2020 Toyota Yaris offers drivers an engaging drive

The Yaris essentially is Toyota’s nod to its glory days of the 1970s, when it tore into the U.S. automotive market with cheap, fuel-efficient, reliable small cars and pickup trucks. It really wasn’t competitive with the best of the minicars, especially the acclaimed Honda Fit. But it remained inexpensive, reliable and highly accessible via Toyota’s huge dealer network. Despite those assets advantage, it broke the 100,000 U.S. sales barrier only once (in 2008), while the compact Corolla and midsize Camry never fell below 200,000.

Historically bland, the Yaris benefited from the closure of Toyota’s Scion brand in 2016. The Scion iA became the Yaris iA, a far more entertaining ride than the Yaris. It’s derived from the Mazda2, a model that briefly appeared in the United States under the Mazda banner but was discontinued in 2014 after a five-year run.

Thanks to its Mazda DNA, the 2020 Yaris is an engaging driver’s car with high-quality materials. The 106-horsepower inline 4-cylinder engine and 6-speed automatic transmission bring the Yaris’ fuel economy into competitive range with other subcompacts: 32 mpg city, 40 highway. The Yaris we test-drove in 2017 was rated at a mediocre 30 mpg city, 35 highway.

Acceleration is leisurely, but switching to Sport mode picks up the pace. The car rides comfortably and fairly quietly, like past versions of the Yaris, but the Mazda influence comes to the fore during hard cornering. The Yaris always felt balanced and secure.

Our test car, a 2020 Yaris XLE hatchback, wore an attractive sticker price of $19,680 to go along with a substantial list of standard features. Among them: low-speed pre-collision system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, leatherette upholstery, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth hands-free phone and music, satellite radio, push-button start, automatic climate control, and tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio, phone and cruise controls. The base XE hatchback, lacking many of these amenities, starts at $18,680; the base Yaris sedan starts at an even more modest $15,580.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Yaris’ halogen headlights “Poor,” the only black mark on an otherwise good crash-test performance. (The XLE has better-performing LED headlights.) For a minicar, the Yaris did well in government crash tests, earning an overall vehicle score of five stars.

Desirable safety features like blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control are not available on the Yaris. However, one of the car’s virtues is excellent visibility to all corners. The lack of warning signals is not quite as grave a deficiency as it would be in a car with substantial blind spots.

While recent years have not been kind to minicars and subcompacts, there’s still plenty of competition in the Yaris’ sector. The contenders include the Honda Fit, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Mini, Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Versa and Chevrolet Spark. With the whole segment ailing, a number of automakers, including Ford and Fiat Chrysler, have checked out.

2020 Toyota Yaris 5-Door XLE Hatchback

Price: $19,680

Engine: 1.5-liter inline Four, 106 horsepower, 103 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 2,445 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear

Wheels: 16-in. alloy

Tires: 185/60R16 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 15.9 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 11.6 gal.

Fuel economy: 32 mpg city, 40 mpg highway

Fuel type: Regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel.