Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Toyota Aims Yaris at U.S. Gas Crisis

You ever get the feeling the Japanese automakers are really running the world? Decisions like introducing a vehicle to a new market require lead-time. Now Toyota unveils its previously Europe-only Yaris for the U.S. just as gas hits $3 a gallon.

Coincidence? Sure.

Originally introduced in Europe in 1999 and based on the same platform as the now discontinued Echo (which by the say proved that not even Toyota is perfect, thanks to its comic book styling), the second generation Yaris is a smartly styled little sedan that can also be had as a two-door hatchback.

The S sedan has a sophisticated look on the outside and combines it with a fairly spacious and attractive interior. The tires are way out at the corners and the integrated headlights and bumpers are complimented by neat little corner spoilers up front.

There are rocker panels on the sides, too. The greenhouse has an arched look to it and, thanks to the longest wheelbase among econocar entries, the Yaris S sedan actually looks a little bigger than it really is.

The interior continues the other Echo feature I disliked, the center-mounted instrument pod. This is not a good idea, Toyota. Other reviewers call it a distraction. I call it a dumb idea that probably sounded good when first proposed. It takes your eyes off the road too long, even after you’ve grown accustomed to its location.

Otherwise, there are comfortable seats front and back for four adults and the usual tight as a drum feeling one gets in a Toyota. Some of the interior materials remind you that the Yaris is priced as a bargain-basement entry, but even so, the passenger cabin is a pleasant place to be, not at all an econocar penalty box.

Performance is decent, thanks to the 106 horsepower 1.5 liter four cylinder under the hood. The Yaris can be had with either a five-speed stick or an optional four-speed automatic. My automatic tester showed a 9.0 second 0-60 mph time and a fuel economy rating of 34 mpg city and 39 mpg highway.

Toyota is determined to price the Yaris as competitively as possible in order to attract young buyers who will become lifetime customers (that’s the theory anyway). My loaded tester came in at $17,340, which seems a bit stiff. Expect most Yaris customers to be in the $15,000+ range.