- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

Although the subcompact Toyota Yaris has been zipping around European streets since 1999, the United States is just recently experiencing the 2007 model of this diminutive vehicle.

Now in its second generation, Yaris replaces the Nissan Sentra at the entry level in the North American market. Toyota hopes the Yaris will generate the excitement here in the U.S. that it did abroad, as the vehicle won Europe’s Car of the Year award in 2000. Even better, Yaris was Toyota’s best selling vehicle in the European market in its first generation.

While unlikely that Yaris will edge the Corolla and Camry in the sales column - Americans generally prefer larger vehicles - it’s still a potential strong seller. Hatchback models with manual transmissions start at $10,950, while sedans with manual gearboxes begin at $11,825. These prices undercut many other compact vehicles, and the Toyota build quality should inspire confidence among customers.

Toyota refers to the three-door hatchback as a “liftback.” The wedge-shaped vehicle was designed in Europe and, subsequently, includes many styling sensibilities appropriate to that region of the world.

Short overhangs, subtly but intricately creased metalwork and full wheel wells yield a tight ball of sheetmetal. Although it stands tall, the Yaris liftback looks composed and even sporty. Headlights that start in line with the grille yet nearly touch the windshield show that Toyota left no slack in the design.

The sedan version is far less avant-garde and in profile looks somewhat odd. Toyota tried to blend the snubby front end of the liftback with a sedan profile, but the hood is too high and bulbous. The rear end is unsurprising and, save for the taillights, could be mistaken for that of a Camry. Unlike the liftback, the sedan was designed in Japan, and the design team there may have tried to integrate the European front end and taillights that were really only appropriate to the hatchback bodystyle.

However, slight visual improvement arrives with the sedan S package, adding body-colored front and rear spoilers, side skirts, special badging and available alloy wheels.

Inside, the liftback and sedan also diverge. Three-door models get nicer door trim and seven storage compartments, highlighted by a right-side dash-mounted box. Sedans lose these features, but still include a center console pocket. As a function of price, few standard features are included, highlighted by dual advanced front airbags, 14-inch steel wheels and air conditioning.

All models feature a rear bench seat that holds three occupants. In the hatchback, the dashboard split is somewhat awkward, although offering two “glove” boxes is a nice gesture. The instrument cluster is center mounted, so some customers may need to accustom themselves with blank dash material behind the wheel.

The Convenience Package yields a single CD, four-speaker audio system, 15-inch steel wheels with full covers, rear defroster, intermittent rear wiper in liftbacks and 60/40 split fold down rear seat in sedans. The Power Package requires purchasing the Convenience features and includes power windows, doors and mirrors, in both models, and a 60/40 split flat folding rear seat in liftbacks. Power-packed sedans include ABS, cruise control, better interior trim and a tachometer for automatic equipped models. Sedans with the manual gearbox already get the rev counter, but liftbacks do not get the tach.

Another unique sedan attribute is the tilting drivers seat, but Toyota believes the liftback is compact enough to not require this movement. Other available features on both models include 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, remote keyless entry and rear spoilers unique to each model.

Every Yaris is powered by a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 16 valves and intelligent Variable Valve Timing (VVT-i). This small displacement powerplant yields 106 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque in front of a five-speed manual transmission, or optional four-speed automatic transmission. That’s not a lot of grunt, but these are smooth lightweight vehicles, each weighing just 2,293 lbs.

Toyota estimates gas mileage of 34 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway for manual models, and 39 highway mpg with the automatic. If customers can realize these figures through conservative driving, then their actual fuel economy could be close to that of the hybrid Prius, for a fraction of the cost.

MacPherson front struts and a torsion beam rear suspension underpin all Yaris models. Sedans sit on a 100.4 inch wheelbase and stretch 169.3 inches overall, while liftbacks measure just 150 inches on a 96.9 inch wheelbase. Handling should be precise and well tuned, even in the hatchback that stands 60 inches tall (sedan height is 56.7 inches). Front seat-mounted and side-curtain airbags are available to those desiring more comprehensive passive safety.

If the sedan S and liftback are not sporty enough, Toyota offers several genuine accessories to customize the vehicles. A carbon fiber engine cover, styled doorsills, special interior lighting, cargo nets and mats, pedal covers, a sport shift cover, wheel locks, and chrome exhaust tip are among the upgrades available. Special TRD body graphics on liftbacks accentuate the unique proportions even more.

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