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2012 Toyota Yaris: Back in the small car game

Redesigned subcompact boasts looks, fun and economy
by: Courtesy of Toyota Motors For 2012, Toyota has updated just about everything with the Yaris, including its sharper-looking exterior styling.

With all the hype surrounding the newest small cars, it's easy to overlook the revised Toyota Yaris. That would be a mistake for anyone interested in affordable, high-quality, high-mileage transportation, however.

For much of the past year, car reviewers have raved about the new generation of subcompact cars that combine affordability, quality, features, fun and high mileage - most notably, the Ford Fiesta and closely-related Mazda2. While these are both good cars, the writers seem to forget that the shift to desirable inexpensive small cars actually began a few years ago with the introduction of the Yaris, Honda Fit, and Nissan Versa. All three debuted when gas prices were skyrocketing and were warmly received by consumers looking to save money on fuel without sacrificing entertainment and creature comforts.

Newer subcompacts have surpassed the original Fit, Versa and Yaris in almost every respect. The Fiesta and Mazda were introduced last year. For 2012, they are joined by such impressive new models as the new Chevy Sonic, and redesigned versions of the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio.

But Toyota, Honda and Nissan are not ignoring the competition. The Fit has been revamped this year with a new front end, upgraded interior materials and more soundproofing. And both the Yaris and Versa have been completely redesigned to put them back in the game.

How successful is the redesign of the Yaris, the subject of this week's review? The answer is very, with one or two quibbles.

When the Yaris was introduced in America in 2007, it was intentionally oddball. Both the sedan and two-door hatchback versions were almost bubble-like, with rounded front and rear ends. The interior styling was also unconventional, with the gauges set on top of the center of the dash, above a tower that included all the climate and entertainment controls.

Despite the strangeness, the Yaris scored points for its large interior room and good handling. The 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine was rated an EPA average 32 miles per gallon - much better than most other cars on the road. And with the Great Recession just beginning, the starting base price of just under $12,000 was especially attractive.

But the automotive industry has been changing so fast that the original Yaris was showing its age after a mere four years. The new Fiat 500 microcar makes it look stodgy. And many of the newer subcompacts are loaded with high-tech features, from sophisticated new engines to the latest consumer electronics.

Toyota has now responded by completely redesigning the Yaris. The company has dropped the sedan version and restyled the hatchback to look more contemporary. The exterior lines are now sharp and angular, while the interior is much more conventional, with the gauges set directly in front of the driver. While not as distinct as before, the new Yaris looks more substantial than the first generations. It also looks more like a Toyota, with key elements like the grill, wheel wells and belt line reflecting the attractive corporate styling hat has fully emerged this year.

Our test model was the sporty SE version. It includes a sport-tuned suspension, sports-tuned electronic steering, 16-inch alloy wheels and low profile tires, and a rear spoiler. It also came with a five-speed manual transmission that helped squeeze every bit of power from the 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine, a carry-over from last year that produces 103 horsepower and 103 foot-pounds of torque.

That's not a lot of power, especially compared to either available engine in the Sonic or the new direct-injection engines in the Accent and Rio, all of which produce more 135 or more horsepower. Some reviews have complained that the Yaris feels underpowered when equipped with the options four-speed automatic transmission. But our Yaris felt peppy and proved itself fun to drive. The five-speed transmission shifted smartly between gears and never ran out passing power on the freeway.

The stiffer suspension also encouraged spirited driving in town and on empty secondary streets. The wide but well-bolstered front seats helped out here by proving plenty of side support. Although the Yaris is not a boy street racer like the Suzuki SX4 Sportback with the optional 150 horsepower engine, it is probably close enough for most drivers.

The back seats were reasonably roomy for a subcompact. Rear cargo space was limited with them folded up but substantial when folded down, thanks in part to the surprisingly high roofline. In fact, sitting in the well-padded diver's seat, we found ourselves looking down on some midsize cars. And of course parking was never a problem. And the EPA rating is up to 33 mpg this year.

With this year's redesign, the Yaris is once again well worth considering by those looking for good fuel economy at a reasonable price. Having the newest name isn't everything.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2012 Yaris.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Subcompact car.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback.

• Engines: 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine (106 hp, 103 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Five-speed manual (as tested); four-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 30/35; 30/38 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $14,000 ($17,340 as tested).