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2009 Toyota Yaris S: Snappy, roomy, but skips in-class basics

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 25, 2009 04:22 PM

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2009 Toyota Yaris S five-doorThe Yaris would be a natural fit for a hybrid trim, but this model isn't as Fit as it could be. (Honda)

The spicy red 2009 Yaris S five-door I tested last week, with its wide, roof spoiler and snappy 1.5 liter four-cylinder, is every bit the competent economy car. It's typical Toyota-quiet, has a smooth suspension, excellent lateral seat support, and returned about 26 miles per gallon in my 195-mile test of mixed driving. But when compared to the sportier Honda Fit and the all-wheel-drive capable Suzuki SX4 Crossover, our top-level $17,515 Yaris is pricey for what it lacks.

  • No seat height adjustment. It's standard on Staples office chairs, but not in the Yaris. Thankfully, the ample headroom makes up for it.
  • No navigation. Neither the crudely drawn maps of the Fit, nor the standard removable Garmin unit in the SX4.
  • No manual mode. The Fit offers a 5-speed automatic with paddle shifters that let the driver bang the tachometer to its rev-limiter, which brings some real entertainment to this class. Toyota's four-speed shifts smoother, however, and its widely-spaced gear ratios don't make you call for another overdrive.
  • No trip computer. The center-mounted instrument panel reeks of Scion, and while some may like it, it's a chore to avert your eyes to the right instead of straight ahead (the Mini Cooper is equally guilty of this distraction). It's easy to read, but there's no trip computer - not even a fuel economy readout. The tire pressure monitoring system has a warning light, but makes you guess which tire is low. Considering how cheap it is these days to display OBD information, this was a big surprise.
  • Strange vertical dashboard. On the hatchback, the three large circular HVAC dials are arranged like a traffic light. It's frustrating to reach so far down to adjust the temperature, and hazardous if you attempt to glance at it while driving. The radio tuning knob is also a multifunction disaster - it slides in four directions, pushes inward, and twists. When you're trying to adjust the bass, you'll slide the knob by mistake, switching your iPod track. A very deft hand is required.

These wouldn't be obvious shortcomings had I not driven a 2009 Fit Sport, which offered quicker turn-in, a firmer suspension, a faster-revving engine, and innovative fold-up rear seats, which allow cargo to lie flat on the floor. Granted, not everyone wants a harsher ride, but in terms of driving enjoyment, the little Honda is the supercar of the subcompact class.

The 2009 Suzuki SX4 Crossover with optional all-wheel-drive is a great value for around $18,000. The ability to switch from two-wheel to four-wheel to four-wheel lock is unheard of in this class, and the SX4 plowed through some deep snow this winter without any fuss. With heated seats (which the Yaris doesn't offer), it's an ideal economy car to blaze the blizzard-caked roads of New England.

The $12,205 base price for the manual 3-door Yaris is quite attractive, though it doesn't include power windows and locks. Still, despite some glaring omissions and setbacks, the Yaris feels substantial. The doors close with a reassuring weight, and don't sound tinny like the Nissan Versa (which is dirt cheap at $9,990). The backseat includes headrests for all three seating positions, and the smallish cargo area swallowed a huge, two-foot wide suitcase for a quick trip to Logan Airport. Side-view mirrors are large, the rear quarters largely unobstructed. Thirsty junk collectors like myself appreciate the seven large storage bins spanning the dashboard (two are the size of gloveboxes), and large cupholders in every door pocket.

When a redesigned model arrives sometime in 2011, it should be more refined and ripe for Toyota's hybrid powertrain (read more about the possible Yaris Hybrid here). Until then, keep your wallet trained on the Honda or Suzuki.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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13 comments so far...
  1. For a lower price you can get a Scion xD, which has a 1.8 engine and gets 30mpg in the city with a manual (at least the way I drive it). And it's got a normal display layout, trip computer, and you can add a Nav system. (not to mention all the power options). Sounds like that should be your next test-drive to compare with the Fit.

    Posted by ScionFan March 25, 09 10:33 PM
  1. 26 MPG out of a 1.5 liter econobox? How hard were you wailing on that thing? I got 30+ easily in my 1991 Corolla with the 1.6, and I get 25 in my WRX -- with a turbocharger and AWD. Heck, our minivan with a 3.7 liter v6 can even return 20 MPG on a good week.

    Posted by K March 26, 09 08:31 AM
  1. I'm with "ScionFan" and especially "K": only 26 MPG in that tiny car?

    There must be something wrong with it. I drive in the worst kind of city driving (center city Philly, where every single corner has a stop sign or traffic light) in a V6 Mazda6, and I still get in the low 20's. That Mazda's wayyy more powerful and bigger.

    No power, no room, and no 30+MPG to make up for either. What the heck did Toyota do wrong here?

    Posted by Thad March 26, 09 10:43 AM
  1. Just to clarify, 26 miles per gallon was an estimate based on my fill-up, due to the lack of a trip computer readout. The car's EPA city rating is 29, so it's not that far off.

    Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 26, 09 10:53 AM
  1. I somehow get by without a trip computer by resetting the trip odometer and then dividing that number by the number of gallons of gas I put in the car. Previously I could compute it by noting the mileage on a sheet of paper when I filled up, then subtracting the mileage when I added gas again and doing some division.

    Posted by K March 26, 09 11:03 AM
  1. Have a 2006 Corolla with the manual 5 speed, and consistently get between 33-37 MPG commuting from the South Shore to Needham, and not in exactly economical mode of driving to say the least. Think the problem with the Yaris is the automatic transmission; the old rule of thumb back in the Dodge Omni/Rabbit days was an auto tranny used up one cylinder out of four to begin with. Does this thing come with a manual transmission?

    Posted by Michael Wyatt March 26, 09 01:47 PM
  1. I drive a 2005 Saturn ION. It goes form 0-60 in 5.6 seconds and I get about 35 MPG overall. Most of my driving in on rural back roads, not much highway nor city driving. The seats are much more comfortable than any Toyota in which I have ever ridden. The cost when it was new was less than $14,000. Where is this tiny, uncomfortable, weak Yaris better?

    Posted by ernie March 31, 09 10:43 AM
  1. Get real...I just bought a brand new 08 KIA Sportage...traction control, ABS, 6 airbags,alloy wheels, stability control, disc brakes all around, ac, and all for12K...thats less than $200 per month with zero out of pocket...and recommended by Consumer Reports....any questions????

    PS almost forgot...100K powertrain warranty.

    Posted by Dennis Hines April 11, 09 09:48 PM
  1. by lack of trip computer, do you mean lack of trip odometer?? to get accurate fuel economy all you need to do is fill the tank... reset the trip odometer... drive some... refill the tank and divide miles driven by gallons used. Trip computer?? you gotta be kidding. Nav system?? Who in their right mind would pay the grossly inflated nav system-as-option prices, when a $200 unit works better and is portable car to car?? And lastly - paddle shifters are a joke. These are not formula1 cars. If you want a stick get a clutch - if not get an automatic. Don't pretend you are driving a manual by fiddling with silly paddles.

    If you still want to complain about seat height and odd control layouts feel free.

    Posted by WVW in West Newton April 13, 09 06:38 PM
  1. Ernie says "I drive a 2005 Saturn ION. It goes form 0-60 in 5.6 seconds and I get about 35 MPG overall. Most of my driving in on rural back roads, not much highway nor city driving. The seats are much more comfortable than any Toyota in which I have ever ridden. The cost when it was new was less than $14,000."

    Gotta call BS on that one Ernie. In 2005, Saturn made two engine versions for the ION: the regular and the turbo. The regular could be had for the price you mentioned, but it only had 140 horsepower. You couldn't get anywhere close to 5.6 seconds in 0-60. More like 10 seconds with a professional driver. And the EPA estimates were 25 city-32 highway. This is not debatable.

    The turbo red line coupe started at $21K new. And this is Saturn, which had no haggle pricing it's clear you don't own this one. But even if you did, this one, with a professional driver, can't do the 0-60 run in 5.6 seconds. Saturn's official number, with a professional driver, was a full second more. And the EPA mileage estimates for this version: 23 city, 29 highway. Nowhere close to yours.

    So, it looks like you are just making up a new kind of car with the best attributes of both versions and exaggerating them even more to try to make your point (lower price and even better EPA mileage than regular engine, with an even quicker 0-60 time than the turbo is capable of, according to the people that make it). Interesting.

    Posted by Beantown April 16, 09 11:59 AM
  1. My Scion tC gets close to 30mpg in mixed driving. I expected the yaris to get close to do better.

    WVW said it all. The Yaris is a bad joke. Bring back the xA

    Posted by Matt Newtron April 20, 09 07:47 AM
  1. i was surprised by the yaris's mpg as well, my friend bought one and got back 35 highway on his first long highway run and about 30 in city, Cliff you must have been really hammering that poor little thing. but even with my friends numbers i was counting on more. when i nurse my 92 corolla 5speed i break the 40 mpg mark cruising at 60 on the highways.

    Posted by Nick May 8, 09 05:28 AM
  1. Gotta agree with Beantown's comments on calling BS on a Saturn ION doing 0-60 in 5.6 secs. Unless that Saturn is heavily modified, that is absolutely unheard of. For a cheap econobox capable of those numbers, try the Dodge Neon SRT-4. Wow, I can't believe I just recommended a Dodge Neon. Must be the heat...

    Posted by Alvin May 22, 09 06:49 PM

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
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