The concept of basic transportation has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Spending less than $20,000 on a new car no longer requires a cost-benefit analysis of basic safety and comfort. To wit, back in 2000 our review of a Toyota Echo griped that even power steering and a digital clock were optional extras, commanding $270 and $70, respectively. Two decades later, the 2019 Toyota Yaris demonstrates just how much more you can get now in an entry-level car.
The Yaris is not the market's most-affordable car—that honor belongs to the Nissan Versa. But it is Toyota's entry-level product and also one of Toyota's three models shared with other brands, the others being the 86 and Supra coupes, which were co-developed with Subaru and BMW. The Yaris is almost entirely a Mazda 2 with a lightly restyled front end. The partnership seems to be working, as the Yaris has made it through two name changes over five years, first debuting for 2016 as the Scion iA and then transitioning to the Yaris iA in 2017 after Scion's dissolution. Its latest designation positions the Yaris to sell both as the current sedan and a hatchback starting in 2020.
Though it lost two letters for 2019, the Yaris gained two trim levels and is now available in L, LE, and XLE guise. Starting at $16,530, the Yaris L is a fantastic bargain, offering standard air conditioning, cruise control, two USB ports, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with a redundant rotary controller knob, satellite radio, six speakers, six airbags, forward-collision warning and automated emergency braking, steering-wheel radio controls, and complimentary scheduled maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles. Our XLE tester turned up the charm with faux-leather seating, leather interior trimmings, automatic climate control, attractive 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights, LED headlights, and rain-sensing wipers. All of this for a modest $19,470. Our only complaint is that the XLE can only be had with a six-speed automatic transmission; a six-speed manual saves $1100 on lower trims.
Beyond the build sheet, the Yaris's interior strikes a pleasant balance between stark and overstyled. Blue stitching and soft-touch materials significantly distance the Yaris from the penalty-box interiors typically found in the subcompact class. Some cost-cutting measures were clearly made behind the scenes as evidenced by prevalent road noise. The back seat and trunk also are a bit stingy on space. For maximum cubic footage in this class, see the Honda Fit. The largest demerit inside the Yaris is the absence of a center armrest. A full center console would be welcome, but without so much as a flip-down support the driver's right arm hangs uncomfortably limp. It is the only piece out of place in an otherwise well-designed cockpit.
Fortunately, there's pleasure to be had in keeping both hands on the wheel. While its affordable pricing and premium materials are significant, what cements the Yaris as our favorite subcompact is its driving verve. Despite the car's unimpressive 191-foot stop from 70 mph and 0.84 g of lateral grip around the skidpad, its well-weighted steering and composed chassis work together to provide a playful and competent feel on the road. Less playful is the engine, a wee 1.5-liter inline-four that produces only 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque. That means that, even though it carries a light curb weight of 2458 pounds, the Yaris needs 9.6 seconds to reach 60 mph and a lazy 17.4 seconds to cover the quarter-mile. Toggling the transmission's Sport mode or shifting it manually is necessary for any spirited behavior, but once you get up to speed the Yaris is a treat to pilot. And it comes standard with a digital clock.
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