Car reviews - Toyota - Yaris - Ascent
Doesn’t feel like a base model, reasonably spacious for its size, mature ride and handling
Room for improvement
Sluggish four-speed auto, questionable safety option pack strategy, poor front seat adjustment
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20 Jul 2017
AUTONOMOUS emergency braking (AEB), forward collision warning, lane-departure warning and automatic high beam. Not so long ago these hi-tech safety and driver assistance systems were the preserve of big, expensive cars. But here we are in Toyota’s smallest, cheapest model – the Yaris Ascent – and it has all of the above.
There is a catch, because on this spec or the mid-level SX, this democratisation of safety costs $650 – $200 more than is asked for metallic paint – and only the range-topping ZR includes Toyota’s ‘safety sense’ technology package in the price.
It was introduced on Toyota’s second significant Yaris update since the third-generation light car was launched in 2011.
Despite its age, the tiny Toyota remains a worthy class contender. But we couldn’t help wishing AEB was standard range-wide, with the other bundled systems optional or simply used to add value to higher-spec variants.
Price and equipment
The Ascent kicks off the Yaris range – and indeed the entire Australian Toyota line-up – at $15,290 plus on-road costs with a five-speed manual gearbox.
Ours had the four-speed automatic, which costs an extra $1530, Tidal Blue metallic paintwork ($450) and the Toyota Safety Sense upgrade ($650).
Of the 10 colours available, Glacier White, Vivid Yellow and Cherry Red paint finishes are all no-cost options.
Standard equipment includes a 6.1-inch touchscreen audio system providing visuals for the reversing camera, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input, MP3 compatibility, CD player and AM/FM radio delivering sound through six speakers.
All this can be controlled via voice commands or the multi-function polyurethane steering wheel, behind which is a stalk for activating the standard cruise control.
There is also manual air-conditioning, electric windows all round, electric mirror adjustment, a trip computer, 12-volt power socket and interior map-reading lights.
For the driver there is steering wheel reach and height adjustment, seat height adjustment, and a rev-counter.
Exterior features comprise 15-inch steel wheels with trim covers, body colour bumpers, door handles and door mirror housings and LED brake lights, while security is taken care of by remote central locking and an engine immobiliser.
In addition to the Safety Sense pack comprising forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning and automatic high beam fitted to our test vehicle, standard Yaris safety equipment includes seven airbags, electronic stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist plus an emergency brake signal that flashes the hazard lights under heavy deceleration.
The third-generation Yaris – we are counting the innovative Echo as first-gen because it was called Yaris in some markets – has always majored on practicality and good visibility. This late-life facelift changes none of those qualities, even though we miss the quirky and thoughtful storage solutions that defined the first two generations compared with this version’s more conservative layout.
First impressions of the cabin are that it does not feel like a base model, helped by the standard of upholstery fabric and sculpted seat, plus large upholstered areas of the door trims made for pleasant touch-points that raised cabin ambience and comfort more than the dollar value of this solution would suggest.
This is good news from a brand often found guilty of lavishing everything on a single top-spec variant and leaving all others to feel low-rent. We’re thinking HiLux especially. Consistent with most class competitors this is a hard plastic zone, with grey, and grainy elephant skin textures.
It’s all well put together too, and there is a decent amount of storage up-front plus a two-tiered boot design out back, where the 286-litre luggage area is conveniently shaped and forms a flat load bay with the 60:40 split rear bench folded, provided the boot floor is in the upper position.
The glovebox and door bins are of decent capacity, supplemented by a shelf above the former and bottle-holding mouldings in the latter. Between the front seats are large recesses that can hold cups or bottles, a deep tray for holding sunglasses or smartphones just beneath the USB and 12V outlets plus another cupholder that can be accessed by either front or rear occupants and another recess below the handbrake lever.
Seat comfort and cushioning was good both front and rear, although large steps in the backrest angle up front meant we were either too reclined or too upright. Likewise the increments of driver’s seat fore/aft adjustment was either too cramped against the dash or too far from the steering wheel, even with the latter at the full extent of its reach adjustment range.
As expected for a car this small, sitting six-footers in tandem is a recipe for knees clashing with backrests but a little compromise on the part of those in front made it manageable.
Three abreast in the back is pretty pointless, unless all are children and all are old enough to not require bulky booster seats. The smallest one would have to go in the squashed central position, naturally.
Isofix points are available for attaching child restraints in the outboard positions, with top tether anchorages sensibly located on the backrests. All well and good, but those with infants requiring a rear-facing seat had better look elsewhere if they want to use the front passenger seat for anything other than their bag as it must be positioned way forward with the backrest bolt upright to provide enough room.
Technology-wise, we never had to trouble the forward collision warning or autonomous emergency braking but compared to the Corolla with these systems we drove, they was not over-sensitive. Lane-departure warning delivers a subtle audible alert, so it was useful without being off-putting.
We also found the auto high beam to work pretty well, avoiding dazzling both vehicles in front and oncoming traffic – although it did once get confused in a tunnel and start flashing the headlights at random. Thankfully the activation button is large and easily accessible just above the steering wheel.
The Yaris gets Toyota’s current-generation touchscreen interface that scores points for ease of Bluetooth connectivity and consistency of digital audio playback from wireless or wired inputs.
Being a basic unit without sat-nav or app-based connectivity features, the Yaris touchscreen works better than higher-spec Toyota systems that frustrate with their clunky, laggy and generally dated methods of operation. We’d like to see Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity included but Toyota is yet to jump on that bandwagon on any model, even the new-generation Camry that will come with an all-new system.
As mentioned, visibility is excellent and the Yaris was a blessing to park in tight spots. Its reversing camera was nice to have from a safety perspective but largely redundant for judging distances. Cabin ventilation was good but while the basic manual air-conditioning controls were easy to manipulate, the temperature adjustment was a little on/off with little in the way of cool and warm between cold and hot.
Light cars are rarely a quiet way to travel and the Yaris is no exception, with engine and road noise ever-present. However, we never suffered sensory overload, even on long motorway journeys or coarse-chip country lanes, and the surprisingly rich-sounding audio system does a good job of distracting from and drowning out any aural unpleasantness without adding to the problem with tinny sound quality.
Engine and transmission
Unique to the base-spec Yaris Ascent is a 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine, with the SX and ZR getting a more powerful 1.5-litre unit. All Yaris engines meet Euro 5 emissions standards and run on 91 RON standard unleaded petrol.
Having just 1035kg plus passengers and luggage to haul about, the small engine’s modest power and torque outputs of 63kW and 120Nm are adequate, but the driver has to be committed to assertive accelerator inputs and regularly hearing the thrash of valves and cylinders giving their all in order to keep up with traffic.
It does get a bit vocal, and the lightweight Yaris has little in the way of sound insulation to spare occupants from the efforts going on under the bonnet.
Thankfully there is little in the way of vibration to accompany the noise.
Producing a beefier 80kW and 141Nm, the bigger 1.5-litre no doubt delivers a more relaxed driving experience, without harming official fuel consumption figures, at least when paired to the automatic.
We have a theory that the four-speed auto has the 1.3L unit working overtime to overcome its broad spread of ratios and inability to deliver low-rev cruising, ultimately harming the fuel consumption of what on paper should be a more efficient unit. This is pretty much proven by the fact the 1.5L has a higher official fuel-use rating than the 1.3L when paired with the five-speed manual.
Apart from being dated by virtue of its low ratio count, the automatic is also a sluggish thing, frustrating us regularly by refusing to kick down and resulting in slower-than-hoped-for progress on motorway entry ramps. Sneaking into gaps between semitrailers was a buttock-clenching experience.
It was a similar story when trying to make most of the Yaris’ agility for urban cut-and-thrust driving. The hesitant transmission and engine’s low torque output being unable to overcome a lack of revs meant it was the antithesis of point-and-squirt when trying to dive into traffic gaps.
Occasionally at higher speeds with the cruise control on, the transmission would seem to take a deep breath and then shift down, the engine having to energetically make up for all the deceleration that took place during this interlude. We found it amusing but it would get annoying if hilly motorways were part of our commute.
As much as we criticise continuously variable transmissions as fitted to the likes of the Honda Jazz and until recently Hyundai Accent, they do respond quickly and help make the most of small-output engines.
But once up to speed and when not required to duck, dive or accelerate quickly our test Yaris trundled along well enough and even managed not to be too buzzy on the motorway kilometres we travelled.
Still, after this experience we would recommend buyers with their heart set on a Yaris dig deep for a version with the bigger engine.
Fuel use during our test averaged 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres, just 0.1L higher than the official combined figure. However, a work schedule necessitating numerous long motorway trips skewed this result and we would expect to see low-to-mid sevens had our week with the Yaris been more weighted toward urban and suburban duties.
Ride and handling
The Yaris was engineered in Europe and there is a bit more sophistication to the way it rides and handles as a result. It’s no Ford Fiesta but few will find cause for complaint as it works just as well on the open road as in town.
Most importantly of all, it’s comfortable and does not transfer shocks through the cabin as cars this small are prone to. At the same time, it does not lean excessively in bends and the little 15-inch tyres provide plenty of grip.
The low weight helps here as the suspension and tyres are not being asked of much. Agility and nimbleness also benefit and the Yaris can be quite good fun to punt about because the driver feels well connected to the road.
Around town the light, direct steering combines with good visibility and low weight make the Yaris feel at one with its environment. These qualities help at higher speeds on twisty roads, too, but Toyota has also managed to keep the Yaris feeling stable and secure at speeds approaching and exceeding triple digits.
For us it was only really let down by its small engine and old-school automatic transmission – judging from the variant we tested, the manual 1.5-litre would be pretty rewarding to row along.
As such, we have no complaints in this department. For a Toyota that’s pretty good going.
Safety and servicing
Back in 2011 ANCAP awarded the Yaris a maximum five stars, with an overall score of 34.41 out of 37 based on a left-hand-drive 1.3-litre European market five-door tested by Euro NCAP. It has not been re-tested since subsequent facelifts or the availability of Safety Sense technology on this update.
The frontal offset test score was 15.41 out of 16, while 16 out of 16 was awarded for side impact performance and 1 out of 2 in the pole test. Pedestrian protection was rated ‘acceptable’.
Standard safety equipment includes dual frontal and side airbags, curtain airbags and a driver knee airbag plus electronic stability and traction control, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
Service intervals are every six months or 10,000km and under Toyota’s capped price servicing scheme, the first six scheduled services cost $140 each when carried out within the first 3 years or 60,000km (correct at time of writing).
Government, rental, fleet and not-for-profit customers are not eligible for capped-price servicing and are instead offered the maximum logbook service price of $186.20 for the first and fifth visits, $199.40 for the second, $226.61 for the third, $417.57 for the fourth and $239.81 for the sixth.
The Yaris is covered by a three-year, 100,000km warranty.
We applaud the availability of AEB on Toyota’s most affordable model, not least because this technology remains rare in the light car segment. Some manufacturers only make this sort of tech an option on upper-spec variants, but others – namely Mazda and Skoda – make it standard range-wide on the Mazda2 and Fabia respectively.
Light cars such as the Yaris are often people’s first – or last – car. For that reason game-changing safety aids such as AEB can make a real difference, so it is a shame Toyota decided to bundle it into a safety option package rather than making it standard range-wide.
Lane-departure warning and high-beam assist are worthy, but to us it seems more logical that these are equipment bonuses on higher-spec variants or are kept as a separate option.
Perhaps $650 is not a large price to pay for technology that was until recently the preserve of the well-off folk who could afford something big and German, but the light car segment is also very price sensitive and people will pay as little as they can get away with.
Segment sales were also down 16.3 per cent year-on-year at the time of writing, enabling the Yaris to boost its market share purely by virtue of its 6.9 per cent sales slide being slower than the market average.
It means there are going to be some very attractive offers out there and safety most definitely sells, which theoretically should put the refreshed Yaris close to the top of many shopping lists.
Just as well, then, that the Yaris remains relevant in terms of practicality and driving pleasure despite its age.
Don’t be fooled by the starting price of the manual Ascent being above the psychological $15,000 barrier, because the cost of upgrading to the automatic most people will buy is lower than that charged by rivals such as Mazda and Honda. It means the automatic Mazda2 Neo and Honda Jazz VTi cost more than the equivalent Yaris. All other automatic light hatch contenders cost even more again.
Then again, if going for an automatic we’d recommend you drive a hard bargain on a Yaris SX to get the bigger 1.5-litre engine and a bit more standard equipment because we couldn’t help but think the 1.3-litre tested here would be far more tolerable with a manual.
Mazda2 Neo hatch automatic from $16,990 plus on-road costs
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Honda Jazz VTi automatic from $16,990 plus on-road costs
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Suzuki Ignis GL automatic ($16,990 plus on-road costs)
Wildcard Ignis is part SUV, part light car and sweetest in entry level trim.
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