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Executive wheels: The what?! factor

Jeff Rundles //November 14, 2011//

Executive wheels: The what?! factor

Jeff Rundles //November 14, 2011//



Not too long ago most people around here turned up their noses at small cars, the so-called sub-compacts, as they tooled down the road in their SUVs. That was an era – the 1990s and before – when they weren’t many sub-compacts on the road and what was there (GEO Metro, Ford Fiesta?) was awful.

The change really began to happen around 1997. On the automotive side in the late 1990s some pretty good sub-compacts came into the market and started to create a buzz. Think Mini Cooper, the Toyota Prius and the VW New Beetle; indeed, VW, which almost reluctantly brought back a newer version of the iconic Bug, set sales records in 1998 and 1999 and couldn’t keep the dealers stocked. Subsequent to that was more volatile worldwide oil market which since has seen spikes and dips in gasoline prices, and simply a growing ecological concern among the populace for more fuel efficiency in cars.

The whole movement to small in the automotive world has mushroomed since then, and in fact – from the perspective of someone who has been reviewing cars since 1984 – the real excitement in the car marketplace these days is in smaller cars. Just about every major manufacturer has a sub-compact vehicle in the line, and many of them are very fine cars.

The 6th-generation Ford Fiesta, the new Chevy Sonic, the Honda Fit, the Hyundai Accent, the Kia Forte, the Mazda 2, the Nissan Versa, the Suzuki SX4, the Mitsubishi Lancer, and the VW Golf and Beetle. There’s also the Mini, which is BMW, and the Smart Car (a sub-sub-compact), which is backed by Mercedes. They are small, and mostly sell in the mid-to high- teens (actually the range is something like $10k to $22k). I have driven nearly all of these cars and I can attest that, unlike their counterparts 15 years ago, most of these are pretty good vehicles. (My favorite of the bunch is the Suzuki SX4, as it is among the quietest cars on the market and is available in all-wheel-drive).

A few weeks back I got to drive the Toyota version of this marketplace, the Yaris, and I was excited because, A), I like these small, fuel-efficient cars, and, B) I am a big Toyota fan.

The Toyota test-drive didn’t go well, for two reasons. First – and this was in September – Toyota sent me the 2011 model and the 2012 model has been released (although not in dealers yet) and it has been “redesigned.” I don’t know what that means – is it just styling, or a host of things? – but I can assure you that it needed to be redesigned.

And second, if I was Toyota I would pull this car off the market because it is the most un-Toyota-like Toyota there ever was. On some level they have these small cars in the fleet to satisfy the sub-compact/eco crowd, but on another level the idea behind an “entry level” price-point vehicle is to have the person who can’t afford a Corolla or a Camry or a Highlander start with the Yaris and move up over the years. I have a sneaking suspicion that the buyer of this Yaris will move not only up but away from Toyota.

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I can only say, “What?,” as in “what were you thinking?” Obviously, since they redesigned it, even they knew it needed something, so why send an auto reviewer the old model?

There are six trims in the Yaris line, and I got the most unappealing one, the 3-door hatchback, which is really a 2-door with a back liftgate. Like most 2-door cars/coupes the Yaris presents difficulties getting into and out of the back seat, and in any case the back seat is uncomfortable. There are four-door sedans in the line, and I can only hope they are better.

To give you an idea of how really awful the car is, my 13-year-old son, who has been a real knowledgeable car guy since he was in a carseat owing to my reviewing career, said it was the “cheapest car” he has seen in years. I had to agree. The Yaris I drove was about as bare bones as it gets. Very plastic-y, very noisy, unbelievably bumpy; this cars rocks the driver and passengers when it hits a pebble in the road. I really couldn’t believe it. When Toyota was going through all of the recall scandal and taking a hit to its reputation, I was championing the brand because I truly believe they build some of the finest vehicles in the world. The Yaris isn’t one of them.

In many of these smaller cars the feel is of a much larger vehicle, and the room inside belies the look outside. The Yaris actually felt smaller inside. I probably should not say too much more, so I’ll just give the particulars.

The 2011 Yaris features a 1.5-liter I4 engine rated at some 105 hp that felt like maybe 70 hp. The 4-speed automatic transmission huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow down the straw house. When I turned on the air conditioner, not only did it not cool me off, it sapped what little power there was.

The base price on the 3-door hatchback for 2011 was $13,755 – they have changed the names slightly for 2012, but it looks as though the equivalent is based priced at $14,840, and it has the same engine (rated 29/35 mpg city/highway for 2011; 30/35 in 2012.) It is front-wheel-drive, features ventilated front disc brakes and rear drums, with an anti-lock system, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, and a few other things, like a full tank of gas!, that won’t wow anyone.

On my test-drive model they added $70 for an All-Weather Guard Package (large washer fluid tank, heavy-duty heater, heavy-duty starter, rear-heat duct), $250 for cruise control, $193 for carpeted floor mats and cargo mat, $79 for a rear-bumper protector, and a whopping $1,525 for the Power Package that included power door locks, windows and outside mirrors, folding rear seat, remote keyless entry, and a full AM/FM/CD with MP3/WMA sound system that probably would be good if you could hear it. Add in $760 for delivery and the bottom line is $16,632.

Believe me, if you drove every other car in this sub-compact marketplace and price-point, you would not buy a Yaris. This distresses me in that Toyota is by far the best in every other class of vehicle where it competes, and I just don’t understand how a company built on pride and a great reputation could let this through.

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