2018 Toyota Yaris iA Review: Probably the Best Cheap New Car You Can Buy

The diminutive Toyota Yaris iA is an economy car like they used to make—and that's a damn good thing.

Toyota

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive's writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Toyota Yaris iA.

They don't make them like they used to. That old line is usually trotted out to shred some new performance model for dropping the manual transmission option, or a $100,000 pickup truck that's not exactly the farm tool it once was. But the same is true for economy cars. The buzzy, bare-bones subcompacts of yesterday embraced their quintessential cheapness in a honest way that today's econoboxes are mostly incapable of recapturing.

There are a multitude of reasons for this decades-long slide into ponderous, plodding mediocrity. Take your pick: more rigid safety standards, technological advancements, inflation, model bloat, and a general heightening of expectations from consumers have driven manufacturers to make specific choices in creating the uninspiring sub-$20,000 lineup today. Whether that's cutting costs in weird places or adding needless features to approximate a more expensive car, the result has mostly been a forgettable mess.

Toyota

I say mostly, because there's still one car out there in this price range that's flight of foot, flinty of character, and freely admitting of its appeal to cheapskates: the 2018 Toyota Yaris iA, one of the more surprisingly enjoyable cars I've driven recently. That's partly because of the six-speed manual transmission, and partly because it's really a rebadged Mazda 2, but the whole package shows that Toyota still believes a cheap-ass car doesn't have to feel like a punishment.

Enthusiasts, avert your eyes—we're about to dig deeper on why this rental-spec Toyota is worth a second look, based on a week of driving around New York City this past winter.

Toyota

The Pros

  • In an age where both sedans and small cars have been added to the Endangered Species List (double-check me on that), the Toyota Yaris iA retains a classic three-box shape with a relatively low front end and a definable trunk. Like anything in this class, its Mazda-sourced design is more functional than attractive. But I appreciated how the Yaris iA doesn't attempt to look bigger than it is like some sort of threatened prey.
  • The Mazda connection means the Yaris iA has a little zoom-zoom in it as well. The 106-horsepower inline-four engine seems utterly forgettable on paper, but in practice the well-designed chassis and six-speed manual (light clutch, tight throws) make it a surprisingly engaging time. Plus, you have to rev the crap out of it to get into the power band, which makes for an exciting time. It's also worth mentioning that it only weighs 2,385 pounds, and it feels appropriately light and tossable. Some may moan about how the car's refinement fades as you move toward the rear end, which features a cheap torsion bar suspension system and drum brakes. But come on, you're not tracking this thing.
  • The interior is recognizably Mazda as well, with the company's center console-mounted knob controlling a small infotainment screen perched on top of the dash. It's a very basic space. But I love how Toyota has taken practically no measures to make it look like anything other than the interior of a $17,000 car, while making sure that touch points and switchgear all feel solid and satisfying to use. Another plus: everything is standard (including low-speed automatic emergency braking), and there are no options or screwy packaging to muddle through. And if the 13 cubic feet in the trunk aren't enough stowage for your needs, you can put the rear seatback down to create a pass-through space.
  • The Toyota Yaris iA is safer, better-equipped, and more fuel-efficient than anything in this class was twenty or thirty years ago, but it still captures that old feeling of being an unserious, unselfconsciously cheap car. Maybe it's because cars back then were still highly mechanical things that connected the driver to the road in ways the electronic systems of today cannot. Maybe it's because we prioritize flash over substance as a culture. Or maybe it's because the simple combination of a light car, a buzzy engine, and a manual transmission will never, ever get old.
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The Cons

  • I just extolled the virtues of a light curb weight. Now I'm here to warn you that driving the Yaris iA over a tall bridge on a windy day is grounds for institutionalization. I headed out from south Brooklyn to pick up a friend in New Jersey, following a route that took me across the upper deck of the 228-foot-high Verrazano Bridge that crosses part of New York Harbor. I didn't check the weather, because I live in Los Angeles, so I missed the high wind warning prediciting 40-50 mph wind gusts. The depth of my mistake was evident when the first blast of air sent the Yaris halfway into the next lane, and even the tightest white-knuckle grip couldn't keep the tiny car planted up there. 
  • Toyota added a weird beak to the front end of the Yaris iA to differentiate it from Mazda 2 donor when it first came into the fold under Scion, and then simply swapped badges when that brand when belly-up a couple years ago. To me, it's the worst part of the exterior design, and adds a touch of try-hard ornamentation to what should be a simple, honest little bean.
  • It might be the best driver, but at $17,000 it's not even close to the cheapest car you can get in America (that would be the $12,000 Nissan Versa), and for some that will matter most of all. It's worth noting that you do get some standard features missing in other cars at this price, including the automatic emergency braking, but the mass market hasn't been known for prioritizing quality over price.
  • There's another pricing conundrum for the Toyota Yaris iA, and really, anything in this price bracket. Sure, the new car warranty (and smell) is important to a lot of people, and those "You could get a used BMW M5 for the price of a new Corolla!" comparisons have never made sense in the real world. But if all you want is something reliable for under $20,000, why not get a something like a certified pre-owned Honda Civic that offers more space, just as much dependability, and better features for the same price?
  • You know it's small, yet somehow, the backseat feels like it should be bigger.
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The 2018 Toyota Yaris iA, Ranked (Relatively)

Performance: 3/5

Comfort: 2/5

Luxury: 2/5

Hauling People: 3/5

Hauling Stuff: 3/5

Curb Appeal: 2/5

"Wow" Factor: 2/5

Overall: 3/5

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The Bottom Line

Pricing debate aside, there's no doubt that the 2018 Toyota Yaris iA is pretty much the only game in cheap car town that's worth playing these days. Its direct handling and low curb weight make it more go-kart than commuter coffin, and underneath that unapologetically cheap skin is an extremely solid subcompact sedan.

Evaluating a car like this requires recalibrating your expectations. No, it's not particularly comfortable. No, it doesn't have a turbo. No, you can't have any options. But for $17,000, are any of those actual problems? When you're looking for a car that's distilled down to the essentials, a functional skeleton that's only serving its true and fated purpose, you can't be upset that it doesn't have the world's best sound insulation, or a killer engine, or heated seats. I mean, you can, but then you'd be missing the point entirely.

Instead, you have to judge the 2018 Toyota Yaris iA on the merits passed down from its forbearers, and in that regard, it's an unqualified win. Is it a light, nimble little thing with a manual transmission? Yes. Is the interior clean and sensibly designed? Yes? Will it get you from A to B safely and economically? Yes. And most importantly, will you still feel alive at the end? Yes.

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The 2018 Toyota Yaris iA, By the Numbers

Base Price (as tested, incl. destination): $15,950 ($16,870)

Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline-four engine; 106 horsepower, 103 pound-feet of torque; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Weight: 2,385 pounds

Fuel Economy: 30 mpg city, 39 highway, 34 combined

0-60 mph: 8.7 seconds (Car & Driver testing)

Number of times I searched for the automatic parking brake button despite the hand-operated lever sitting right freaking there: 2

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This image of actor and businessman Danny Trejo posing with a Yaris iA and a plate of enchiladas was in the car's press kit for some reason, and I wanted to share.

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