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TOYOTA Motor Corp. is the colossus of roads. It is, or soon will be, the largest car company in the world. Its worldwide sales are up year after year, as are its profits, as are its stock prices. In the U.S., the world's largest car market, Toyota's sales rose an astonishing 12.5% in 2006, grabbing even more market share from the oxygen-starved domestics. To meet the demand, the company is putting down factories and expanding facilities in this country like it was playing automotive Monopoly.
The company builds Lexus, the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. It builds the Prius, the hybrid shuttlecraft with more green cachet than macrobiotic tofu. It created Scion, which in three years went from a Scrabble word to the last word in Gen-Y branding.
So is this the company that can do no wrong? Not really.
I give you the Toyota Yaris, a surprisingly routine and summarily undelightful B-class subcompact that feels as mailed-in as if it had a stamp on it. Cute? Sure, in an entomological way, i.e., it kind of looks like a bug you'd pin to a corkboard.
Cheap? Oh yes, to a fault. The $11,530 MSRP (with delivery) can't make room for things like a radio/CD/MP3, anti-lock brakes, rear-window wiper or rear fogger, or split-folding rear seat. Our test car had another $3,210 of options: alloy wheels, power windows and doors, four-speaker audio with CD/MP3 player, ABS, front side-air bags, side curtain air bags. But up against other recent B-class urban runabouts -- the Honda Fit, the Nissan Versa -- the Yaris is less car for more money. And tinny. Compared with the sealed and muffled character of the Honda Fit, this thing's got more ring-a-ding than Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace.
Perhaps I'm just reacting to the wind shear. In the midst of Toyota's triumphal march across America -- including a go at NASCAR racing and a full-court press in the full-size pickup segment (Tundra), both at the emotional heart of American car culture -- the Yaris seems puny. Excellence has become so routine that, when one of Toyota's cars goes so far amiss, you have to wonder if this is the first thread of an unraveling Toyota mystique.
But wait, it's only one car, right? Isn't it a huge inductive overreach to judge something as vast as a global car company on the basis of one model? And yet, cars don't work that way. Because they are products of huge collaborative systems involving everything from supplier networks to lunchroom politics, cars are definitely expressive, irreducible sums of the companies that make them.
It isn't about bashing. Toyota is not immune to the same entropic forces that affect any large and successful organization, or nation, at the top of its game. Do you think Toyota's execs, engineers and workers are somehow smarter than those of GM? They aren't. Given time, the dialectics of decline will take hold at Toyota just as they have in Detroit. The unraveling has to start somewhere.
Which makes me eye the Yaris with suspicion. The Yaris came to our shores last year as a replacement for the Echo, which itself didn't inspire much Klingon love poetry. Like a couple of the Scion models, the Yaris is a transplant from the Japanese domestic market. It has been stretched and widened a bit for the U.S. market, though you might find that hard to believe in the backseat, which is about as roomy as a piece of Hartmann luggage. The rear seat is on sliders, but I can't imagine why you'd want less legroom. The car comes as either a sedan or three-door hatchback, the latter being the incredibly cute one.
Sitting sideways under the beamish little hood is a 1.5-liter, 106-hp four-cylinder engine dressed with Toyota's faultless variable valve timing heads. The engine sends its 103 pound-feet of torque (at a brisk 4,200 rpm) through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. At 2,290 pounds, this thing's a flyweight. The payoff comes in the car's 34/40 city/highway mpg. The great, suffering payback is in general drivability. The engine -- having negligible low-speed torque -- busts a gut on anything like a hill, and the gear spacing is such that you have to put it in first gear and flog the huskies for all they're worth. Flogged huskies do not a pleasant sound make.
Toyota went slightly mad on the dieting. The Yaris sounds so hollow and reverberant you wonder if it shouldn't have just kept the Echo name. Meanwhile, the car tends to dance around in high winds and generally feels unsettled at highway speeds.
As for handling, it has some. Actually, for a little car, the Yaris has some pretty acute body roll and lean. It reminds me of the old Jackie Stewart exercise in which he put a ball in a bowl affixed to the hood of a car to demonstrate the effects of smooth driving. Except in this case, the Yaris is the ball.
It's not all bad. The build quality is excellent. The interior (with plastic fixtures inspired by a Super Soaker) is modern and easy to use. The upholstery is nice. That's all I've got.
The irony is, of course, that Toyota made its bones in the U.S. market making cheap, superlative compacts. But the Yaris, after the Echo, suggests the company is losing its common touch. Have I been too hard on the world's biggest, and arguably best, car company? Don't worry. I think it will survive.
2007 Toyota Yaris 3-Door Liftback
Base price: $11,530
Price, as tested: $14,740
Powertrain: 1.5-liter, DOHC four-cylinder with variable valve timing; five-speed transmission; front-wheel drive.
Horsepower: 106 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 103 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm
Curb weight: 2,290 pounds
0-60 mph: 10 seconds
Wheelbase: 96.9 inches
Overall length: 150.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 34 miles per gallon city, 40 mpg highway
Final thoughts: A giant stubs its toe.