One of the many tough decisions facing a car maker is how long to keep a particular model in production. Too long, and whilst you can spread your fixed costs of development and tooling over a greater number of cars, and you run the risk of losing out to newer rival products, and with both a constantly changing set of legislative requirements with which you must comply, quite apart from customer expectations of the latest technology being available any car is going to have be changed in detail at least during its life anyway. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the Japanese brands were all working to a pretty strict 4 year model cycle, with replacement product coming out almost to the month, 48 months after the car that was being replaced. That was from an era when the Japanese were, to an extent, playing “catch up”, as more recently, it is the Korean brands who seem to have the shortest average model cycles. But for most manufacturers, it would seem now that an average of about 6 years is the norm. There are exceptions, though. Look at the lower end of the market, in the A and B segments, and quite a few of the products on offer have been on sale for longer than that. Whilst sales volumes of these cars are high, profit margins are tighter, so the business case for an early replacement is more difficult to make, as Fiat have demonstrated with the long-lived Punto, and even Ford showed us keeping the Fiesta in production for nearly 9 years. Another of the models that has been around in its current guise for more than 6 years now is Toyota’s Yaris. The third generation model arrived in 2011, initially with a choice of petrol or diesel engines, to which a Hybrid system was added a few months later. Whilst the first Yaris of 1999 impressed everyone, including those who vote in the Car of the Year award, which it won on launch, the second generation model lost some of the charm, and the third generation car definitely seemed to have taken on a general “Toyota-ness”, in other words it was worthy but pretty characterless. It does not feature that highly in European sales charts compared to rivals like the Fiesta, the Polo, the Corsa, the Clio and the 208. Toyota sell it in America, too, where it also languishes way down in popularity compared to larger stablemates. Some of that is down to the fact that Americans simply don’t buy small cars in big numbers. I drove a US spec car at the end of 2014, and concluded that it was perfectly acceptable, though no better than that. It was around this time that Toyota applied a facelift, trying to inject more personality into the looks, with a massive sort of half-moon grille. Opinions will no doubt vary as to whether this was an improvement or not. Personally even now having had a long time to get used to it, I don’t think it made the car look better at all. A further update was applied in mid-2017, with new rear light clusters as well as a revision to the front. These cars are now evident on European roads, but are not yet reflected in the American rental fleets, so when I was looking for a car I had not driven in its current form at Phoenix airport, I decided to take one of the 2017 models for a day to see whether, 6 years in, and no sign of a complete model change, the Yaris is still a competitive player in its class, or whether it is now really past its sell-by date.
There were plenty to choose from, and they all appeared to be the same trim, so it was a question of picking the colour. A lot of them were white, but the one I chose was in a rather nice bright blue colour that Toyota call Blue Streak Metallic. When I got in the Yaris I had selected, I did the usual thing of adjusting the seat, wheel and mirrors. The seat was easy: a bar underneath it for fore/aft, and two levers on the side, one for backrest rake and a larger one for seat height. I then reached under the steering wheel to find the release to adjust that, and, not surprisingly, given the price point of the Yaris, found that the wheel would only go up and down, with no telescoping feature. Having got the best I could, it felt like I was perched up too high, and was almost looking down on the wheel and controls, though I quickly adapted to this during the test. Then I needed to adjust the mirrors. I looked on the door for the switches, and spotted none. And I looked on the dash, and spotted none in the obvious place. I looked harder, and still spotted none. Thinking I was missing a piece of Toyota logic, I then reached for the handbook, fortunately left in the glovebox of the car, and turned to the relevant page, to read that if there was no electric adjustment, then you would need to move the glass manually in the mirror casings. And that is what I had to do. For the first time, in probably more than 25 years. I was sure that the last Yaris I had driven did not have this feature, or rather lack-of feature, and sure enough when I checked back to my 2014 Test, it did indeed have electrically adjustable mirrors. Thinking that it was unlikely (but not unprecedented) that Toyota would decontent a feature, especially one as basic as this, I suspected that this Yaris was a lesser trim, than the LE. And so my subsequent researches proved it to be. This was an L, the entry level model. The plastic wheel trims are the biggest visual clue, as the SE and LE models both have alloys, and they also have front fog lights, whereas this one has the space blanked out. All 2017 US Yaris models have the Toyota Sense-C safety system, which brings a lane departure warning system, automatic high beam headlights and pre-collision braking. Also included in the Yaris L, the three door version of which, with a 5 speed manual gearbox starts at $15,250, are a six-speaker stereo, a 6.1-inch touch-screen display, HD Radio, USB ports, Bluetooth, and voice recognition. A navigation system is available as a dealer-installed option in any trim level. There are all-round electric windows, with a one-touch opening (but not closing) for the driver, and there is central locking, but you have to put the key in the lock, as there is no remote facility for it. There’s a parcel shelf over the luggage area and a rear wiper. Other areas of saving include only one vanity mirror, in the driver’s sunvisor but not the passengers, and one rear map pocket. There is no armrest. Were it not the lack of electric mirrors and remote central locking, you might conclude that for the money, the L is not too ill-equipped, but those two features are just ones you expect now and have done for a very long time even on a budget car. There are two other trim variants, and they cost very similar money. The cheaper of the two, but a few hundred $ up from the L is the Yaris SE, the 5-Door version of which starts at $17,200. SE spec, only available with 5 doors, brings 16″ alloy wheels, audio controls on the leather-trimmed steering wheel, and integrated fog lights, and what Toyota call a “sport-tuned suspension” (!). Top of the US range is the Yaris LE, listed at $17,285 in 5 door form and $16,910 for a 3 door. The Yaris LE comes with exterior styling elements like LED headlights with fog lights, a rear spoiler, and larger wheels. It also adds cruise control and power mirrors. You can do better in the equipment stakes with just about any of the Yaris’ rivals, so it was clearly going to have to impress me in other ways.
Let’s start with the interior. This appeared little changed from the last Yaris I drove, and a comparison with pictures from that 2014 test showed that the only significant difference as the new and better audio system unit. There is a sizeable inlay of a sort of beige colour across the width of the car which breaks up the monotony of the rather hard and cheap-looking black plastics which constitute the dash moulding. The instrument cluster is unsurprisingly very basic. There are three dials, a central speedometer, a rev counter to the left and a fuel gauge to the right, with water temperature indicated just by a warning light which goes out once the car is warm. The outer markings on the first two of these are a bit stylised and fussy looking but the dials proved easy to read. Set in the base of the speedo are odometer and trip computer readings, and you cycle through these by pressing the spindly button to the right of the dial, and it will show you trip miles, overall fuel consumption, and distance to empty. This uses old style graphics like I had on a watch in about 1985! There are two simple column stalks with the lights operated by twisting the end of the indicator stalk. The plastic steering wheel had buttons in it for audio volume and frequency alteration, but nothing else and this version lacks cruise control. The centre of the dash contains the audio unit itself. It is fairly basic in function, with AM and FM radio and not a lot else, but the sound quality was decent, and it was easy to use, with old style knobs and buttons. Beneath it are the three rotary dials for the air conditioning. And that’s about it. The centre console contains a cup holder in front of the old-style PRNDL gated gearlever and the pull-up handbrake. Like just about every Toyota I come across, the area around the slot for the ignition key was very scratched indeed. I am not sure why Toyota models seem to suffer far worse than any other brand in this respect, but they all do.
Toyota made no changes to the mechanical spec of the car when they facelifted it in 2014. US buyers only get one engine, a 1.5 litre 4 cylinder unit which put out 106 bhp. There is a choice of either a 5 speed manual or 4 speed automatic gearbox. 10 years, ago, and an output like that and that number ratios in the transmission would have been quite normal, but in 2018, both appear way under par. Not surprisingly, the Yaris has to be worked hard to get even modest acceleration out of it. The red line is at a rather optimistic 6300rpm, but your ears will cut off further abuse long before you get to that point. Whilst the engine appears decently willing, in as much as it has anything to give, it is also very noisy. And to make matters worse, sound seemed to reverberate around the cabin meaning that at almost any speed, there was a very wearying boominess and a droning that meant you needed that radio turned out very loud to try to drown out the unpleasant noise levels. Road noise was also a significant feature on most surfaces. This version of the Yaris was supposed to be quieter than the pre-facelift cars, but it certainly did not seem so. Four speeds are unusual these days, and it came as no surprise to find that on the hilly test route, the gearbox had to work hard, changing down and up a lot. It is quite smooth when it does it, but your ears will let you know as the revs rise a lot, and with it so do the noise levels. I could maintain a less than embarrassing speed on the inclines of the 87 highway, but it was hard work, and not pleasant. Surprisingly, given how hard the engine was working, fuel economy proved to be pretty good. I needed to put in exactly 4 gallons having covered 160 miles of Yaris motoring, which means 40 mpg US, or 47.79 mpg Imperial, a good result.
There’s no more fun to be had with the Yaris on the twisty roads than there is on the straight ones. The steering is light, but not completely devoid of feel, making the Yaris easy to drive, and with its compact dimensions, easy to manoeuvre, too. This is a typical front wheel drive small hatch, which means plenty of grip, but, if you could get it to go fast enough, ultimately some understeer. That said, you would be unlikely to get yourself into trouble from over-exuberance with this car, and I suspect few owners would even try. The L model comes on 175/65 R15 wheels, and this plus the fact that it does not have the “sport-tuned suspension” means that the ride is quite plaint and decently comfortable. The brakes proved well up to par, and there is a central pull-up handbrake lever. Visibility is good. There are no aids other than mirrors, but with a stubby front, a hatch rear, and plenty of glass, including useful front quarterlights, you don’t really need them.
Having got that seat adjusted, I was comfortable enough, even if I did want the seat to go lower. The upholstery is a sort of cheap cloth, but that’s par for the course in a car like this. The front passenger does not get a height adjuster at all. The rear has three seat belts but the reality is that this car is only really good for two adults. If the front seats are set well forward, they will have ample legroom, and headroom is almost good enough. Needless to say, there is no central armrest, but there is a simple cupholder mounted in the base of the rear of the centre console moulding.
There is a class-competitive boot, with the contents hidden by a parcel shelf. There is more space under the boot floor around the space saver spare tyre. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split, and simply drop down to create a flat load bay. The middle seat belt is hung from the roof, and rather gets in the way when the seats are folded down. Inside the cabin, there is a modest glove box, bins on the doors, a few little recesses in the dash which would only be useful for small items and a cupholder area in front of the gearlever. Those in the back get door bins and a map pocket just on the back of the front passenger seat.
It is fair to say that I did not enjoy this Yaris. Even once I had got over the shock of those manual mirrors and needing a key to lock it, the constant boominess and droning din from the engine and road noise meant that every journey quickly became quite an ordeal. Ten years ago, and a generation back, I bemoaned the fact that the Yaris was too noisy, and opined then that other supermini rivals (this was a European test) were better cars. I would say that the gap has widened now. For similar money, an American buyer can have a Fiesta, or a Chevrolet Sonic, both of which are now equally old basic designs, but both of which beat the Yaris when new and still do so today. The Nissan Versa scores on room and value. You can buy one for a lot less than a Yaris, though it will also be pretty basic, and the Honda Fit will also score on versatility, then there are the Korean duo of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. Both were replaced with new models in the past few months, and I have yet to try either in their latest guise, but the outgoing cars were pretty good by any standard, and certainly in my opinion led this class as they stood out in just about every respect, from lively performance being good to drive, roomy, nicely finished and much better equipped. I can see no logical reason why the latest ones will not have further strengthened their standing as the class champions.