Can the Next Toyota Yaris Be a Game Changer?
You can say this about the 2011 Toyota Yaris: It's certainly been a consistent performer this year. Sales of Toyota's subcompact are down a full 50 percent on the year, reflecting a series of monthly declines that started with a 50 percent decrease in January and continued with sales drops of 53 percent, 42.1 percent, 50.5 percent and 56.4 percent from February through May.
The Yaris has been the weakling of the Toyota small-car lineup for a while now, but this looks like yet further ratcheting down of the vehicle's sales volumes after attracting 36.7 percent fewer customers in 2010 than it did in 2009, and selling a mere 40,076 units last year. That left the Yaris trailing the Chevrolet Aveo by more than 8,500 sales and the old-school Hyundai Accent by more than 10,000 units.
I know I've mentioned this before, but it's still shocking to me how a company that built its reputation on high-quality, fuel-efficient small cars like the Toyota Corolla and Toyota Camry can continue to have so much trouble in the subcompact segment. And remember, this is no short-term trend, either. The Yaris' predecessor, the Toyota Echo, was a complete flop, and that's really where the trouble started—for both the automaker's efforts in the segment and, perhaps, for Toyota in general.
Trying to Outsell the Tercel
It really starts with the Toyota Tercel, which ran from about 1978-2000, slowly changing in character from being a stereotypical "tin can"—that also happened to be Toyota's first front-wheel-drive car—into something like a smaller version of the Corolla. Which is exactly what it should have been. But the new millennium also brought a change of thinking to Toyota HQ. In a move that would see parallels a few years later when the automaker tried to establish itself in the full-size pickup truck segment with the Toyota Tundra, the company made a concerted effort to change customer perceptions of its products with a strategy (and a vehicle) aimed directly at reaching younger buyers.
Neither Toyota's "Project Genesis" nor the Echo exactly worked out as planned, but the company's push to bring down the average age of its customers laid the groundwork for the Scion, while the Echo morphed into the first-generation Yaris. (At least, this is the way things went in the U.S.; the Echo and the Yaris, and their original Japanese market predecessors, have a somewhat tangled genealogy because Toyota was marketing its vehicles differently outside of this country.)
The problem for Toyota was that, during the Echo's five-plus years on the U.S. market, the Honda Fit was establishing itself as a very strong competitor on the global scene. The Fit then went on sale here in April 2006, a number of months before the Yaris, and the rest, as the saying goes, was history.
The Fit created a new benchmark for subcompacts and truly set the pace for the current wave of new-generation vehicles like the Ford Fiesta, the all-new Accent and the coming Chevrolet Sonic. More importantly, an all-new model debuted in 2008 and raised ye olde bar even higher. The 2011 Yaris, in contrast, is still part of a vehicle generation that was introduced in 2005. And it shows.
At this stage in the game, the Yaris doesn't offer the premium experience of the Fiesta, nor the value proposition of the Accent/Kia Rio, nor the affordability positioning of the Nissan Versa, and it can't even fall back on a decades-long track record for quality and durability like the Corolla and Camry. That could lead to some nice deals for the right kind of canny shopper, but it's no recipe for long-term success—or success of any kind.
Previewing the 2012 Yaris
Things will start to get more interesting later this year or early next, when the all-new 2012 Yaris goes on sale in this country. The vehicle is already on the road in Japan and was recently revealed for the European market, too. There aren't a lot of details yet, but the Yaris' new exterior shows a distinctly Versa-esque design, its available powerplants will include hybrid motivation (for some markets) and among its inventory of tech goodies will be Toyota's "Touch & Go" in-car connectivity and infotainment system. Featuring a 6.1-inch touch screen, navigation, a rear backup camera and the proverbial much much more, the system could be an important customer attracter for the new Yaris—and boy, does it need one.