DRIVE TIME


Toyota's Latest: A Car of Compromises

The price and gas mileage of the new Yaris might be right, but this mini mobile lacks in style and amenities.



As reports rolled in detailing the new pint-sized models from the big three automakers in Japan, I wondered, "Why do they even bother?" This is America, land of the free, home of the brave and protector of all things ridiculously large. What allure could a tiny econobox hold in the realm of eight-lane freeways?

But as gas prices hover around $3 a gallon, it seems consumers are embracing the fuel-sipper. May sales of Toyota's Yaris (base price: $11,530, including destination charge), which debuted this spring, equaled those of the popular Prius. The Honda Fit ($14,400), recently delivered to dealers, showed strong initial sales, too, and Nissan is set to introduce its Versa (around $12,500) this summer.

I recently spent several days driving the Yaris. Simply put, it's a car of compromises. The price is nice, and it's rated by the EPA at an easy-to-take 34 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. Here's the trouble: The quality is inconsistent.

Functionality is foremost

Sitting in the driver's seat, I could imagine myself in any number of cars -- there's space to spare. Even climbing into the back with the front seats fully moved back, I had a few inches of knee room (but I'm only 5 feet 4 inches -- six-footers, don't try this).

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2007 Toyota Yaris

The mini mobile wasn't made for long hauls with the family, but it would make a nice ride for a road-trip for two. With the optional 60/40-split rear seat, you can slide one or both halves forward about 6 inches and fold both flat. A variety of cargo configurations can follow -- a necessity if you intend on packing more than one standard-issue carry-on suitcase. Cargo space behind the rear seats is a paltry 9 cubic feet but nearly triples with the seats folded.

When I took to the streets, this low-rider hugged the road and handled turns well with light, but responsive, steering. Braking was good, but the manual transmission could use some work. I shifted into the wrong gear a couple of times, and the clutch must be on the floor to engage it (expect a few leg cramps getting used to it). Pickup was fair at best -- about what you'd expect from a 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine.

The diminutive size is the best thing about this car and the very last thing with which I expected to fall in love. With a bumper-to-bumper length of only 12#189; feet (just slightly longer than the Mini Cooper), it fits well in the tiniest of parking spaces. Zipping around town, even on a routine grocery run, is fun.

Options agrave; la carte

The sleek, pod-like exterior of the liftback (read: hatchback) was designed with style and flair. That image faded quickly when I lost my balance getting into the car for lack of a center console or armrest. My eyes traveled up from my wayward elbow to a cheap-looking dash replete with plastic dials for heat and air-conditioning.

Air conditioning, by the way, is one of the only amenities that come standard on the car. Toyota nickel and dimes buyers, charging $150 for floor mats, $129 for the missing center armrest and $1,290 for a power package, including power windows and door locks. If you want an automatic transmission, expect to pay another $900.

Even safety features will cost you -- $650 for front side bolster and side curtain airbags, $300 for anti-lock brakes (ABS is included with the power package).

Bottom line: The Yaris won't break the bank, but if you long for style through and through (even on a subcompact), this isn't the car for you. Try the Mazda3 ($14,270) or the Mini Cooper ($18,000). Or, if you can make the stretch, consider Volkswagen's new GTI ($22,620). It exudes cool and has a commanding 200-horsepower engine. If you can make peace with the compromise, enjoy the ride.




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