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2007 Toyota Yaris Preview

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Preview: 2007 Toyota Yaris
By Carey Russ

Have you ever noticed that cars seem to get ever larger and more expensive? Take, for instance, the Toyota Corolla. Once tiny, the current Corolla is about the size of the first-generation Camry. And the Camry is now at the large end of mid-sized. So what to do to attract new - meaning often younger and/or less financially-endowed - customers?

A new and less-expensive car is the answer to that question, and for Toyota, that means the upcoming 2007 Yaris. The Yaris replaces the Echo. And if you follow the European automotive scene, the name will be familiar. What was called ``Echo'' here was called ``Yaris'' in Europe, and ``Vitz'' in Japan. Confusing? Undoubtedly. So the next generation gets the same name - Yaris - worldwide.

The Yaris is built on a new platform that is longer and wider than its predecessor, and will be offered in both three-door ``liftback'' (sounds like ``hatchback'' is still considered a bad word by U.S. marketers) and four-door sedan body styles. Both are conventional contemporary subcompacts in layout, with a transverse front-engine, front-wheel drive chassis, independent front suspension by MacPherson struts, and a torsion beam rear axle. Brakes are disc in front, drum at the rear, with antilock available. As in larger, more-expensive cars, standard dual front airbags use the Occupant Classification System to determine deployment of the front passenger airbag, and front side and side curtain airbags are available.

Although the Yaris is considered a subcompact, and takes a small space on the road or in the parking lot, space efficiency is the name of the game inside. Both versions were designed to have ``class-above'' ambiance, with clean, contemporary styling and first-rate materials. The Liftback's rear seat can be folded flat for a large amount of cargo space; the sedan's has a 60/40 split for the same purpose. Both, like the Echo and the Scions, have center-mounted instrument clusters. The standard equipment level is high, including amenities such as bright Optitron gauges - just like in a Lexus - a tilt-adjustable steering wheel, tinted glass, intermittent wipers with mist control, and useful interior lighting.

Power is from the 1NZ-FE 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine familiar from the Scions and the Prius. Here is makes 106 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with 103 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm, and drives the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Like most current Toyota engines, it is an aluminum alloy unit with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, VVT-i variable valve timing, coil-on-plug direct ignition, and electronic throttle control. There is a timing chain, not a belt, for lower maintenance.

Fuel economy with the manual is 34 city, 40 highway, with a 37 average. The automatic rates 34/39/36. The engine has a ULEV-II emissions rating.

Although the Yaris Liftback and sedan share most of the same parts under their skin, the two cars were developed in different design studios, and under different chief engineers. The Liftback was designed in Europe, where it's been a best-seller, and the sedan was styled in Japan. The Liftback will be offered in CE and LE grades, as will the sedan, which will also add a sportier S grade.

According to Toyota, the Yaris will complement, not compete with, the Scion lineup. Scions are for people who want to be different; the Yaris buyer is expected to be more conservative. Still, they are likely to be young, so the optional audio system includes a mini-jack so MP3 players or iPods can be plugged in for tunes on the road.

How well does the Yaris work? To demonstrate it, Toyota flew journalists to the Dallas, Texas area for a short drive. Some press introductions feature the car in scenic back country, far from maddening traffic and other daily hassles. Not this one. We drove both versions of the Yaris in what should be its natural habitat - city and highway traffic and suburban streets.

First impressions? Toyota isn't leaving anything out in its smallest and least-expensive car. The Yaris feels as solid and well-made as any other Toyota product, with high-quality interior materials and typically Toyota precise fit and finish. And the bright Optitron gauges are as pleasant in a Yaris as they are in a Lexus.

The styling is different, especially for the Liftback, which is very much a contemporary European small car in looks. The sedan is much closer to the American Toyota mainstream, with a noticeable similarity to a Corolla. Toyota expects sales to be 79 percent sedan, and 80 percent automatic.

Although they look very different, and the sedan has a 3.5-inch longer wheelbase and almost 20-inch greater length, the two weigh the same and have very similar performance. Acceleration is quick enough to keep up with traffic, and there is enough power to cruise happily at highway speeds, although not a lot of reserve at that point. Noise levels, while not at Lexus levels, are low for the class, and ride comfort is good.

With no quirks in handling in daily driving situations, the new Yaris looks to be a good choice for anyone looking for inexpensive and economical transportation. The price wasn't announced at the introduction, except to say ``under $13,000 base.'' Expect the 2007 Toyota Yaris in showrooms this coming Spring.