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2012 Toyota Yaris SE Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Toyota Yaris SE

Vastly Improved, the 2013 Toyota Yaris is even fun to drive


Something happened in the subcompact hatchback class in the time since the Toyota Yaris made its debut in model year 2007 -- popularity, especially among younger buyers with more European tastes in cars, and who weren't around in the `70s and `80s when subcompact hatchback meant "econobox". And that's merely the term suitable for publication…

In the five years since the appearance of the first Yaris hatch, fuel prices have risen, and show no sign of dropping anytime soon, if ever. That makes economy important. Hybrids like Toyota's Prius do very well on fuel economy, but at a price. So even older, more established people may be in need of a car for the daily commute, and while a low price is good -- for anyone -- they will likely want something that's more than merely basic transportation.

   • SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyers Guide

Also since the original Yaris's introduction, the concept of small hatch as a low-budget fun machine has made a comeback in the American marketplace. An entertaining driving experience matched with good fuel economy? What's not to like about that?

Yaris hatch, version 1.0 was frugal with fuel, but not really designed and built as a car for the younger, more enthusiastic set. Toyota had (and has) Scion for that. But…

Now we have Yaris, version 2.0. A touch larger, with better-defined styling and a little more room inside, it's a serious improvement on the original, especially in the top-of-the line SE model.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Toyota Yaris SE

"SE" sounds like Sport Edition, which would have been laughable in the original. Not here -- although the SE has the same 1.5-liter, 106-horsepower engine as the L and LE (and previous-generation Yaris) matched to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, it gets a revised suspension tuning that combines very good handling with comfort, and upgraded brakes -- with larger discs in front and rear drums replaced with discs. It also gets numerous interior enhancements and unique bodywork.

The entry-level L and core-model LE are offered in three- or five-door bodied. The SE is, like other top-line subcompact hatches, five-door only. Sales in the subcompact class are more hatch than sedan, and so the Yaris sedan is history.

I've been driving a 2012 Yaris SE with the stick for the past week. The only option included was carpeted floor and cargo mats, at $180 on top of the $16,400 base price and $760 destination charge. That may sound basic, but far from it. The chassis improvements make the car far more than a mere commute module, especially when equipped with the stick. While there isn't an excess of power, there's more than merely, barely, enough if you the driver can decide when to shirt. "Sporty Toyota" would have elicited guffaws as recently as last year. Not now, not with this car. Add in the versatility of a five-door hatchback and the result is a car that can do everything you need a small car to do, with pleasure.

Watch TACH's exclusive Toyota Yaris promo video

APPEARANCE: Yaris V2.0 is a better-defined and more substantial-looking small car. Gone is the babyish roundness of the original, replaced by a more angular shape that incorporates the latest Toyota design language. The wheels are nearly at the corners of the car, and the head- and tail-lights are at the corners. The hood is short; the passenger cabin takes up most of the car. The SE has a sportier-looking front and rear, with a flat front bumper fascia incorporating a large lower intake and foglamps set into faux brake ducts to its side. It gets larger wheels and lower-profile tires that fill the wheel arches well. Strong character lines define the sides. A small visor-type spoiler is at the rear of the SE's roof, with a larger rear bumper with diffuser-look trim at the bottom.

COMFORT: Inside, the new Yaris is as improved as outside. Yes, the instrument panel and doors are still textured plastics, as is the norm in the class, but multiple colors and textures add interest, and the dash is softer material. The SE gets its own "sport" seats in front, with moderate bolstering and grippy cloth that insulates well in cool weather and should be just as good come summertime. Also unique to the SE are black-on-white (red backlit at night) instruments (in front of the driver, no longer in the center of the IP) and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls. It's tilt-only but has thicker bulbs at 10 and 2 for grip. The SE's shift lever is also leather-wrapped. Seat and steering wheel adjustment is manual, no surprise. Windows in the LE and SE are power, and all models have standard air conditioning, six cup and bottle holders, and a cargo area cover plus at least AM/FM/CD (including MP3 and WMA) audio with USB and auxiliary jack connections. The LE and SE get an upgrade with six speakers, HD radio, and Bluetooth streaming capability. There are plenty of useful storage areas around the interior. The rear seat is best for two people, three if small. Again, no demerits as there are few cars of any size that comfortably fit three in the rear. For versatility, the rear seat folds - fully in the L and 60/40 in the LE. A little space and a space-saver spare are found under the load floor.

SAFETY: "Small" does not mean "unsafe". The new Yaris has nine airbags, dual-stage front, seat-mounted front side, a driver's knee bag, and roll-sensing upper side bags front and rear. As in all current Toyotas, the Star Safety System™, incorporating Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), (switchable) traction control, and antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist is standard. So is Smart Stop Technology. Toyota's brake-override system. Toyota's Advanced Whiplash Injury-Lessening System (WIL) is incorporated into the front seat structures to further reduce injury.

RIDE AND HANDLING: While with MacPherson struts in front and a torsion-beam rear axle there is nothing in the Yaris SE's specification that seems out of the ordinary for the subcompact hatch class, it's the basics done right. Toyota took the time and effort to tune the suspension for a fine combination of sporty handling and an appropriately firm but still comfortable ride. This is not your grandmother's Avalon! The SE's springs and shocks are a bit firmer than those of the L and LE, and it gets larger front discs and discs in the rear as well, replacing the L and LE's drums. The SE also has quicker steering, and lower-profile 195/50R16 tires -- V-rated, surprisingly. The result is a most entertaining small car.

PERFORMANCE: By today's standards, 106 horsepower isn't much. But the Yaris only weighs 2300 pounds, so there isn't much weight for the 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine to move. VVT-i variable cam phasing broadens the power range and helps improve efficiency for better fuel economy and lower emissions. The four-speed automatic is probably acceptable for commute duty, but for maximum enjoyment, choose the five-speed stick. Linkage is good, and the wide ratios allow good acceleration (considering the power available) and economical highway cruising. To get anywhere quickly, keep the revs up. Pretend it's Italian… Both fourth and fifth gears are overdrives, and downshifting to fourth on highway hills is a fact of life. If you can shift for yourself, you know that that just adds to the fun. EPA mileage is listed as 30 mpg city, 38 highway. In a week with an even split between the two I got 35, so no complaints.

CONCLUSIONS: There are significant improvements to the Toyota Yaris for 2012.

Watch "2012 Toyota Yaris - More Quality, Style and Efficiency"


2012 Toyota Yaris SE

Base Price $ 16,400

Price As Tested $ 17,340

Engine Type dohc 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with VVT-i variable cam phasing

Engine Size 1.5 liters / 91 cu. in.

Horsepower 106 @ 6000 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 103 @ 4200 rpm

Transmission 5-speed manual

Wheelbase / Length 98.8 in. / 154.7 in.

Curb Weight 2295 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 21.7

Fuel Capacity 11.1 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular

Tires P195/50 R16 83V Bridgestone Turanza EL400

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / semi-independent torsion beam axle

Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 30 / 38 / 35

0 to 60 mph est 9.0 sec


Carpeted floor and cargo mats $ 180

Destination Charge $ 760