If you've seen the commercials, you know that the Yaris is an aggressively cute little car -- lasering pink piggy banks, squashing spider-ized gas pumps, gobbling up iPods. And you can almost imagine the Simpsons style marketing meeting to develop the ads: ''It's cute -- but with attitude!''
Don't forget pizzazz. You can't target the youth market if you don't have pizzazz.
The Yaris, which comes in 3-door hatchback and 4-door sedan versions, is Toyota's newest attempt to target younger buyers with smaller budgets (for both car payments and gas). Meant to be sensible but stylish, the Yaris is positioned as a perfect entry-level vehicle and capable urban scooter.
How the Yaris stacks up to that positioning is a bit of a mixed bag. From the outside, the design works well, leaving behind such ho-hum Toyota econo-box designs as the unlamented Echo (which looked less like a car and more like something you would put under someone's mattress to check if they're a princess).
This time out, Toyota has successfully tied the Yaris look into the broader brand. The 4-door Yaris looks just like a baby Camry; the 3-door is more of a Prius/Camry mash-up. They both fit in well with the Target trend of adding high-level design cues to everyday, utilitarian objects.
And, snazzy headlamps and well-turned wheels aside, the Yaris is a utilitarian vehicle. You can park it just about anywhere -- the tiny size is a boon if you happen to live in a neighborhood with a half-million condos and 10 legal parking spots.
Given current gas prices, the fact that both models (with a manual transmission) are rated for 34 miles per gallon in the city, 40 on the highway, makes them an attractive option. I got around 27 mpg around the city, but I'm a bad jack-rabbit driver. Which, of course, you should never, ever be. But those are very good numbers.
The frugal Yaris interior keeps all the controls in the center console stack.
Performance-wise you get just about what you'd expect -- the four-cylinder engine is capable of getting you from point A to point B, as long as you're not expecting to break any land-speed records. City traffic is a snap, but more daunting tasks like merging into crowded, high-speed Beltway traffic come with some added anxiety. Still, if you're looking to dump your old gas-guzzler for something more parsimonious, the Yaris may be your thing.
Then again, there are a number of cars that may be your thing, including Toyota's other youth-oriented line of cars, the separately branded and highly style-conscious Scions. But the key difference between the Yaris and the Scion models is the implementation of the style that appears to be central to both. Scion interiors do a fabulous job of making an inexpensive car seem worth a few thousand more (although, to be fair, you can easily drop a couple thousand extra on such dubious things as neon-glow cup holders).
The Yaris comes a bit more plain, and stays that way. It does sport the de rigeur center-mounted instrument console, which I'm compelled to finally and decisively declare that I hate -- having to look to my right and down to check my speed is both cumbersome and awkward. Perhaps I'm just old and set in my ways, but it kind of reminds me of the time Ford experimented with putting the horn on the end of turn-signal stalk -- probably seemed like a good idea in the design meeting, but sucked in the real world.
Aside from the center console, the rest of the Yaris interiors are functional, but bland. There's a good amount of room in both versions, with the 4-door being the more natural choice if you plan on ferrying your friends, and the hatchback more practical if you're more concerned with hauling stuff home from the mall. But things like the low-grade seat covers, often-flimsy feeling controls and ill-fitting carpet don't make the Yaris a stunner.
For all the exterior style that makes you feel you're getting a lot for your $13,000 to $16,000 investment, things change when you get inside. It's not a bad thing for a car to look and feel inexpensive -- it is a bad thing when it feels a little bit cheap.
To read more of Sean Bugg's car reviews, visit www.metroweekly.com/gears.