Cars like the Mini Cooper and the Ford Fiesta ST have done a lot to change people’s perceptions of what a subcompact hatchback can be, but outside of a few premium or performance versions, the subcompact is mostly known for being inexpensive and small. They’re vehicles that are perfectly suited for driving in crowded cities or for teen drivers to learn on, but considering that they’re also usually the least expensive models in each manufacturer’s lineup, they usually aren’t much more than basic transportation.
While each subcompact has to face direct competition from other vehicles in its class, the entire segment has to contend with the fact that anyone looking to buy used will get a lot more car for their money. There are a lot of great vehicles in the $15,000-to-$18,000 price bracket, even a few luxury cars like the Infiniti G37. Competing with alternative options like that can be difficult for an inexpensive new car to compete with.
When a 2015 Toyota Yaris LE showed up for me to test, it put me in an interesting position. As the previous owner of a 15-year-old BMW that cost less than a third of the Yaris’s MSRP, I had first-hand experience with enjoying the advantages of owning a nice used car. At the same time, my fiancée Kate owns a 2006 Chevrolet Aveo – a prime example of inexpensive transportation at its most basic.
Choosing a used car over a similarly-priced new car isn’t as easy as finding one that’s nicer and buying that one, either. Yes, a five-year-old Infiniti G37 may be the same price as a brand new Toyota Yaris, and it’s probably a better vehicle in every measurable way, but buying a new car, even a new subcompact for $17,000, still comes with several advantages.
The first advantage is that you get complete control over how your car is treated. You get to break the car in exactly the way you want to, and you’ll also be the one deciding how often to service it. That means you don’t have to deal with a previous owner who didn’t take care of the car properly, potentially allowing you to drive your new car much further and with many fewer breakdowns.
You also get a warranty when you buy a new car, which is probably most people’s motivating factor for buying an inexpensive, new car. Having a bumper-to-bumper warranty, even for only the first few years, gives owners the peace of mind that they want. The Yaris, for example, comes with three years or 36,000 miles of worry-free driving and two years of factory-scheduled maintenance.
More recently, subcompacts have begun offering safety features that you can’t necessarily get in older cars. I don’t think Kate’s Aveo has many safety features other than potentially an airbag or two. The Yaris, meanwhile, has nine airbags, as well as anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, electronic brake force distribution, and front seat belt pretensioners.
While you might not immediately think to compare a brand new Yaris to a nearly-10-year-old Aveo, that was the comparison made by the Aveo owner herself after spending a little bit of time riding in the Yaris.
Before I took Kate for a ride though, I first had to head to the grocery store to pick up food for dinner. My grocery store of choice is a local one that has amazing prices on steak but doesn’t have a parking lot. Even though I was just as paranoid about scratching a rim on the $17,000 Yaris as I usually am in much more expensive cars, street parking was absurdly easy, much like Kate’s Aveo and unlike most of the other cars I’ve reviewed.
The 15-inch alloy wheels my tester came with certainly look way nicer than the steel wheels on Kate’s car or the base Yaris, but if you’re going to be street-parking your Yaris regularly, I almost wonder if having alloy wheels is more of a liability than a feature. At least with steel wheels, you can replace the wheel covers once they get scuffed up. Then again, the alloys definitely look cooler.
Were I driving my old BMW 5 Series or that hypothetical used Infiniti G37, those cars would have options not offered on the Yaris, but they also would have been much harder to street-park. For people who have to do so regularly, a car’s size is often one of its most important features.
The next day, since we’d already been planning to head to a nearby state park for a few days of camping, we decided to take the Yaris instead of the Aveo. Folding the back seats down was simple enough and gave us plenty of room to stuff all our things. It was supposed to be a fun weekend outside the city at a drive-up campsite, not a hardcore backpacking adventure, so we brought a pretty good bit of stuff, but the Yaris accommodated it with ease.
Once we had been driving for a little while, the differences between the two cars became much more apparent. Yes, the Yaris made almost the same amount of power as Kate’s Aveo, and the driving position felt eerily familiar, thanks partly to the lack of a telescoping steering wheel, but it had other convenience features not remotely available on Kate’s mid-tier Chevy.
Power windows and power locks made getting in and out of the car much easier, but the Yaris LE also had remote keyless entry. There was no push-button start, but not having to remember to manually lock your car anymore is a feature I think too many people take for granted these days. Power mirrors are also included with the LE, which is another convenience I forgot to be grateful for before I began driving the Aveo.
The Yaris also comes with an Entune touchscreen and six speakers standard, and while it isn’t the most feature-rich infotainment system in this form, it can be equipped with navigation if you want, and it offers Bluetooth connectivity. That meant we could stream our favorite music from our phones instead of being forced to listen to whatever was on FM radio.
Cruise control is also included on the Yaris LE, which Kate’s Aveo doesn’t have. The Yaris isn’t necessarily built to be a highway-cruising road trip car, but if you have to hit the highway, cruise control is going to be your friend. Trust me. I once drove that Aveo somewhere around 1,350 miles from Atlanta to Boston without cruise control, and that’s not something I would wish on anyone else.
Unfortunately, the Yaris only makes 106 horsepower, which wasn’t enough to maintain 65 miles per hour anytime we approached an incline. The transmission would have to kick down into third gear, giving me a lot of revs but not much more in the way of additional power. It’s a car that places fuel efficiency and reliability over performance, though, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll probably be satisfied with the trade-off.
At the end of my time with the Yaris, I had averaged somewhere around 33 miles per gallon, which is slightly better than its combined fuel economy rating of 32 miles per gallon. In comparison to the Aveo, I was also impressed. These days, basic transportation offers a much more compelling reason to buy it new instead of buying a used car that was much more expensive when new.
For $17,000, the Toyota Yaris LE offers a good bit of technology and quite a few standard features that you didn’t used to be able to find, it’s quieter, it has a better ride, and in general, it’s more comfortable. I won’t call it luxurious, but it feels like it’s been built to last, and I would expect it to be extremely reliable. The exterior design may be polarizing, but at least it tries for something instead of sticking with the bland and anonymous styling of previous subcompacts.
Where it starts to fall apart for me, though, is when I start comparing the Yaris to the rest of the segment. Yes, as a class, subcompacts have come a long way in the last 10 years, and they’re not close to still being the penalty boxes they once were, but the Yaris’s competitors have upped their game considerably, and I’m not sure the Yaris measures up.
If you’re looking for the least expensive car you can buy with the longest warranty, the Kia Rio has a five-year, 60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty as well as a 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and it still offers more than its fair share of features.
The Ford Fiesta, meanwhile, is quite a bit more fun to drive, especially in 1.0-liter Ecoboost trim, and if memory serves me correctly, its interior was nicer than the Yaris’s as well.
There’s the Honda Fit, a competitor that gets comparable gas mileage and promises to be just as reliable as the Yaris but also makes nearly 25% more power. Add in remarkable versatility and a fun-to-drive nature, and you have a recipe for perhaps the most desirable car in the segment.
Finally, you also can’t forget that Toyota’s Scion brand now sells the iA, a subcompact that’s quite a strong first impression on reviewers.
That’s not to say the Yaris is a bad car. Anyone looking for inexpensive, basic transportation that’s easy to park, reliable, and gets good gas mileage will probably be quite happy owning the Yaris. But if they test drive the competition, though, I have a feeling most people will end up preferring something else.