as substantial as a Ford Fiesta, but for $14,115 to $17,200 (depending on the setup) it's close enough for young drivers entering the market.
During the Yaris rollout in the shadow of Sony's motion picture studios here, the media had the opportunity to drive the three grades of Yaris on street, freeway, and hill courses. Since the Yaris is marketed primarily as efficient urban transport that can zip in and out of traffic and park easily in tight spots, Toyota decided to run the test drives in busy L.A. streets, instead of the track days other manufacturers might set up for their new models.
The entry-level L and the "value-packaged LE" come in both three- and five-door lift-back setups. The sport-tuned SE is available only as a five-door. All three editions advertise a highway mpg of about 38. Toyota enthusiasts will immediately notice the absence of the sedan version as Yaris is now defined exclusively as a sporty hatchback. That's a sensible move as the Corolla and Corolla S more than fill the need for an affordable sedan in the Toyota line.
Externally, the Yaris has undergone some basic restyling to enhance its sportiness, with new chin and rear spoilers, resculpted halogen lamps, and sport mirrors.
Both three-door and five-door models are powered by a 1.5-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine capable of 106 hp. All three models are available with a new four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. A five-speed manual transmission is available on the L and SE models only.
Toyota reports that the front MacPherson-strut and rear torsion-beam suspension have been "sport tuned" to improve the ride. I test-drove the 2011 version and all three of the 2012 versions in both automatic and manual transmission setups. I didn't sense a significant upgrade in performance, as the acceleration and handling are comparable.
Inside, the best change Toyota made was moving the instrument panel from the middle of the car back to its rightful position in front of the driver. White gauges help to give the panel a more sporty feel.
All models feature audio connectivity via USB and auxiliary ports, along with a standard AM/FM/CD player with MP3 and WMA playback compatibility. LE and SE models feature an audio system with HD radio, six speakers, and Bluetooth music-streaming technology.
The idea is to make the Yaris an affordable gadget platform that appeals to younger drivers who want to take their smartphone centric lives with them. Otherwise, the mixed colors and fabrics in the cabin seem a bit mismatched for style--like a skateboarder's wardrobe.