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Fourth-generation Yaris ups its scale and sporting quotient, but to what effect?

Having been with us for a little over two decades, the Toyota Yaris headed back to its roots for its fourth generation. 

The French-built small hatchback is Toyota’s biggest-selling individual model in Europe, and that’s no mean feat given the ever-increasing number of SUVs taking over the market. 

Oversized blister for the rear wheel arch is unusually bold for a mid-range supermini but most testers liked the added on-street presence that it helps to provide. It looks bolder still in a brighter metallic colour.

Like the Toyota C-HR crossover, the esteemed Toyota Prius and the popular Toyota Corolla hatchback, this generation of Yaris sits on the brand’s TNGA-B platform. A completely new design came with the platform change, reimagining the supermini on a clean sheet of paper.

As you might have noticed, the result looks more like the original Yaris of 1999 than either of the subsequent generations. And like its showroom siblings, it’s a modern Toyota that offers only a petrol-electric hybrid powertrain.

For years, the Yaris’ biggest selling points have been its efficiency and safety credentials, but this time the brand has directed more attention to its performance, handling and general driver appeal. 

This is a car described in the same suspiciously catchy terms as the original Yaris was, one distinguished by “big small” characteristics both static and dynamic. Consider that an attempt to sweep away some of the memory of the Yaris’s awkward-looking teenage years, if you will.

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But whether you think such labelling is meaningful or not, now’s our chance to explore the Toyota Yaris’s qualities and characteristics in detail. 

Now then; let’s find out all about what this smaller, meaner, stiffer and more modern Toyota Yaris is all about. 

The Toyota Yaris line-up at a glance

Toyota has resisted the urge to offer this latest Yaris with regular petrol motors and has instead focused exclusively on its 1.5-litre hybrid powertrain – largely because it would have been the best seller anyway.

The Yaris comes with a choice of two power options, both with front-wheel drive and either 114bhp or 128bhp.

Starting prices are steeper than the supermini norm as a result, but the pay-off is appealingly low CO2 emissions and competitive efficiency. Icon represents the entry-level trim and is followed by Design, Dynamic, Excel, GR Sport and Premiere Edition models.

VERSION POWER
1.5 Petrol Hybrid 114bhp
1.5 Petrol Hybrid 128bhp

DESIGN & STYLING

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Toyota Yaris driving in town

Even with the greatly accelerated shift towards full electrification that has defined so much of the automotive conversation over the past few years, the Yaris remains one of only a tiny handful of hybrid superminis currently on sale.

It counts full-hybrid versions of the latest Honda Jazz and Renault Clio as its only direct rivals. And even as all-electric superminis become increasingly popular, it isn’t surprising to see the staunchly pro-hybrid Toyota stick with a blend of petrol and electric power but to refine and improve it extensively.

Yaris comes on either 16in or 17in alloys, although there are four different wheel designs – a separate one for each trim level. All but the 16s of the entry-level Icon-trim car have a two-tone machined finish.

This time around, the Yaris’s hybrid powertrain is based on a three-cylinder 1.5-litre Atkinson cycle atmospheric petrol engine that’s related to the 2.0-litre four-cylinder block found in the latest Toyota Corolla and Toyota C-HR hybrid models. It’s hooked up to two electric motor/generators, with a more compact hybrid transaxle transmission plus a CVT-like epicyclic power splitter.

The motor/generators draw and return their power from a 178V lithium-ion drive battery. The hybrid powertrain’s ‘total system’ power output is 114bhp (that’s 16% more than the old Yaris developed) and it’s directed to the front wheels.

Leaving the Toyota GR Yaris hot version firmly to one side, the hybrid system is the only engine option that Toyota will offer in the car.

The Yaris is the first global Toyota model to sit on the Japanese firm’s TNGA-B modular architecture and it reaps impressive improvements in both the packaging and styling departments.

It is 55mm shorter than its predecessor at the kerb but also has a roofline some 40mm lower, largely banishing the mini-MPV-like proportions that made the second third-generation cars ungainly, while it also has a wheelbase that’s some 50mm longer.

Combined with an increase in track width worth as much as 57mm, these dimensional changes promise a cabin that builds on the ‘small car, big interior’ identity that has historically been one of the Yaris’s key strengths, as well as a chassis to demonstrate significant dynamic improvements.

MacPherson front struts and a rear torsion beam serve as suspension, as is typical of today’s supermini class. Our lower-mid specification Design-trim test car rode on 16in alloy wheels, although sportier configurations get 17in rims and a firmer suspension set-up right out of the box.

On the GR Sport model, things become a bit more eye-catching. It includes an updated mesh front grille, black trim and black door mirrors - but underneath is where the key changes have been made, as Toyota attempts to add a bit of sporting flavour sampled from the firm’s GR performance. 

INTERIOR

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Toyota Yaris full front interior

Toyota claims to have improved visibility by setting the instrument panel lower and pulling the A-pillars further back relative to the driver. 

We feel the overall efficacy of these measures is marginal where the view forward is concerned, but the Yaris certainly does feel spacious from within – at least for front-seat occupants, who are now set 21mm lower than the previous generation car.

Proper dials for the air-con are welcome in a world increasingly enamoured of touchscreens. You don’t really need to take your eyes off the road to use them

The driver also benefits from adjustment for reach as well as rake in the steering column, so it is easy to find a comfortable and supportive position. The leather-trimmed steering wheel is particularly nice to hold, too, and wouldn’t even feel out of place in, say, the GR Toyota Supra.

In design terms, Toyota has partly reinstated the playful atmosphere the Yaris was once known for – the ‘binocular’ dial arrangement within the instrument binnacle and curvaceous dashboard moulding are two obvious examples – but it has also injected some class into the cabin. 

It isn’t difficult to find hard plastics (not least on the cheap-feeling door handles) but interesting fabrics, softer plastics and rubberised surfaces have been deployed among the various surfaces and storage cubbies.

The general curvature of the dashboard and door panels is also pleasing and is a departure from more staid European rivals – the recently rejuvenated French brands notwithstanding. Broadly speaking, perceived quality has also improved, in line with the twelfth-generation Toyota’s larger hatchback, the Toyota Corolla.

Although the Volkswagen Polo and Mini are unlikely to feel too threatened by the Yaris’ style, it will do enough to draw envious glances from drivers of the Ford Fiesta. 

But despite all this, and the exterior growth spurt, the Yaris is less impressive in terms of back-seat and luggage space. 

The Volkswagen Polo and Renault Clio do notably better in both areas and in objective terms, and the Yaris actually has a marginally less roomy boot than its predecessor.

Toyota does at least fit a variable-height boot floor, which is useful on those occasions when maximum capaciousness isn’t required and the size of the loading lip can be reduced.

Toyota Yaris infotainment and sat-nav

The Yaris launched with the Toyota Touch 2, the brand’s touchscreen infotainment system, but the size of the screen differs depending on which specification level you choose. 

Cars with the Icon trim made use of a more dated 7.0in display, while the rest of the Yaris line-up benefits from an 8.0in touchscreen, excluding the top-of-the-range Excel model, which gets a bigger 9.0in system. 

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about the infotainment system in the Yaris is that both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration come as standard. 

And, frankly, owners are likely to rely on those applications heavily, not only because there exists no navigation provision with the basic system but also because Toyota’s system of menus can be awkward to use, with small graphics and some latency. 

Certainly, alternatives such as the systems fitted in the Mini and Volkswagen Polo are considerably slicker. There are also USB ports and, on UK cars, standard-fit reversing cameras, albeit of low resolution.

In terms of hardware, the entry-level Yaris Icon uses a central 7.0in touchscreen, although our Design test car benefits from an 8.0in display. There are also USB ports and, on UK cars, standard-fit reversing cameras, albeit of low resolution.

In 2024, all Yaris models will receive an upgrade in this respect, gaining a much more modern 9.5in touchscreen with crisper graphics and smoother operation. The highest trim levels will get a 10.5in display. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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Toyota Yaris front dynamic

Toyota’s hybrid powertrains have always delivered fuel economy better than the class average, but this has generally come at some cost to drivability.

This remains the case for the fourth-generation Yaris, even though the 1.5-litre parallel hybrid system has been designed to feel more natural under load, with the ‘e-CVT’ transmission (which isn’t strictly a CVT at all) exhibiting less of the so-called ‘elastic band’ effect than it once did.

Electric propulsion is a real asset in town, enabling the Yaris to be quick off the mark, and the base-spec model’s greater pliancy over its firmer range-mates is welcome.

With revised tuning and more electric power at hand, those yawning stretches of fixed-rpm din are if not banished then at least ameliorated somewhat.

This set-up nevertheless puts its best foot forward with light to middling throttle applications, when only modest force – if any at all – is asked of the naturally aspirated three-cylinder engine. 

The Yaris is therefore especially effective in urban environments because the electric drive motor endows it with the usefully sharp step-off and a healthy measure of the linear initial acceleration for which pure-electric cars are known.

 The official claim is that the Yaris can operate on electric power for 80% of the time at low speeds, and it seems a plausible statistic if you can learn to use the accelerator pedal deftly enough.

However, on the open road, the Yaris is still no natural, especially when it comes to anything more lively than merely keeping pace with traffic. 

Although the extra power has made the Yaris more effective when it comes to overtaking – which was a weakness of the previous model that owners often highlighted – such activities still need to be planned carefully. If you want to quantify that, consider our timed 8.8sec effort for the dash from 30mph to 70mph.

Indeed, performance is unlikely to be the top priority of any hybrid Yaris owner, with the car impressing from a standstill. The Yaris proved quicker to 60mph than the Ford Fiesta equipped with Ford’s excellent 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine.

Admittedly, this small victory can probably be chalked up to the striking effect of the electric motors when pulling off the mark, because how the hybrid system gives up the goods when the engine properly comes ‘on song’ is neither enjoyable nor especially forceful.

The GR Sport, meanwhile is crashy and the engine is unpleasantly loud thanks to the way the CVT gearbox operates, with little return in regards to performance.  Both throttle-response and actual acceleration lack punch - even when putting your foot down - and in general the dynamics don’t quite live up to the GR name.

RIDE & HANDLING

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Toyota Yaris driving in town

Good ‘handling and stability’ means something different for superminis than it does for just about every other class of car. 

This is because all the memorable handlers in the supermini class achieve enjoyable handling by quite deliberately sacrificing stability. The short wheelbases and narrow tracks are carefully weaponised, and when done well the result is a car like the Ford Fiesta, which is engaging and satisfying to drive even in its lowliest specifications.

There’s a fast, glass-smooth S-bend near Millbrook Proving Ground that’s always quite revealing in terms of handling balance. I was surprised how neatly the Yaris took it. Expect the GRMN version to be very good.

The Yaris is less ambitious than the Fiesta and errs more on the side of stability but it is nevertheless a surprisingly fine-handling car given its humble roots. 

Riding on 16in wheels – which are paired with softer springs than models with 17in wheels or larger. It’s not the sharpest ride money can buy, but the chassis balance is neutral and grip levels (aided by the significantly increased track widths) are strong in light of the low-friction Continental tyres.

Pretty soon it becomes clear that the fourth-generation Yaris not only tolerates being grabbed by the scruff of the neck but also actually seems to enjoy it and maintains composure even when driven with the kind of commitment few owners will ever inflict on their car. 

The steering feeds into the sense of composure. It isn’t as rawly responsive as some in this class, but it is well-matched to the Yaris’s generous roll rates. Toyota claims this supermini is almost 40% more torsionally rigid than its predecessor – chiefly because of the stiff dashboard panel and greater use of spot welding, it says – and on this evidence we’ve little reason to doubt it.

Ultimately, in its standard guise, the Yaris shows more potential as a driver’s supermini than it actually realises. There’s little flair here and the car is impressively settled over a broad range of speeds and quietly satisfying on the right road.

The Yaris proved reasonably composed and precise on the Millbrook Hill Route, although a version on 17in wheels and with the sharper suspension set-up would no doubt have proved more adept. There is also no doubt that numerous rivals offer more in the way of entertainment – not only the Ford Fiesta but also any Peugeot 208, Seat Ibiza or Mazda 2 equipped with three pedals and a conventional engine.

The Yaris’s electronics nevertheless helped to prevent power-on understeer well enough and the inherently neutral handling balance meant decent speed could be carried throughout the lap.

Heave became an issue at various points, as we would have expected, but in general the Yaris has to be pushed hard before progress becomes ragged. That the engine is such an unenthusiastic performer makes getting to that stage something of an involved endeavour in and of itself.

Things take a downward turn in the GR Sport. It lumps and bumps its way through both the city and on A-roads, and the stiffness is off-putting - not helped by the car’s comparatively large 18in wheels.

You’d perhaps forgive the level of firmness in a hot hatch, but it's additionally disappointing when there’s little reward from the engine for your pains. It’s also really quite noisy in the cabin. It's certainly fair to say that if you want a Yaris for its comfort, you should avoid the GR Sport.

Comfort and isolation

The greatest asset this new Yaris has when it comes to rolling refinement are the two electric motors connected to its planetary gearbox. The next most pivotal element in the context of the car’s road manners is your decision to opt for the smallest wheel size. 

With both, the Yaris not only moves off the mark in near silence but can also then slip into all-electric running with commendable frequency during town driving, and all the while it demonstrates an impressively cushioned low-speed ride.

In our experience, the larger wheel size and stiffer springs rob it of some pliancy, so if you do particularly like the look of higher-specification models, be warned.

Of course, this is no plug-in hybrid, and because the battery can store enough energy for only around four miles of driving at a time, inevitably the three-cylinder engine must awaken. It does gruffly, and the faintly agricultural noise it emits under load is far less easy on the ear than, say, the sound made by the three-cylinder Ecoboost engine in the Fiesta.

It is, however, tempered by the powertrain’s ability to quickly shut down the petrol contingent, as happens under light loads when cruising, or when decelerating, and in general at any point when anything more than moderate acceleration isn’t required.

In general, the Yaris is therefore reasonably easy company. It is perhaps less isolated than we’d like on the motorway, where wind and road roar are ever-present, and the wide A-pillars can be unhelpful in town, but overall its hybrid status and soft suspension give it an edge in the supermini segment.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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Toyota Yaris front lead

Toyota’s pricing can make its cars look a little bit costly against their peers when judged on the showroom sticker price. On higher specification levels, the Yaris can reach as high as £29,000, for example. 

However, fairly generous equipment levels and good residual values tend to deliver competitive monthly finance figures, and the Yaris doesn't look so expensive in this regard. 

Toyota performs marginally better than the Clio hybrid and both retain more value than a mild-hybrid Fiesta.

Although its Design trim level makes it look roughly 5% more expensive than an equivalent Volkswagen Polo or Ford Fiesta, on a three-year PCP deal calculated through manufacturer finance configuration tools, it’s slightly cheaper than either.

Plenty of customers will be attracted to the car for its combination of excellent real-world fuel economy (our touring test economy figure suggests you could probably average better than 60mpg) with an easy, ‘automatic’ two-pedal driving experience. 

In the entry-level, 114bhp engine, Toyota promises between 65.6 to 70.6mpg - a tempting figure, matching the 67mpg offered by the Renault Clio E-Tech hybrid. The more powerful 128bhp engine offers between 65.6-67.2mpg, which is equally as impressive.

If you’re after more than that from your urban runabout, it’s likely you’ll need a Yaris in either Dynamic or Excel specification, the former coming with the option of two-tone paintwork and the latter getting a more complete array of electronic driver assistance and convenience features as standard. 

Dynamic or Excel trim is required to get a Yaris with a full suite of active safety systems and, even then, you might still have to pay for them as options.

VERDICT

Toyota Yaris front dynamic

The last incarnation of the Yaris was chided for its lack of “carefree spirit and imagination” but, on the basis of this road test, Toyota seems to have rediscovered both characteristics.

Yes, there are still sweeter superminis to drive, not least the now-departed Ford Fiesta and the Mazda 2, and few will be prepared to argue that several rivals – mainly French ones such as the Peugeot 208  and the Renault Clio– are not easier on the eye. 

Grows not only in stature but also in ability and subjective appeal

But in hybrid-only form, the fourth-generation Yaris is potentially more frugal than them all and it is better to drive, is more interesting to look at and has a more distinctive cabin than its predecessor.

Like the 1999 original, this Yaris will deserve most of the attention it will surely get. But perhaps not all of it. Buyers will need to opt for higher trim specifications with care because the larger wheels bring stiffer suspension that saps fluidity from the ride quality.

Real-world pace has improved but the hybrid powertrain remains an unenthusiastic performer and, considering the increase in wheelbase, more space for back-row passengers and in the boot would have been welcomed. Nevertheless, this characterful Yaris represents something of a return to form.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Toyota Yaris First drives