Yaris SE a subcompact that's fun to drive

The Toyota Yaris SE may not win a lot of drag races, but its light weight and sporty suspension make it fun to drive.
The Toyota Yaris SE may not win a lot of drag races, but its light weight and sporty suspension make it fun to drive.
Posted: July 23, 2012

There's something antithetical about a sporty version of a 106-horsepower econobox that takes around 10 seconds to get from 0 to 60.

On the other hand, the new Toyota Yaris SE model is markedly more fun to drive than its unsportified stablemates, a quality that probably won't be lost on its rather youthful clientele.

The SE is an addition to the Yaris subcompact model line, and like its more prosaic (and less expensive) colleagues, it benefits from a refreshed exterior and interior.

While the Yaris is available as a three-door and five-door hatchback (the sedan version was discontinued), the sporty SE is offered only as a five-door hatchback. The SE is differentiated from its kin by its somewhat livelier styling, including attractive, 16-inch alloys wheels instead of the 15-inch steel rims found on its more impecunious brethren.

The mechanical differences between the SE haves and the Yaris have-less include sportier electric steering, stiffer front springs, bigger front disc brakes, and the substitution of discs for the drum brakes found on other Yarii.

The modifications do nice things for the SE's athleticism. It corners quite well, thanks to the suspension tweaks and the fact the SE weighs in at a flyweight 2,315 pounds. It also gets a good bite in the turns courtesy of its wider rubber. The steering tweaks make for livelier, more communicative steering response than I got with the last Yaris I drove. Despite the stiffer front springs, the SE still rides well.

The SE, like the rest of the Yaris line, is powered by a 1.5-liter four that serves up a lowest-in-class 106 horsepower. Even with a gossamer curb weight, the SE doesn't have enough oomph to accelerate with competitors rated around 140 horsepower.

But that small displacement and low curb weight, along with improved aerodynamics, do yeoman service in the economy department. The SE with the four-speed automatic transmission that I tested has EPA mileage ratings of 30 city and 35 highway, a slight bump up from the 2011 Yaris ratings of 29 and 35. The five-speed manual version also gets a 30 city rating; its 38 highway estimate nears the segment's 40 m.p.g. high-water mark.

While it won't strike fear into the hearts of stoplight bullies, I found the economical little engine serviceable. My only real gripe was the noise it made during acceleration. There's nothing unusual about little four-bangers getting buzzy when floored during a traffic merge. But the 1.5-liter Cuisinart in the SE was exceptionally so. It registered an 8.5 on the Haas Raucous-O-Meter (patent pending). Happily, once cruising speed is attained, things calm down.

While I wouldn't go so far as to call the SE stylish — it's a little too stubby for that — it has a certain cute and lovable quality that is probably the most you can expect from a subcompact hatchback trying to maximize interior volume.

And the Yaris designers have done a pretty good job of that. The SE I tested proved quite roomy. With the front seat adjusted for a 6-foot-2 driver, there was plenty of legroom behind that seat for a 6-2 passenger — although his head grazed the headliner when he sat back in the rear seat. There was also a reasonable amount of cargo space behind the folding rear backrest.

Driving the SE proved comfortable enough, although ergonomics would be improved by providing the telescoping steering wheel found in most competitors. Instruments and controls were readily accessible, and the seats were supportive.

While the Yaris starts at $14,115 (about $1,000 more than the 2011 base model), the more heavily equipped SE is a tad saltier. It starts at $16,400 with the five-speed manual gearbox. The four-speed automatic in the tester adds $800. The standard niceties include the usual power assists, cruise control, alloy wheels, a leather steering wheel, and nine air bags, including one for the driver's knees.

2012 Toyota Yaris SE

Base Price: $17,200.

As Tested: $18,234 (including shipping).

Standard Equipment: 1.5-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission, front drive, sport-tuned front suspension and steering gear, antilock disc brakes; amenities include 16-inch alloy wheels, power mirrors and windows, tilt steering column, leather steering wheel, six-speaker sound system.

Engine Performance: Ho-hum.

Warranty: Three years/36 months bumper to bumper.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.

Contact Al Haas at alhaasauto@aol.com.

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