This is not the kind of car that usually turns heads. But the Yaris is well worth craning your neck over.
The Yaris, after all, is an ultraeconomy car, starting at less than $12,000. That's new, not used. Automobiles in this price range-such as the Echo, which the Yaris is replacing-are typically bland and spare, with few accoutrements beyond four wheels and a roof. But the Yaris, which is one of Toyota's bestselling cars in Europe, sparkles in a humble way. First, it's cute. Especially the hatchback, which rivals the diminutive dimensions of the Mini Cooper, if not the Mini's attitude. There's very little chassis overhanging the Yaris's 14-inch wheels, which gives it a ready, spunky look. That helps with handling too. The Yaris is surprisingly sure on the highway, with modest acceleration and a stable feel, even well over the speed limit. I found it comfortable on a four-hour road trip. And on shorter drives it is downright fun, tight on curves and easy to control. The five-speed manual transmission, which I tested, is quite crisp and provides a sensation that borders on sporty.
In the cabin, there's less to please the eye. The base model is truly a bare-bones vehicle. Air conditioning is standard, but other common features, like power locks, power windows, cruise control, and even a radio, must be added on as options. Still, the interior, spare as it is, is well designed and practical. There's no center console in between the seats, but cupholders are crafted into the dashboard within an easy reach of the driver's left arm and the passenger's right. The back seat is small, but perfect for kids. And the fuel gauge-it does come with one of those-moves infrequently; fuel economy averages about 37 miles per gallon. With gas once again approaching $3 per gallon in some areas, that alone may be good reason to forego a few luxuries.
Nits: There's no center armrest, which becomes an annoyance on longer trips.
G forces: The engine is a thrifty 106-horsepower four-cylinder that huffs and puffs and, once you rev it up, provides decent pickup. This is one car, however, where there may be a true advantage to going with the manual transmission instead of the automatic, since that allows more freedom to push up the RPMs for extra power when needed. The Yaris handles comfortably on the highway and is quite maneuverable in tight turns.
Gizmology: The dash is spartan, or, to be more charitable, uncluttered. The center stack contains simple climate controls-and audio buttons if you opt for the radio-but little else. To get niceties like power windows and door locks, power mirrors, and a rear defroster, you have to spring for a $2,000 option package.
Kidmarks: It'll do. There's nothing extra for kids-and just one rear cupholder-but the Yaris sedan in particular will work just fine for families on a budget. The rear seat folds down, for storage, but parents with hauling needs might want to spring for the optional power package, which includes a 60/40 split folding rear seat that also reclines and slides back and forth several inches.
Hot or not: Hot. In a cute way.
Pain at the pump: Mild. With mileage estimates ranging from 34 mpg/city to 40 mpg/highway, the Yaris is one of the most efficient vehicles on the market.
Crash course: Not yet crash-tested by the government or private testing organizations.
Price points: Base prices range from $11,530 to $13,905. Price as tested: Approx. $13,540. (All prices include delivery fees.)