Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2006 Toyota Yaris
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With gasoline prices being what they are, the introduction of the economical Toyota Yaris hatchback comes at a propitious time. Even though the 2006 Yaris is slightly bigger and heavier than the car it replaces, the 2005 Echo Hatchback, the Yaris is still one of the most fuel-efficient cars in Canada. Equipped with the standard manual transmission, fuel consumption is a miserly 6.9 L/100 km (41 mpg) City, and 5.5 L/100 km (51 mpg) Highway. That compares to the Echo Hatchback’s 6.7 L/100 km (42 mpg) City, and 5.2 L/100 km (54 mpg) Highway.

The change from ‘Echo’ to ‘Yaris’ is surely going to confuse some consumers, but it’s part of a Toyota plan to harmonize the car’s name around the world. The subcompact hatchback is now called the Yaris in Europe and North America while in Japan, it’s still called the “Vitz” – at least for now.

In the Canadian market, the 2006 Yaris Hatchback is available in two- and four-door hatchback bodystyles in three trim levels: CE (two-door), LE (two- and four-door) and RS (two- and four-door). The 2005 Echo four-door sedan will still be available until the end of this year, but as of this writing, a decision hadn’t been made on whether to offer a 2006 sedan.

There’s good news for American buyers: while the Echo Hatchback wasn’t available in the U.S., the Yaris Hatchback will be – but only in the 2-door bodystyle.


What’s new

The 2006 Yaris is 110 mm longer and 30 mm wider than the Echo Hatchback with a 90 mm longer wheelbase, significantly improving interior room, notably rear seat legroom. As well, the new Yaris now has five seatbelts compared to the Echo Hatchback’s four, and three height-adjustable rear head restraints.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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Other noteworthy improvements over the Echo Hatchback include new electric rack and pinion steering, electronic throttle, revised suspension tuning, improved front head restraints, optional sliding/reclining rear seats, increased interior storage, improved crash protection for occupants and pedestrians, greater ease of repair, and more parts that can be recycled in an environmentally-friendly manner at the end of the car’s life.

2006 pricing is slightly higher, but the level of standard equipment is also higher – in addition to the other improvements. The base two-door Yaris CE starts at $13,580 compared to the 2005 Echo CE which started at $12,995 – however, the Yaris CE now has standard power steering. But ABS is no longer standard.

The two-door Yaris LE starts at $14,175, a little more than the Echo LE at $14,065. The four-door Yaris LE model starts at $14,910 compared to $14,705 for the Echo LE four-door. With popular options like automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows, and anti-lock brakes, the Yaris LE goes for $17,560, plus approximately $1,000 for Freight.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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The top-of-the-line Yaris RS two-door starts at $16,880, and the RS four-door at $17,615. With all the popular options, a Yaris RS four-door is priced just under $20,000 plus Freight.

Like the Echo, the Yaris gets pricey when you add options, encroaching on the price territory of larger imports like the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3 and even the Toyota Corolla. In its favour, the Yaris is more car for the money than the Echo was, and top-of-the-line models include extras like a 6-disc in-dash CD changer and MP3 player, remote keyless entry, power windows and door locks, and split sliding/folding/reclining rear seats.

Still, a Yaris equipped with popular features is what you’d call a “premium-priced subcompact”, and if not for its quality engineering, build-quality, predicted reliability and good resale value, I’d be tempted to call it ‘overpriced’.


New bodystyle

The Toyota Echo Hatchback always struck me as a ‘toy’ car, one step above the Smart Fortwo — which might explain why the majority of Echo Hatchback purchasers are younger women who like its ‘cuteness’ and older buyers who like its ‘fuel economy’ and ‘reliability’. Apparently, younger male buyers won’t be seen dead in an Echo – unless they happen to be a passenger of one of the younger women.

2006 Toyota Yaris

2006 Toyota Yaris

2006 Toyota Yaris

2006 Toyota Yaris
Click image to enlarge

From a styling point of view, the Yaris has traded the Echo’s ‘cuteness’ for a bolder, in-your-face appearance. The nose is blunt, the profile is racier, and the tail is less upright than the Echo. The standard 14-inch tires still look small, but that’s because the Echo is so tall. With the help of a hip “Uncle Yaris” advertising campaign and a new web-site, Yaris.ca, Toyota is hoping the Yaris will appeal to more young men.

What I like about the new Yaris’ bodystyle is its increased practicality. This is a small car with a big interior. Notice how long the wheelbase is and how short the front and rear overhangs are. In profile, almost all of the car is found between the wheels. Four adults will fit comfortably in it, and because of that new centre rear safety belt, you can squeeze one more passenger in the back seat – if you must.

The trunk is still pretty small behind the rear seats, but with the rear seats folded down, there is considerably more cargo room. CE and LE models have a single folding seatback which doesn’t quite fold flat. Two flip-over partitions cover the gap between the seat and the cargo area to prevent items from falling between them.

Yaris RS models come with 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks that allow one side to be folded down while one or two passengers can sit on the other side. As well, the Yaris RS’ 60/40 folding seatbacks recline, and the seats will slide forward and back to improve legroom or cargo space when desired.

The cynic in me says that the 60/40 split rear seats aren’t offered on the CE and LE models in order that sales people can entice customers into the higher RS trim level. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t think of another good reason why this important feature is not offered as an option on the LE model.


Interior impressions

2006 Toyota Yaris

2006 Toyota Yaris

2006 Toyota Yaris
Click image to enlarge

With a tall roof (1525 mm/60 inches), four big doors, and chair-height seats, it’s easy to enter and exit the Yaris. The front seats have dish-like contours that grab the occupants’ thighs and torsos, and though somewhat firm, proved comfortable on a short drive. Top-of-the-line RS models have even nicer front sport seats with bigger bolsters. All models offer generous headroom and legroom, front and rear, but the rear seat is cramped for three abreast.

Like the Echo, the Yaris has a central gauge cluster with speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge and digital clock angled towards the driver. I’m not a big fan of this centre position, but the new-for-2006 backlit “Optitron” gauges are easier to read than before. And I like the fact that this arrangement allows the smaller, tilt steering wheel to be lowered to a more comfortable level without obstructing the view of the instruments.

The durable fabric seating materials and door inserts have a lively pattern, and CE and LE models offer contrasting armrests and metal-look or contrasting trim on the instrument panel to brighten up the interior. RS models have black seats and glossy, dark trim.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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The Yaris’ new vertically-stacked heating/air conditioning control layout is an idea whose time has come. The large dials are not only easy to use, but the layout frees up space on either side of the centre console for extra storage bins and more legroom. The heater includes a new fast warm-up device that allows warm air to flow more quickly.

Speaking of storage space, the Yaris has even more covered and open storage bins than the trend-setting Echo. In addition to the glovebox and door pockets with bottle holders, the dash has covered storage areas ahead of the driver and front passenger, a flip-down bin to the driver’s left, two open bins on either side of the centre console, an open bin on the lower console, and pockets on the back of the front seats.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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There are three cupholders, two flip-out holders on the far left and right of the dashboard and one at the rear of the centre console.

Base CE models have a standard AM/FM/CD stereo with two front speakers, and I was pleasantly surprised at how nice this base stereo sounded. LE models add two more rear speakers, and RS models add an MP3 player and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer. RS models also get a leather steering wheel and shift knob.


Safety improvements

The Yaris new body structure has been designed to achieve the highest government crash test ratings in the subcompact class, says Toyota – as well as providing more protection for pedestrians. For example, the hood and roof panels are designed to yield if a pedestrian is struck, reducing head injuries.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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As well, the front bumper and headlights have been designed with attachments that absorb crash energy in minor fender benders without breaking expensive parts like the radiator.

Inside are dual-stage driver and front passenger airbags with a right-front passenger sensor, and newly designed front seats with head restraints designed to reduce the effects of whiplash. At the rear are three height adjustable head restraints that slide down when not in use so as not to interfere with the driver’s rear vision.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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Typically, rear passengers forget to raise these type of head restraints when they get in the car, but the Yaris solves that problem by making them very uncomfortable unless they are raised. Clever thinking.

Also included are front seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, and child seat tether anchors, but LE models do not have rear door child locks.

Another omission: side airbags are not available, even as an option. I think Toyota should re-think this because side-impact crash studies show that side airbags reduce injury levels when vehicles are T-boned, particularly in small cars. Check out www.hwysafety.org for more information on this topic.


Driving impressions

It was pouring rain the day we tested the Yaris – perfect for evaluating wet weather tire grip, anti-lock braking performance,�wiper effectiveness, highway noise, and heating and ventilation effectiveness. We spent half the day driving in city and highway locales, and the other half driving around a slalom set up in a parking lot.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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The Yaris RS’ Bridgestone 185/60R-15 inch all-season radials offered a surprising amount of grip in the wet, with controllable understeer at the point of traction loss when cornering. The 14-inch tires on the CE and LE offered less grip in the slalom course, but were fine for city and highway motoring. Still, it would be nice if 15-inch tires and wheels were optional on the CE and LE.

The Yaris’ independent front MacPherson strut suspension and rear torsion beam suspension combine with a very tight 9.4 metre turning diameter and new electric power rack and pinion steering to provide a level of tossability and control that makes driving fun. This is a great city car that’s easy to whip in and out of traffic, and easy to park. At the same time, the Yaris’ longer wheelbase and retuned suspension provide a surprisingly comfortable and noise-free highway ride.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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All Yaris models have front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS optional on LE and standard on RS. ABS is not available on CE. It was standard on all Echo hatchback models. With a curb weight between 1043 kg and 1073 kg, the Yaris brakes quickly and surely, and the ABS provides increased steering control on slippery roads when braking in an emergency.

The Yaris’ 106 horsepower 1.5 litre four cylinder DOHC 16 valve engine features all aluminum construction and variable valve timing, the only engine in its class with both. Re-tuned for 2006, it now features electronic throttle control which proved to be very responsive to pedal input. As well, the engine is now rated as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle 2 (ULEV II).

Official Toyota 0 to 100 km/h times are 10.9 seconds with the manual transmission and 12.0 seconds with the automatic transmission. That’s a slower than the Echo which weighed an average of 50 kg less. But 0 to 100 km/h times are not particularly relevant with a car like this because the Yaris is quick off the line, and quick from 30 to 50 km/h – just what you need in city driving.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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And on the freeway, the engine turns over 2600 at 100 km/h and 3100 rpm at 120 km/h, which keeps engine noise down. The Yaris tracks very well and is very comfortable on the freeway.

The 5-speed manual transmission falls easily to hand beside the driver, and it offers short, quick shifts and easy clutch engagement on take-off. I also drove a Yaris equipped with the optional 4-speed automatic transmission, and it makes shifts smooth despite being mated with a small, high-revving four cylinder engine with just 103 foot pounds of torque at 4200 rpm. It also features uphill/downhill shift logic that prevents ‘gear-hunting’. The jagged shifter gate includes a lateral shift from 4th to 3rd which makes downshifting easier when passing or accelerating.

2006 Toyota Yaris
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With the automatic transmission, the Yaris offers 7.1 L/100 km (40 mpg) City and 5.8 L/100 km (49 mpg) Highway, a slight decrease over the manual.

The driver has good visibility but there’s a small blind spot at the right rear pillar. New flat wipers work well in torrential rain, and a rear wiper/washer is available on LE and RS models only. The cabin is relatively quiet and comfortable for an economy car.


Verdict

The Yaris adds needed passenger and cargo room to the small Echo Hatchback without a major sacrifice in fuel economy or performance, but options can boost the Yaris’ final price to near $20,000, and side airbags are missing from the options list.

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