2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Introduction
Approach life with low expectations, it is conjectured, and you will be happier for it. Evidently, the residents of Denmark prove this theory. For decades, demographers have discovered that Danes comprise the happiest society on the planet, and the source of this happiness appears to spout from the fount of low expectations. As one researcher put it during an interview with The New York Times, Danes “are pleasantly surprised to find out that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
My experience with a 2013 Toyota Yaris SE also proves this theory. The Yaris was redesigned last year, but I hadn’t driven one in a very long time. All I could really remember about the previous Yaris, aside from a fading aftertaste of econocar cheapness, was that the speedometer was in the middle. Needless to say, I approached a week with the latest Yaris with low expectations.
As a result, the 2013 Yaris SE pleasantly surprised me, especially considering that just before I accepted the keys to this Toyota, I had spent a week with the segment benchmark, the Honda Fit. As it turns out, from my perspective, the only thing I like better about the Honda is its impressive cargo-toting flexibility. Otherwise, I’d rather drive the Yaris.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Models and Prices
Toyota offers the 2013 Yaris in 3-door and 5-door hatchback body styles, equipped with the following trim levels: L 3-door ($15,165), L 5-door ($16,190), LE 3-door ($16,750), LE 5-door ($17,225), or SE 5-door ($17,275). All prices include a destination charge of $795.
The LE trim level adds a height adjustable driver’s seat, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, cruise control, audio controls on the steering wheel, power side mirrors, power windows, remote keyless entry, an engine immobilizer system, and chrome interior door handles. An automatic transmission is also standard for the LE model.
My test car was the Yaris SE. This is the sporty version of the car, but don’t confuse “sporty” with “performance.” The SE isn’t faster, just more accomplished in corners thanks to a sport-tuned suspension, sport-tuned electric steering, upgraded braking components, larger 16-inch aluminum wheels, and wider P195/50R16 tires. Inside, sport seats offer better shoulder support and unique fabric, and the Yaris SE features sport gauges and instrumentation. On the outside, the car is set apart from other Yaris models by restyled bumper covers, a mesh grille insert, smoked headlights, fog lights, a rear spoiler, a body kit, and a rear diffuser panel with an exposed tailpipe. Installing an automatic transmission adds $800 to the Yaris SE’s price tag.
This year, a Tech Audio system is standard for all Yaris models, looking like an aftermarket head unit right down to its flawed ergonomics. Nevertheless, Toyota knows youthful, cash-strapped buyers are likely to shop for the Yaris, and so every single one of the cars includes a CD/MP3/WMA player, HD Radio, satellite radio with a free 3-month trial subscription, and 6 speakers. Buyers can connect a device via Bluetooth for making hands-free calls and streaming music, or can physically connect to the Tech Audio system via the auxiliary audio input jack or the USB port, which includes an iPod connection.
Additionally, every 2013 Yaris includes Toyota Care, a program that provides free scheduled maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles of vehicle ownership.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Design
- No changes for 2013
Because I reviewed the Honda Fit the week prior to receiving the Yaris, comparisons will be inevitable, and they start now. I prefer the styling of the Toyota Yaris SE. But then, compared to the wide-eyed Fit, I also prefer the styling of the Chevy Sonic, the Ford Fiesta, the Hyundai Accent, and the Mazda 2. But it’s the Kia Rio that takes “best looking” honors in the sub-compact car category.
The Yaris SE’s 16-inch multi-spoke aluminum wheels look great, and the SE model’s more aggressive styling, which conveys the car’s additional handling capabilities without visually promising more than the car can deliver, is spot on. I think the Yaris looks too squat when viewed at an angle, but in profile the car is evenly balanced on its stubby wheelbase, and the lighting elements and greenhouse are not oversized for its tiny dimensions.
Inside, the Yaris SE employs grained black plastic with light gray contrasting soft vinyl surfaces and silver accents. The seat fabric is dark gray with blue-accented inserts, and the driver’s seat faces a surprisingly upscale sport steering wheel with thumb rests and a subtle flat-bottom design, wrapped in leather with exposed white stitching.
One interior element that Toyota absolutely nailed is the front door panel design. The top is wide and flat, and where the driver might crook an elbow while driving the material is softly padded. So many car companies get this simple detail wrong, yet the cheapest car in Toyota’s lineup gets it 100% right. Nice job, Toyota.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo
- No changes for 2013
Thanks to the Yaris SE model’s perfect front door panel design, height adjustable driver’s seat, thick-rimmed sport steering wheel, and fairly generous dimensions, this sub-compact car is actually comfortable. My legs, which have a 33-inch inseam, wanted another inch or two of seat track travel, but then I would have required a telescopic steering wheel. In any case, I was more comfortable in this Yaris than, you guessed it, last week’s Honda Fit. Plus, when driving the Yaris, I don't feel like I'm sitting in a fishbowl on wheels like I do when piloting a Fit.
Getting into the rear seat, behind the driver’s seat when it was adjusted to my comfort, didn’t require much squeezing despite my middle-aged 250-lb. girth. The rear seat cushion sits high with good thigh support, soft fabric front seatbacks are kind to knees and shins, and the Yaris provides decent foot space for my size-12s. Plus, my pre-school-aged kids rode in forward-facing child safety seats without a problem.
The Yaris has fixed rear headrests whereas the Fit’s rear headrests nestle, which means the Honda offers better rear visibility and easier seat folding as a result. The Fit also has that super-cool, unconventional Magic Seat design coupled with more cargo space, making the Honda the better car for utility and flexibility.
As for the Yaris, Toyota says the 3-door model carries 15.3 cu.-ft. of cargo space while the 5-door model holds 15.6 cu.-ft. of cargo, measured behind the rear seat. Note that the Yaris offers hidden storage under the removable cargo floor, though whatever is placed there is exposed to the car’s spare tire and associated hardware.
Toyota doesn’t stipulate what the Yaris can carry with the rear seat folded. Folding the seats isn’t as easy as it should be, because the rear headrests are enormous. They don’t easily clear the front seatbacks, and they cannot be removed with the rear seatback raised and locked due to insufficient clearance at the roof. As a result, expanding the cargo space requires A.) muscle or B.) a multi-step process, compared to a simple, one-handed exercise with a Fit.
In any case, my family took the Yaris SE to the beach, driving an hour in each direction, and carried a compact stroller, a beach umbrella, a blanket, towels, sand toys, a camera bag, a diaper bag, and more inside of the Yaris SE’s trunk. During this excursion, there were no raised voices to overcome engine, wind, and road noise; there were no problems keeping up with and passing traffic; and there were no complaints about discomfort.
Talk about exceeding expectations.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Features and Controls
- Tech Audio added as standard equipment for Yaris L
Generally, the switchgear inside the Yaris is pulled right out of the communal Toyota parts bin, and in an inexpensive car like this, that means it is more refined and of higher quality than expected. If you get into a Yaris and find yourself confused by the controls (the stereo is the exception) then perhaps it is time to turn in your license and stop driving. This is a simple car with a simple layout and simple markings.
Still, when it comes to the Tech Audio system, I must be some kind of an idiot, because I had trouble seeing the markings on this unit, identifying the buttons, and determining what controlled what. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I would have preferred Toyota’s flawed Display Audio system to this multi-colored mess of buttons and knobs. Maybe the data proves that car buyers under the age of 30 want a full-featured stereo system and they want it to look like an expensive aftermarket head unit. Great. Whatever. Ergonomics should never take a backseat to design, especially when it comes to providing equipment to inexperienced, inattentive, playlist-fueled younger drivers.
I’ve got one more complaint. The Yaris is equipped with a single-blade windshield wiper, which is fine. Unfortunately, the wet-arm washer system is inadequate. It had trouble clearing dust and pollen in a SoCal climate. Imagine how it might struggle to clear the glass in a place like Chicago, where road salt regularly turns car windshields opaque.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Safety and Ratings
- No changes for 2013
A Toyota Yaris weighs 2,295 pounds, making it one of the lightest cars on the market. To help give occupants the best crash protection possible, Toyota installs a traction control system, a stability control system, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Smart Stop Technology makes it impossible to accelerate if the brake pedal is pressed and the car is moving at more than 5 mph, and the Yaris is equipped with Whiplash Injury Lessening (WIL) front seat designs.
In addition to these safety features, every 2013 Yaris is equipped with 9 standard airbags. In addition to the knee airbags for the driver, the Yaris has side-impact airbags that deploy from the front seatback and from the bottom seat cushion to provide an extra measure of protection. Based on crash-test results, they work.
2013 Toyota Yaris Crash-Test Ratings:
In crash tests performed by the NHTSA, the 2013 Yaris 5-door receives an overall protection rating of 4 stars, with the car receiving either a 4- or a 5-star rating in each individual assessment. This performance exceeds that of the Honda Fit, which doesn’t perform well in side-impact tests.
Additionally, the Yaris matches the Fit in terms of earning a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy
- No changes for 2013
Buy a 2013 Toyota Yaris, and you’ll get a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine generating 106 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 103 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,200 rpm. This isn’t as much as the Honda Fit makes, but the Honda is also 200 pounds heavier. A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard for the Yaris L 3-door and Yaris SE 5-door. All other Yaris models get a standard 4-speed automatic transmission that is optional for the Yaris L 3-door and Yaris SE 5-door.
According to the EPA, the Yaris returns 30 mpg in the city regardless of transmission choice. Manual models get 37 mpg on the highway, while the automatic is rated to return 36 mpg on the highway. The combined driving rating is 32 mpg with the automatic and 33 mpg with the manual. My Yaris SE 5-door, despite regular and repeated flogging, provided 32.3 mpg.
Guess what? That’s better than the Honda Fit.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Driving Impressions
One of the great things about driving a small, lightweight car with sport-tuned underpinnings is that you get to carry more speed into a turn, use more of the lane when rounding a corner, and then carry more speed out of a turn. This is good for entertainment value, because let’s face it: most small, lightweight cars are dreadfully slow.
That slow part is true of the Yaris SE (not the “dreadfully,” though), which is equipped with a tweaked MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension, sport-calibrated electric steering with a quicker ratio, bigger front brakes, and rear discs swapped in for the standard rear drums. Slap on a set of 16-inch aluminum wheels with 195/50 tires, and you’ve got a recipe for fun that is unlikely to land a driver in jail, or the local hospital.
Though slow, the Yaris SE accelerates to 60 mph without forcing a shift to third gear, and with my wife and kids aboard, successfully merged onto a busy freeway from a short, uphill on-ramp. I like this car’s gearbox, though I found that without extra pressure the clutch would creep up and start to engage the drivetrain when waiting at traffic lights.
Compared to the Honda Fit, I prefer the Toyota’s ride, handling, and braking, too. In hairpin turns, the Yaris SE gripped better, squealed less, and didn’t feel as nose-heavy as the Honda. The Toyota proved better planted at highway speeds, as well, and while the ride quality was sometimes choppy, the car didn’t feel unsure, uncertain, or unsettled like the Fit sometimes can on certain kinds of pavement. I also like the Toyota’s electric steering, which is resolute on-center and responsive off-center, and the 4-wheel-disc brakes, which are ventilated in front and deliver superior pedal feel under the driver’s foot.
Thanks to its hardware upgrades, the Yaris SE’s driving dynamics are entertaining regardless of the venue. Whether commuting in the city, running errands in the suburbs, cruising on the highway, or tackling a favorite twisty road, the Yaris SE displays a surprising degree of comfort, refinement, and scrappy eagerness for a small car. Typically, econoboxes like this are showcases for noise, vibration, and harshness, but that’s not the case with the Yaris, which rarely feels like a compromise from the driver’s seat.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts
If you read this review and have surmised that the Honda Fit isn’t a very good car, that’s not true. It is a very good car, and in many respects, it is better than the Toyota Yaris. But that is to be expected, whereas few people outside of Toyota might expect the Yaris to prove superior to the Fit.
Perhaps the low expectations I had in advance of spending a week with the Yaris SE has somehow made me happier with this car, in the same way that residents of Denmark are happier with their lives. Maybe the Yaris is actually better than the Fit in certain respects, especially in areas that I personally value, such as price, safety, comfort, materials, and giggle factor.
Whatever the case may be, there’s no denying that small car buyers have never had it better. Add the Toyota Yaris SE to the list of cheap wheels worth test-driving.
2013 Toyota Yaris Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons
- Stylish in SE trim
- Entertaining to drive
- Comfortable interior
- Gets 32 mpg without trying
- Impressive crash-test ratings
- A connection for any device
- Toyota Care maintenance program
- Lacks utility
- Hard to fold back seat
- Confusing Tech Audio controls
- Inadequate windshield washer system
Toyota supplied the vehicle for this review
2013 Toyota Yaris SE photos by Christian Wardlaw
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