By Andrew Ganz
When you sell 10 million cars a year, it’s hard to have any secrets — at least any secrets lurking in your showroom, that is.
And yet, Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM -0.92% — the company that delivers gazillions of Corollas globally and a heck of a lot more 4Runners than anyone could possibly have expected — sells a car for those in the know. It’s called the Yaris, and it wasn’t a particularly interesting car until a series of recent events made it worth getting to know.
If you’re a car geek (and you quite possibly are if you’re reading this), you might know that the latest Yaris isn’t a Toyota at all. Sure, it has the Toyota badge on its steering wheel, its front bumper, its trunk lid and each one of its windows. It’s also on the key, which is shaped more like an éclair than the rectangular key used to unlock a Highlander. That key is your first introduction (or reminder) that the Yaris isn’t like anything else in the Toyota showroom.
The Yaris has plenty of Toyota quirk to its styling, for better or worse. Its low, snout-like front end won’t win it any awards, though the swoopy lines along its sides are realized better here than on other Toyotas. The 16-inch alloy wheels fitted to all but the base sedan have a dressy look, too.
Inside, the thick-rimmed steering wheel is purposeful, as are the bolstered front seats. Outward visibility is excellent, thanks in part to narrow roof pillars and a low belt line. Low-sheen materials on the dash and doors suggest soft-touch plastics, though, at a starting price around $16,000, the hard plastics are forgivable.
A touch-screen sprouts from the dash, but it’s not flanked by the control knobs or buttons you’d expect to see in a Corolla or a RAV4. Instead, the knob on the center console clicks through the menus with a bucks-up feel. That’s the end of anything good to say about the infotainment system, however, which is otherwise dreadful to operate — even with the standard Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.53% CarPlay mode engaged. The touch-screen function turns off at speeds above a crawl, and rebooting CarPlay after switching to, say, FM, requires tapping and scrolling through a few menus.
Sadly, this lousy interface may talk some buyers out of the Yaris before they even leave on a test drive. Those who do go for the test drive, perhaps after feeling sufficiently impressed by the round climate-control vents that feel like they were designed to aerospace standards or the tough fabric or leatherette upholstery, will tap the starter and hear a 1.5-liter inline-4 thrum to life.
A test drive reveals more
The throttle moves forward with a linearity not usually seen on cars this cheap. Power builds quietly, and not especially quickly, but the available six-speed automatic (manual is standard on lower sedan trim levels) shuffles through gears quickly. Downshifts are common at highway speeds, which is hardly a surprise considering the little 1.5-liter puts just 106 horsepower to the front wheels.
Where the little car comes into its own is when that thick-rimmed steering wheel is turned.
I’d say it’s Miata-like, but that’s just plain lazy. Yes, the Yaris is made by Mazda /zigman2/quotes/206326885/composite MZDAY -0.33% . (Oh, you hadn’t figured that out yet? Perhaps reread the paragraph about the lousy infotainment system.)
As a Mazda, it possesses a certain delicate, entertaining personality, which makes it the automotive equivalent of that poindexter who always has the right answer at exactly the right time. Darn you, Kevin.
The electric steering provides a hint of feedback — certainly artificial, but coated brilliantly — and responses are quick, but not Alfa Romeo Giulia you’re-in-a-ditch quick. The firm ride suggests traditional sportiness, but, thankfully, the fairly tall sidewalls on the not-too-enormous wheels provide just enough cushion.
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The secret’s out: The Yaris is arguably the best new driver’s car for under $20,000. Better yet, this little car makes the most sense the less you spend. The base Yaris L sedan runs just $16,600, and it provides a lot more thrills, a lot more frugality and a lot more warranty than used cars priced about the same. Moreover, there are plenty listed on Autotrader for less than list price, too.
So, why is the Yaris so good? It’s called the Mazda 2 elsewhere, and it has quite the passport. The Yaris model sold in the U.S. is built in Mexico, though versions of the little car are sold globally as either Mazdas or Toyotas.
Mazda briefly sold the Mazda 2 in the U.S. (and it’s a bargain used; write a check for $8,000 or less and you’ll get a clean example — just don’t buy that awful green). The little car was more popular in Canada (where those shifty Canucks call it a MAZZ-duh, and not a MAHZ-duh), but not enough so that the automobile maker saw fit to offer a second generation.
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Then, in swooped Toyota with the answer — a partnership that may turn into a fruitful relationship once the two open an assembly plant near Huntsville, Ala. In 2016, Toyota grabbed the fourth-generation (yes, there were two previous Mazda 2s) and renamed it the Scion iA. That lasted for a year, and when Toyota closed its short-lived brand that targeted the gray area between Generation X and millennials (and largely missed both), the iA lived on first as the Yaris iA sedan and then as the Yaris.
For 2020, Toyota dumped its existing Yaris hatchback and replaced it with the global version of the Mazda 2 hatchback. Though the hatchback is the more practical of the two, it’s only available with an automatic.
Admittedly, the Mazda badge isn’t an automatic sign of greatness ( cough , last-gen Mazda 6, cough ), but it generally suggests more emphasis on driving pleasure than a typical econo-box.
If you’ve read this far: The most fun you can have for less than $20,000 while still relishing that new-car smell is in a Toyota Yaris.
This story originally ran on Autotrader.com .