2015 Toyota Yaris First Drive
It’s Still a Car
A few years ago, Toyota put out a self-deprecating ad campaign for the Yaris with the tag line, “It’s a car!” While funny, it was also a tacit admission that the Yaris is not much more than basic transportation. Still, we thought Toyota was underselling the car a bit and ranked it third out of seven in a sporty hatchback comparison. Before you accuse me of damning with faint praise, recall that the previous model finished fourth out of four in a comparison a few years prior. Now, there’s a new Yaris, and, well, it’s still a car.
Perhaps it’s better to start with what the 2015 Yaris is not. It’s not all-new. Under the fresh sheetmetal is the same chassis riding on the same suspension and powered by the same drivetrains. The bodywork between the bumpers is the same, as is the interior design.
That’s not to say Toyota hasn’t made any changes, though. The chassis gets 36 additional spot welds for added rigidity, which you probably won’t notice without driving it back-to-back with the old car. The suspension is the same design, but gets a stiffer front anti-roll bar and rear torsion beam, along with softer springs and shocks. The interior gets slightly higher-quality materials and a new entertainment system. It’s stuffed with 25 percent more sound insulation, which is appreciated. And let’s not forget that new exterior design, which Toyota North America would really like you to know was done by the European studio, either because European design sounds fancy or so you’ll know where to direct your complaints. But is all that enough to change the Yaris’ current status as the slowest seller in the class (and falling)?
Let’s not undersell the Yaris here, either. If you need a car to “go places sometimes and leave places other times,” as one of those old commercials put it, the Yaris will do that quite well. At $15,670 to start, it’ll do it on the cheap, though it’s on the high end of the segment. Sure, you don’t get cruise control for that price, but you don’t need that to transport you and four of your friends/family members safely and efficiently. I’d spring for the LE or SE trims if just for the wrapped steering wheel so I don’t have to touch the base steering wheel, and that buys you keyless entry as well.
What that base price comes a touchscreen information and entertainment system. Branded Entune, this is the most basic version of Toyota’s system, but it offers you both USB and Bluetooth streaming audio inputs, as well as hands-free calling. It’s not the best system in the class, but it’s a good one and intuitive to use. It also buys you a car that’s surprisingly practical for its size. As we noted in the last comparison test, the Yaris feels very large on the inside, even though the numbers say it’s mid-pack. The rear seat is surprisingly spacious at the legs and shoulders, if not around your head. It’s easy to get into and out of, even the three-door version (though only through the passenger side). Cargo space remains disappointing.
Behind the wheel, the Yaris is fun to toss around in that slow-car-fast kind of way. Despite Toyota’s claims of reduced body roll, the Yaris still rolls a lot in corners and makes any kind of aggressive driving feel fun. It also dissuades you from pushing any harder, so you aren’t likely to approach the car’s limits. In fact, the more you try to approach the limits, the less fun it gets.
Keeping things fun is best achieved by keeping your speed up. The Yaris doesn’t weigh much, so you don’t have to hit the brakes very hard to slow it down. That’s good, because it doesn’t speed back up very quickly. First gear is short, so it feels adequately quick off the line, but the rest of the gears are pretty tall, and you’ll be winding it out to at least 4,000 rpm in every gear to keep it moving if you’re driving the five-speed manual. Should you be at the mercy of the four-speed automatic, it’ll wind out to 4,000 rpm in every gear, too, even when you’re not in a hurry. A little more torque would go a long way in this car, especially when starting on a steep hill. But then, we were saying that about the then-new Yaris a few years ago, which carried over its powertrain from the previous model.
Why didn’t Toyota update the several-generations-old powertrain, then? To paraphrase the engineers and product planners, the answer is, “We don’t have to.” You see, the old 1.5-liter four-cylinder and four-speed automatic is cheap, reliable, and still gets class-competitive fuel economy, though the highway fuel economy rating has been inexplicably lowered by 1 mpg on this updated car. It’s been around so long that they’ve worked out every last bug, so it’ll probably run forever. More than that, they say, Yaris customers don’t care. They’re not clamoring for more power or better fuel economy, so why spend a bunch of R&D money for no payoff?
Because the powertrain is identical to the old car and the weight is about the same, we can tell you pretty confidently that the new Yaris will perform the same as the old Yaris. That means it’ll likely hit 60 mph from a stop in 8.7 seconds and finish the quarter mile in 16.8 seconds at 81.3 mph. Stopping from 60 mph should take 118 feet, and the car will probably pull a modest 0.81 g on the skidpad. Running our figure-eight test will likely take 28.2 seconds at 0.58 average g.
While it’s doing all that, it’ll ride pretty well and be decently quiet inside. The steering is very responsive and makes the car feel very nimble. The big windows are easy to see out of, and the seats -- while very flat -- are reasonably comfortable. The shifter, should you spec it, is fairly precise despite its long throws. All in all, the Yaris does pretty well at being exactly the reliable, efficient, driving appliance Toyota used to pitch it as. (It’s trying to pitch the same car as far more hip and contemporary now with the new styling.)
The Yaris’ problem is that very little has been done to advance it as a car. When it took third place in that comparison test a few years ago, it did so on the strength of its fuel economy, its spaciousness, and its refinement. Since then, only two cars of that group have been updated: the Yaris and the fourth-place Honda Fit. The Fit, though, received a substantial update. Its official fuel economy numbers now meet or beat the Yaris, and it’s much more refined than it used to be. It’s also more fun to drive than the Yaris and just as big inside (bigger, according to the numbers). The Yaris, meanwhile, has gone backwards on fuel economy and only very slightly forward in other categories. Were we to perform the same comparison test today, it’s hard to imagine the Fit wouldn’t move up in the rankings, thereby pushing the Yaris down.
So, that’s the new Yaris. It’s a marginally better car than it was, and the car it was was pretty OK. It’s still a good little hatch for getting yourself and some friends or cargo around reliably and efficiently. It hasn’t leaped to the front of the segment, and it may even be in danger of being passed up, but Toyota’s fine with that, and so are Yaris customers. It’s trying to maintain the status quo, and I see little reason to suggest it won’t be successful at that. Unfortunately for Toyota, the Yaris was the worst-selling car in the class last year, and sales are down more than 40 percent this year.