There are few greater joys on this Earth than a good small car. They’re easy to park and live with, chuckable when you want some action. The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA is the perfect example. It’s an absolute delight with a manual transmission, and a car that’s woefully overlooked on the road.
(Full disclosure: Toyota wanted me to try out their new Yaris iA so badly that the company sent one to my home with a full tank of gas.)
It’s a Mazda2. That’s right: a rebadged Mazda2. We don’t get Mazda’s smallest offering in America under the Mazda name anymore, but we do get the sedan version as a Toyota.
That’s actually a wonderful thing, if you can get past the oddly angular rebranded front end of the car. The interior is more Mazda than Toyota, which means that the infotainment system is decently usable. The car’s peppy and handles well, just like the old Mazda2 hatchback we miss so much.
It’s also the only subcompact on sale in America that actually looks decent with a trunk. The trunk doesn’t look slapped-on as an afterthought—it flows nicely into the lines of the car. If you want a great little car but don’t want a hatchback, here you go.
Small cars can be your ticket to cheap thrills, but they’re under-appreciated and depressingly endangered in America. Low gas prices may be emboldening us to buy utility vehicles to get around in, but when you add cargo space and weight you lose flavor. Yet it’s hard to see that when so few are even willing to consider a small car.
What is wrong with you, America? Why do you hate fun?
Yet there’s some hope. There’s the humble, cheap Mirage that’s been saving Mitsubishi here, of all things, and the Yaris iA. And this is one of the best subcompacts I’ve driven to date, proof that you should buy a good little car before the subcompact car class goes completely extinct.
The Yaris iA has two important things going for it: adequate power and a low curb weight. At just 2,385 pounds, this is over 700 pounds lighter than a Honda Civic Type R. The Yaris’ 1.5-liter, 16-valve dual overhead cam inline-four engine produces 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque, which is of course, is about 200 “lighter” than the Type R. (It’s also nearly $20,000 less than the beloved but hard-to-find Type R as well.)
But the Yaris iA still has a good enough power to weight ratio to feel peppy, especially on slower city streets and twisty back roads.
The Yaris iA rides on 16-inch alloy wheels, with independent MacPherson struts, a stabilizer bar up front and torsion beam rear suspension. Sure, it tends towards understeer just like all the other tiny front-wheel-drive cars, but not catastrophically so. It’s nimble and fun, with steering that’s light but still communicative despite being electrically assisted.
Gas mileage is decent, too. It’s rated for 30 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway and 34 mpg combined. I saw an average of 34.2 mpg over the week of having this car, despite driving everywhere like a total hooligan.
The Yaris iA holds more stuff than I expected, too. The total cargo volume is listed at around 13.49 cubic feet, and its trunk is shockingly decent. I had the car while I was trying to put my Volkswagen 411 back together, and while I had to angle in the big plastic tub that kept most of the 411’s spares, it probably would have fit another giant tub like it in the rear of the car. The 60/40-split rear seat also folds down if you need a little extra room.
You can get this car with an automatic transmission, but why would you? The six-speed manual model is 31 pounds lighter, and it’s fun enough to make you never want to leave the car.
The shifter throw is relatively short. The throttle pedal is hinged at the bottom like on a classic Porsche, making it easy to heel and toe. The pedals were light but communicative, and neither the brake nor the clutch felt over-boosted or numb.
It’s all perfectly suited to the Yaris iA’s petite but adequate four-cylinder engine, which is rewarding to wring out to the top end of the Yaris iA’s rev range. Variable valve timing ensures that you’re going to want to stay up in revs all the time to reach maximum horsepower (at 6,000 RPM) and torque (which maxes out at 4,000 RPM). Because it’s a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, power delivery feels a bit smoother than some of its rivals.
The stick shift makes the Yaris iA a rolling manifestation of what we mean when we say it’s fun to drive a slow car fast. You can absolutely wail on this thing without ever venturing near felony-grade speeds, and leave your reasonably-priced subcompact with a big, dopey grin that’s impossible to wipe from your face.
The Mazda2 has a lovely, coherent design, and the Yaris iA gave it a bad nose job. While it looks better in person, the giant unhappy catfish mouth that Toyota gave it just doesn’t seem to fit the cheerful curves of the rest of the car.
The graceful line of the roof also limits rear head room for taller passengers somewhat. And there’s only one trim option for this car, so if you don’t like blue and black cloth seats, you’re out of luck. It’s a holdover from the Scion days and while the lone trim comes well-equipped, it still limits your choices.
While the car’s interior controls are thankfully easy to use, the faux-carbon fiber trim surrounding the buttons on the steering wheel looked hopelessly cheesy. You’re not fooling anyone with that, Toyota.
The Yaris iA’s Mazda infotainment unit may be light years ahead of Toyota’s version, but it still sticks up like an awkward tombstone from the dashboard, and navigation is still an extra feature you have to buy.
Like the Scion version Ballaban tested in 2016, mine came equipped with a “NAV” button that stood for “Not AVailable.” While our tester would display real-time traffic maps, it wouldn’t actually give any directions over them.
As a basic runabout for one or two people, the Yaris is pretty solid. Trunk space is larger than you’d expect, gas mileage is decent, it’s easy to park and it’s fun to wring out at low speeds. The spacing and size of the two front seats is just comfortable enough to work.
While it’s by no means a cushy highway cruiser, it did a tiny bit feel more stable at highway speeds than many of the small hatchback subcompacts I’ve driven. It still dances around a little in a crosswind, as small cars often do. However, it seemed just a tiny bit more stable at speed than the non-iA Yaris hatchback I rented in Italy last year.
Getting up to 75 mph or so happens just fine. You’re not going to win any races, but you won’t be yelling at the car to move out of its own way, either. While I didn’t time it myself, Car and Driver logged a 0 to 60 mph time of 8.7 seconds. That sounds about right: not awful, but not spectacular.
It’s a little, flickable car with a modest-but-willing engine. Every trip you take should fall under “aggressive driving.” That’s the beauty of it. You can still push it a bit and be within the legal limits of the road, making a Yaris iA a better on-road, daily-driven hoon-pick than 99 percent of supercars in existence.
Skip the McLaren, buy four Yaris iAs and some sweet sets of tires if you’re mostly going to be driving on public roads anyway. You’ll still have an awesome time and you won’t be in danger of losing your driver’s license. You’re welcome.
You may get bored on long straights and in other situations where raw power is the draw instead of handling. But on curvy backroads and claustrophobic city streets, the Yaris iA shines.
You have one or two people to haul around on the cheap, but still want to have fun behind the wheel. While there are small cars more focused on miserly MPG including some hybrid and electric options now, none of them are as much of a joy as the conventionally powered Yaris iA with a manual transmission.
The interior is just comfortable enough for the passengers up front, although you still have the option of transporting more people if you must sometimes. Otherwise, it’s almost the perfect city car.
Our tester had an MSRP of $16,815 after delivery and processing fees, so there’s no doubt this is a good buy. While that puts it near the top end for subcompact cars in the U.S. right now, the base Yaris iA is simply better than cheaper options like the less powerful Mitsubishi Mirage or the frumpier Nissan Versa.
The Yaris iA simply feels less like a economy-obsessed subcompact, and more like a baby Mazda3. Mind you, the Mazda3 is the car we all like so much that our editors have all but banned us from suggesting it for the zillionth time in What Car Should You Buy?
America’s car preferences are deeply depressing, so there’s also a good chance you can score a deal on a leftover 2017 Yaris iA right now as well. 2018 brings no huge changes to the car, so there’s no point in pushing for the newest model year.
If you can get past the strange paper bag Toyota fit over the Mazda2’s front end here, the manual Yaris iA deserves your consideration for your next daily runabout—even if you think you might need more space. Going back to my bigger car after testing this felt like a bit of a drag. There’s only one person in my car most of the time, and the Yaris iA was the perfect size for most of the getting-around and getting-of-stuff that I do.
While its lone spec isn’t plush with options, if you can live without heated seats, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support or a different interior color, the Yaris iA seems to cover most of the basics, like an okay-sounding radio and alloy wheels. (Notably, some owners claim that heated seats are easy to add as the feature is available in Canada.)
Do buy the navigation system, though—if for no other reason than to put the world’s saddest block-off-plate-free button to work.