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When the Toyota Yaris subcompact was first dropped on Americans in 2006, eighties TV fans must have thought they found "Mork's Orkan" space orb. Talk about laying an egg.
A generation later Toyota has finally cracked the Yaris orb into the frying pan and added a splash of hot sauce. Behold the 2012 Toyota Yaris SE.
What was once raw and bland now sizzles. Aggressiveness in the Yaris SE front air dam, rear roof spoiler and lower diffuser suggest a sub-compact to be taken seriously. Nealy hot to the touch is the "Blazing Blue pearl" paint of our tester. The wheel arches fill out nicely with the SE model's 16"-inch wheels and 195/50 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 V-speed rated rubber.
Less provocative and more a return to convention and functionality is the cabin of the new Toyota Yaris. Banished [we hope] forever from the dash center is the Cyclopean eye of an instrument binnacle. Back in front of the driver, where it belongs, is the driver's instrument cluster. Among items exclusive to the sport-themed SE model are black-on-white gauges and a thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel, with 10 and 2 o'clock thumb detents. Our tester's optional 4-speed automatic gearbox features a shift lever dressed in chrome and leather, which rows elegantly through a gated selector. Secondary controls are located for simple and intuitive use, the exceptions being the cruise control stalk on the steering column and the audio head unit toggle.
The sound system was free from distortion, just as it was free from musicality, even in HD FM radio. Some cabin trim and switchgear materials in the Yaris, while sturdy enough, simply appear austere. If the exterior of this sporting hatchback is "blazing" then the seat upholstery with the blue tweed inserts will not offend Grandma.
About on par with other aspiring pocket rockets are the mechanicals of the 2012 Yaris SE. Ordinarily 106 horsepower coming out of a raucous 1.5L inline four mill, won't stir us. But the Yaris is just 2300 pounds of car. The 104 pound-feet of torque are more than either the Mazda2 or New Fiat 500 send to their front wheels. The 4-speed (you read that right) slushbox rarely hunts between parsimony and performance. A super short 4.2:1 final drive ratio keeps up engine speed. If a par for class 0-60 run in the high 9-second bracket doesn't impress, 32 miles per gallon which the Yaris SE returned in predominately suburban stop-'n-go should.
Holding out the promise for a more enthusiastic drive in the SE version of the Toyota Yaris are the aforementioned greater tire contact patch and a electric assist steering rack with a faster ratio dialed in. Rear drum brakes from lesser Yarii are tossed for disc brake rotors, which join larger diameter 10.8-inch front rotors. Getting on the brakes yielded some impressive pedal feel and easy modulation during hard cornering. As much as they enhance braking, those same Bridgestone Turanza tires are a tad slow to react to steering inputs. Roll is minimal in the Yaris SE, but audacious turns will generate a slight rear end lift which amounts to a friendly reminder of a lightly sprung torsion beam rear suspension. Fast acting dampers, complemented by a rigid chassis, shrug off the worst road perturbations with a slight thud.
About the only chink in the Yaris SE's armor is a paradox of a driving position. A steering wheel which adjusts for rake and not reach would hardly be a sin as it is here where adjusting the seat to a conforming position can be quixotic. For all their thigh support and side bolstering, the front "sport" buckets in the Yaris SE defy modern expectations for comfort. It's a shame because 33-inches of rear seat legroom and 15 cubic feet of cargo space, without folding the 60 / 40 split rear-seat back, speak volumes about class leading space.
The $18,100 MSRP of our 2012 Toyota Yaris SE is is some $3000 dearer than the Yaris L. Yet, at that price it splits the difference between the $17K Mazda2 Touring and $19K Fiat 500 Sport. What the Yaris SE concedes to the Mazda2 in steering response and greater handling limits, it gains a more compliant ride, nicer cabin materials and amenities like Bluetooth hands-free and USB / I-pod connectivity. The extra grand for the Fiat 500 buys you two less doors, and noticeably less room for people and belongings.
Still, it remains to be seen whether cackling hens or "Orkans" will recognize the new Yaris as one of their own.
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