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2012 Toyota Yaris: Dependable, but not exciting

2012 Yaris five-door hatchback


Overall Rating
Could be more reasonably priced and a six-speed transmission wouldn't hurt, but still a contender in this market. You'll like this car if you want top fuel economy without getting into hybrid technology.
Looks Rating
Hard to get excited about, but better-looking than some of the competition.
Interior Rating
Good head/elbow room, but instrumentation still a bit wonky.
Ride Rating
Surprisingly comfortable - firm without being harsh.
Safety Rating
Full complement of airbags, front and back, plus a wide range of active safety equipment.
Green Rating
Almost as frugal as a hybrid.

While models such as, oh, the Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic and so on tout their respective frugal gas consumption numbers, there's one model that has been consistently delivering some of the best fuel economy in the industry year after year.

Often derided if not outright ignored, the Toyota Yaris gets a 5.2 litres/100 km combined fuel economy rating and has one of the best dependability records in the industry. Exciting it's not, but the Yaris can more than hold its own when it comes to providing cheap transport. Always has – even when it was an Echo.

On the receiving end of some minor tweaking and fine-tuning for 2012, the Yaris is powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder that develops 106 horsepower, up slightly from last year. This is not the most powerful engine in this segment of the market. In fact, it's one of the least powerful and is handily surpassed by rivals such as the Nissan Versa, Chevy Sonic and Hyundai Accent. It's enough to get you around town at a reasonable clip, but falls flat on the highway – especially if there's a full load of passengers on board.

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Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. This last item is a bit of an issue; it's long past time for Toyota to drop in a five-speed autobox, at the very least. Some of the Yaris' rivals have six-speed automatics, and a four-speed seems as out of date as an ashtray these days.

My tester, a top of the range SE, had the four-speed auto and, despite the fact that it really could use another speed or two, it did exactly what it's supposed to. It provided hassle-free A-to-B performance, and at least it wasn't a CVT. Were I in the market for this car – which I decidedly am not – I'd probably choose the autobox, because it fits in with this car's overall appliance-like flavor.

Fuel economy numbers are close for either transmission, but the manual has a slight edge, especially on the highway. The Yaris also gets a bit buzzy at 100 km/h and up, and driving this one across the country would be an exercise in patience. According to Toyota, five adults will fit into it. That I'd like to see.

Don't look for extras or fancy goodies inside. Air conditioning, for example, is optional, as are power windows on some models. In fact, you can't even get power windows on the base CE three-door version, so don't ask. You do, however, get tilt steering, Bluetooth capability, vehicle stability and traction control systems and a 60/40 folding rear seat. My SE had the full magilla: power windows, a climate control system, larger 16-inch wheels and tires, and an upgraded stereo system, all of which pushes the price tag up to almost 19-large before extras.

Curiously, Consumer Reports is not a fan. In a recent subcompact comparison face-off, it ranked the Yaris below models such as the Nissan Versa, Chevy Sonic and Kia Rio. Among other things, it didn't like the car's cheap "plasticky" interior, poor control placement, lack of agility and sluggish performance. All of which I agree with.

But here's the thing: in this corner of the market, just about every player has the same issues.

You want to see a stark plasticky interior? Have a look at the Versa sometime, and at least the Yaris doesn't have all its gauges and instruments in the centre of the dash anymore. Lack of agility? The Yaris is no better or worse than any of the rest of them. Sluggish performance? OK, it could use a shot in the arm here, but I would suggest that if burning up the pavement is on your list of must-haves, this is not the place for you.

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Plus, and this is more relevant here, the Yaris has the best fuel economy of the lot, especially in town. About the only vehicles that can surpass it when it comes to sipping gas are hybrids like the Prius and Honda Civic. For example, it's kilometres ahead of the Honda Fit, which returns surprisingly mediocre fuel economy in the city.

It all comes down to price and, if you stay with the base, no frills CE three-door, you can get away with spending less than $14,000 before taxes and so on. Not exactly a steal, but competitive. That said, my SE was priced well over $20,000, which makes it more expensive than, oh, the Versa, Rio, or even the four-cylinder VW Jetta.

The Yaris isn't perfect. But then, neither are its competitors. You tend to get what you pay for, and the Yaris' real undoing is its comparatively high price tag, not its lack of amenities.

Tech specs

2012 Toyota Yaris SE

Type: Five-door, subcompact hatchback

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Base Price: $18,990; as tested, $20,549

Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 106 hp/103 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda3, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Sonic, Kia Rio

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