What’s in a name? Sometimes it’s just as important as the car it’s attached to. Jeep, Mustang, Mini, Camaro, Beetle, and Corvette are all legendary cars, familiar even to people who couldn’t care less about what they drive. But they’ve all gone through some incredibly lean times, and in the end their parent companies knew that they were worth more alive than dead. So with individual automotive names such a matter of importance, it’s always been strange to us when a marque decides to use the same one for two completely different cars.
In the ’80s, there was the good old body-on-frame Grand Wagoneer, and the Cherokee XJ-based Wagoneer. Then there was also the Fox body Ford LTD, and the full-size police favorite LTD Crown Victoria. Plus the Chevy Blazer, available in compact S10, and full-size K5 varieties, among others. Today, Nissan offers the second-generation Rogue and the 2007-’13 Rogue, now known as the Rogue Select. And in this next great automotive revival of “Who’s on First?” we have the Toyota Yaris and the Toyota Yaris iA.
The poor little Yaris iA is something of a refugee. Introduced for 2015, the iA was one of the last models to wear a Scion badge before Toyota killed its funky, youth-oriented, American market brand for 2016. The iM five-door hatch will embrace its Corolla underpinnings and live on as the Toyota Corolla iM. The underpowered yet underrated FR-S will join its domestic market brethren and become the Toyota 86, just like it is in Japan. But the Yaris iA is a little different. First of all, it isn’t a Toyota; it’s a Mazda, built by Mazda at its Mexican plant and sold under license by the world’s largest automaker.
The Yaris iA is really the Mazda2 sedan, a subcompact that’s sadly been missing from our shores since 2014. On the other hand, Toyota’s subcompact Yaris hatch is pure Toyota. For our weekly series Buy This, Not That, we generally compare platform-mates to see who does it better, but today, we wanted to pit the Toyota-built Yaris against the Mazda-built Yaris, and see who comes out on top. Try not to get too confused.
Tale of the tape
The Yaris hatchback is Toyota’s bread-and-butter subcompact for the world market, if not a strong seller stateside — it only moved 16,779 of them in the U.S. last year. We first got the car in 1999 as the Echo, before it switched over to the worldwide Yaris name in 2005. Here’s the good: It is relatively handsome, offers excellent visibility and direct steering, has comfortable seats, has room for five (though comfort and performance will diminish with five adults in it), and is available with Toyota’s solid Entune infotainment system. Materials inside don’t exactly feel top notch, but then again this is a $15-18K car, and with famous Toyota reliability, it’s likely to last 200,000 miles and beyond with even the most limited maintenance.
Now here’s the rest: Its 106-horsepower inline four can diplomatically be described as “buzzy,” its four-speed automatic transmission makes even moderate hill climbing an adventure, and the way it projects every sound and bump in the road is nothing short of astonishing. When the current-generation model came out in 2013, Toyota launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign showcasing the Yaris lineup’s best features, like its color palette and standard airbags. “It’s a car!” the ads shouted. Boy, they sure were right.
Along with the Mitsubishi Mirage and Nissan Versa, the Yaris feels very much like a “rest-of-the-world” kind of car — cheap, basic, generally un-killable transportation that’s designed to get you from point A to point B. It stands in stark contrast to more solid feeling rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit. What’s worse, the Mazda-built Yaris puts its family member to shame.
Originally only offered as a hatchback in the U.S. market, the Mazda2 was one of the more fun-to-drive cars in its segment. We were sad to see it go just before its 2015 redesign, but relieved to see it come back for 2016, even if it now has a trunk and a big, um, “polarizing” catfish grille (“Hey Toyota, the 1946 Oldsmobile called…”). Power comes from a Mazda 1.5-liter four, also putting out 106 horsepower. It may equal the Toyota-built Yaris, but with better handling, and a six-speed manual similar to the one in the Miata, it can actually be a riot to drive.
Standard features include remote start and forward collision-detecting automatic braking. Inside, it’s quieter than most cars in its class, and better built too, with the interior looking and feeling far more mid-level Mazda than entry-level Toyota (that’s fine with us; Fiat did it with its Miata-clone 124, too). Our Micah Wright drove a pre-production Scion model last year, and decided:
The ride is good, the seats are comfortable enough, the trunk is larger than expected, and it will automatically lock the brakes prior to a collision to keep you from rolling forward into another car. It also has a lot of awesome amenities for Generation Z buyers too, what with all of its tech, reliability, low operating costs, and ease of use around town.
At $17,595 for remaining Scion-badged iAs, buy-in is a little steeper than the Yaris hatch, but with all the car offers, it’s well worth it. Besides, Toyota dealers are likely to want to get rid of their Scions as quickly as possible; with a little time and a little talk, you might be able to grab one for a song.
It really isn’t close here. In an age when the subcompact market is finally growing up, the old-school econobox feel of the Yaris hatch feels increasingly out of step. The Yaris iA doesn’t offer the functionality of a hatchback, and it may have four doors and a trunk, but it’s likely the most mature, well-equipped new car you can buy for the money, catfish grille or not. The Scion-Toyota symbiosis may be a little confusing, but if you’re in the market for a subcompact, just keep this clear: You’ll want the Yaris iA, not the Yaris. The iA is the best of both worlds: Toyota’s rock-solid reputation and warranty with Mazda’s excellent handling, great transmissions, and great interiors. Maybe a name isn’t so important; it’s what’s inside that counts.