Benefitting from Mazda2’s Skyactiv tech, Toyota sedan impresses

One of the most heard complaints from automotive journalists centres around how carmakers, so eager to impress the press, send out models loaded to the nines.

Lost in the leather, dual-zone climate control, heads-up display and satellite radio is a sense of what the car really will be like for the average buyer.

There’s no such problem with today’s subject.

The Toyota Yaris sedan I’m driving is as basic as they come, save for the automatic transmission. It’s a refreshing look at the basic car, warts and all.

First, a basic refresher on this Toyota that’s not really a Toyota.

The story starts with the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated parts of Japan.

The death toll approached 16,000, with another 2,500 missing.

Car plants were flooded, production shut down and the economy staggered. In response, Toyota instituted a moratorium on the construction of new plants while rebuilding was underway.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Mazda was tooling up a plant to produce the new Mazda2, a car Mazda would later decide had a limited market, and which would be cancelled altogether for Canada. (It also doesn’t appear on the Mazda U.S.A. website.)

With two new models looking for an assembly line — the Scion iA and its twin Yaris sedan — and a plant facing an underutilized future, a deal between Toyota and Mazda would be almost inevitable.

The iA would be offered in America and the Yaris sedan in Canada. The upshot is if you want a Mazda2, it comes only as a sedan and only with a Toyota nameplate.

The second odd thing about the Yaris sedan is that in addition to not being a Toyota, it’s also not really a Yaris. The Yaris, an actual Toyota, continues on as the first Toyota entry point as the same hatchback, for now, it has been since 2011.

The Yaris sedan, however, is such a different car, perhaps it shouldn’t wear the Yaris nameplate. Unlike both the previous model and the current hatchback, Yaris Sedan slots in above Corolla in pricing and in content. It bears no resemblance to the hatchback model at all.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for the large, stylized ‘T’ in the middle of the steering wheel, you’d think you were in a Mazda.

Toyota Canada spokesman Romaric Lartilleux said the choice of the name was cast by the popularity of its predecessor.

“Regarding the name of the 2016 model, it was obvious for Toyota in Canada to name it Yaris Sedan, as the previous generation Yaris sedan, a very popular model in Canada, had been discontinued in 2012 and there was still a high customer demand for it,” Lartilleux said.

The car will be renamed Yaris iA in the United States for the 2017 model year and beyond, but Lartilleux said no decision has been made for Canada.

Pop the hood and the first thing you see is a large plastic cover with Toyota’s logo prominently displayed. Pop off the plastic cover and you see, for all intents and purposes, a Mazda2 engine, complete with Mazda’s flying-wing M logo on various labels around the engine bay.

This is all good news, as it means the car benefits from Mazda’s Skyactiv technology, a suite of measures designed to save fuel while keeping the car fun to drive. My average after a week was 6.1 litres per 100 km, which is excellent considering the sub-$20k as-tested price, the automatic transmission and the fun-to-drive nature of the car.

The 1.5-litre mill won’t lay down rubber, and you’d be forgiven if you thought it was poky, but the handling of the car helps in that you don’t need to scrub off too much speed for most corners. You can toss it into a corner and it will settle into your preferred line, even though the rear suspension is a torsion beam and thus only partially independent.

Mazda’s automatic transmission is also a boon, as it doesn’t suck all the fun out of driving the car. The excellent six-speed stick is the most fun to drive, but it also means you lose access to premium features such as heated seats.

Why carmakers demand those who like to shift themselves deprive themselves is beyond me. A stand-alone add-on option would be appreciated.

The car also doesn’t punish you to obtain that handling, with a smooth ride that also benefits from Skyactiv thinking, which aims to reduce weight everywhere — including, most critically, between the lower end of the springs and the road. That so-called unsprung weight is low enough it doesn’t have a lot of inertia to transmit much of a road’s bumps into the cabin.

There are some concessions to economy, however. The body, particularly when closing the rear doors, feels tinny, and doors lack a solid feel when they close. The upper part of the dash is textured, hard vinyl, but even on the base model, the surround for the vents is clad in a nicely upholstered soft vinyl.

I still find the snout of the car very polarizing. It’s very prominent, almost the Jimmy Durante of automotive proboscises. It’s like a blowfish that got punched in the mouth by a jealous halibut.

The Yaris Sedan starts about a grand more than Corolla, but also includes power windows, air conditioning and keyless entry as standard features, all are options on Corolla and all drive Corolla above the Yaris Sedan’s base price.

Even though Yaris Sedan is more money than Corolla, I’d argue it has become the new value leader for the brand.


The specs

Engine: 1.5-litre Skyactiv four-cylinder

Power: 106 hp @ 6,000 r.p.m.

Torque: 103 lb-ft @ 4,000 r.p.m.

Steering: electric power assist rack-and-pinion

Suspension: MacPherson struts, coil springs, stabilizer bar (front); semi-independent torsion beam (rear)

Brakes: front disc, rear drum

Fuel economy (l/100km, city/highway/combined): 7.2 / 5.6 / 6.4 (6AT), 7.6 / 5.7 / 6.7 (6MT)

Fuel economy (l/100km, observed average): 6.1

Price: $18,200, base MSRP (6AT)

Price: $18,200, as-tested