Jun 4, 2008

Review: When gas hits $5 per gallon, you'll want a Toyota Yaris

Too few car buyers choose a practical and safe ride over one that's sexy. That's understandable, but it's also going to change the day gas hits $5 a gallon, when we'll be standing in line to buy cars like Toyota's Yaris.

The four-door '08 Yaris (lame, lame name) gets 29 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway, which makes it among the very best gas-sipping subcompacts. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the Yaris five stars (its top score) for performance in head-on crashes and rollovers. The sedan I drove didn't have much in the way of options — most welcome were front- and back-side curtain airbags — and its sticker price was $18k.

That's all well and good, but how does it ride? My review after the Continue jump.

It's a shame that highly efficient cars have been mis-marketed for a generation or longer. Messages like "this car has pep", "it's fun to drive" or it offers a "competent ride" scream, WEENIE! Backhanded compliments like those have historically choked off greater success for gas-sipping cars.

The truth is that the Yaris' quiet, 1.5-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine got me on highways with more than enough power, and passing was never a problem. The Yaris' comparatively low center of gravity, independent front suspension and torsion-beam rear suspension erased just about all body roll. Overall, the ride was sure and smooth. And its front-ventilated discs and rear drums brought me to a finely controlled stop.

Outside, the stock Yaris looks like a mondo-size vitamin in a blister pack. But the Yaris is something of a blank canvas for a lot of buyers, which could put a dent in its bid for success.

Of course anything could happen. The practical cars of the '70s and '80s gave way to new gas hogs in the '90s. All I know is that when Five Dollar Day comes, I want to be selling cars like this, or at least scalping tickets to get in the showroom.

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