Toyota's subcompact falling back in a class moving forward

2010 Toyota Yaris Hatchback RS(Photo: John LeBlanc)

In a subcompact segment that's already crowded and is set to get even more so in the near future, Toyota's 2010 Yaris is starting to feel its age.

This year alone will see more sophisticated rivals like the new 2011 Ford Fiesta and Mazda2, as well as the Yaris-based xD from Toyota's youth-oriented Scion brand. But in the years coming, the floodgates will be opening, with arrivals from Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Suzuki coming in 2011 and beyond. So how does Toyota's bread and butter subcompact Yaris, in its sportiest RS guise, holding up in this hotly contested class?

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Four years old, and showing its age

2010 Toyota Yaris Hatchback RS(Photo: John LeBlanc)

Replacing Toyota's former tall-boy Echo, the current Yaris was introduced to Canadians in 2006 in three and five-door hatchback forms, followed by a four-door sedan the following spring. Since then, there's been little news on the Yaris home front. Details, mainly. Like the introduction of a restyled bodykit for the RS (tested here), and ABS brakes as standard. But the subcompact's packaging and drivetrain features remain the same.

Despite newer and less expensive competition since its debut, Toyota still charges a premium for its Yaris. While a bare-bones (no air conditioning, CD changer, split rear seats, power nothing) Yaris Hatchback CE three-door starts at $13,620, a Hyundai Accent L three-door is only $10,599.

At the other end of the lineup, our top-line (cruise control, in-dash six-disc CD changer, air conditioning, sliding rear seat with 60/40 split-fold, keyless entry, power everything, alloy wheels, stability control) Yaris Hatchback RS starts at $19,555. If that sounds a lot, it is: it's more than other small, sporty five-doors like the $18,899 Fiesta Hatchback SES, $18,780 Honda Fit Sport, and $18,695 Rio5 EX Sport.

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An interior your kids could appreciate

2010 Toyota Yaris Hatchback RS(Photo: John LeBlanc)

If not as roomy as the minivan-like Fit, the five-passenger Yaris hatch still offers one of the largest interiors in its class. And the Toyota's sliding, 60/40 split rear bench adds some flexibility to its rear cargo area.

Just don't expect top-notch materials or driver-oriented ergonomics for the Yaris's premium pricing. The Toyota subcompact is built in Japan. But it has that "Made in China" odour to it. Compared to the more upscale Fiesta and Fit, most of the Yaris's plastics feel like they came straight from the shelves of a toy store.

Although the RS package adds what Toyota calls "sports seats," there's not that much more support for driving aggressively than the flat and upright standard thrones. Unlike lesser models, the Yaris RS gets a tachometer and amber instruments. But it's stuck way over in the centrally-located driver instrumentation, a cost-cutting measure allowing for more affordable production costs in right-hand-drive markets. Throw in confining front footwells, the lack of telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel, and oddly placed cupholders, and the Yaris's dated interior design only becomes more obvious.

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Little bark and not much bite

2010 Toyota Yaris Hatchback RS(Photo: John LeBlanc)

Toyota offers a 130-hp 1.8-litre four-cylinder in Yaris RS models outside of North America. Unfortunately, Canadians get the same 106-hp and 103 lb.-ft. of torque 1.5-litre inline-four found in more basic models. The standard five-speed manual transmission would have added a modicum of driving fun to our RS tester. Maybe. But our car came with a four-speed automatic transmission. Compared to Ford's dual-clutch six-speed automatic in the Fiesta, or the Honda Fit's autobox with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the Toyota's $1,000 conventional slushbox is archaic. It suffers from wide in-gear spacing, resulting in plenty of foot-to-the-floor driving just to keep up with traffic.

Now, we don't expect to have our neck snapped by any of these econoboxes, even if they are in their respective sportiest guises. But with less power under the hood than the Fiesta (120 hp), Fit (117 hp) and Rio5 (110 hp), it's no surprise that the Yaris RS's over-10-second run from zero to 100 km/h is the slowest in this company. Plus it whines like a toddler in need of a diaper change the whole while.

The Toyota's lack of performance would lead you to think that it's a miser at the pumps. Sort of. Yes, the Yaris's 7.0 L/100 km city rating beats the Fiesta and Rio5, but its 5.6 L highway rating ties the Kia for worst. The more sophisticated Ford leads wherever it's driven, with estimates of 6.9 L city and 5.1 L on the highway.