Liftback Features Pint-sized Personality and Lean Design

Njuguna Kabugi | 10/31/2012, 1:44 p.m.

An automobile at its most basic should be able to get you from A-to-B safely with as little hassle as possible. It should be reliable enough to start when you need to drive and not leave you stranded when you need to get home.

For Toyota, that automobile is the Yaris. It is one of the most reliable sub-compacts, has generous room for four, is fuel-efficient without hybrid hardware, and has a nicely appointed interior that feels cheerful but not cheapskate. As one of Toyota's smallest and least expensive cars, the Yaris is an agile and functional vehicle, an economical transportation appliance that get the job done with little glitz or fanfare.

With sales up 70 percent for the year, the Yaris is proving to be a decent seller among sub-compacts. For 2012, it comes in three-door and five-door liftback models, with available five-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic transmissions. It is powered by a 106-hp four-cylinder engine with Variable Valve Timing and is EPA-rated to achieve 30 mpg city and 38 mpg highway with the manual and 30 city/35 highway with the automatic.

The new body features a sportier, aggressive look compared to the previous model. The wheelbase has been lengthened by two inches, to 98.8 inches, with the overall length of the vehicle growing by 2.9 inches, to 153.5 inches. The height of the new Yaris is also reduced by 0.6 inches for a stance that is both lower and longer. The result is up to 68 percent more cargo room along with additional headroom and passenger volume, all within a highly aerodynamic body yielding a 0.30 coefficient of drag.

Toyota says sales in the sub-compact market will double by next year. To keep up in such a competitive field, we imagined that the 2012 Yaris would be drastically different from the last year's model. We were wrong: though the new model certainly looks new, it still carries the same 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and the same basic platform as before. Mechanically, it is with few exceptions, the old car in new clothing.

At a time when many rival models either get a modern direct-injection engine [Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio] or available turbocharged versions [Chevrolet Sonic], Toyota's clearly holding back on the goodies regarding the Yaris. Features are still very much in the economy-car vein and you won't find the popular items such as touch-screen navigation, heated seats, or leather upholstery in this car.

Safety, however, is a bright spot for the vehicle. With nine standard airbags - including front seat-mounted side bags, a knee airbag for the driver, and roll-sensing side bags for front and rear occupants, the 2012 Yaris is a big step forward compared to the outgoing model. It's also now one of the safest models in its class after it earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick after winning top scores in all categories. It is also ranked first on the 2012 JD Power Initial Quality Study performers for Sub-Compact Cars.

On the road, the Yaris is quick off the line in city driving and the cornering is decent for a car weighing only 2,295 pounds. On the highway, however, accelerating past 60 mph takes a bit of work and the powertrain is incredibly noisy. The wind and tire noise constantly remind the driver that higher speeds are way above this car's comfort zone. The rear seating is only adequate for four, though Toyota advertises the Yaris as a five seater.

Pricing for our test vehicle came in just a few dollars above 17,000. That might not seem like a lot, but it undercut a similarly equipped Honda Fit by more than $500. In our recession-prone economy, even that small amount could make or break a deal for a recent college grad with marginal credit.