Small Change

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2006

Take a look at the future: Honey, we shrunk the car.

Many in the media have anointed the 2007 Toyota Yaris as the "car of the future." If that's the case, the future is Spartan. This is a no-frills, no-nonsense vehicle that begs customization by the young and accommodation by the not-so-young.

Yes, the Yaris is tiny. It turns a circle in only 32 feet (your SUV needs several lanes of traffic to do that). It's fuel efficient, using regular gasoline to return 34 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway with an automatic transmission.

But it won't carry much of momma's luggage. Cargo space is not a strong point. And with the liftback model sent for testing, back seat passengers might wish they'd paid the dollar to ride the city bus. It's cramped back there.

If Toyota is right-keeping in mind that there already are numerous little car competitors on the market-then the funky Yaris might be reminiscent of the introduction of the Volkswagen Beetle, which eventually became the best-selling car in history. Is there anyone over 40 who didn't own one?

Frankly, I doubt that any one of today's econocars will achieve the Beetle's cult status. And Toyota has produced econoboxes before, including the Echo, which just didn't resonate with the public. But this one might, along with the Toyota products called Scions.

Tastes are changing as needs change. Last Thanksgiving, many in the scientific world told us we had gone over the top of Hubbert's Peak. That's not a ski run in Vermont; Hubbert's Peak is the point when half of the oil resources in the world have been used up. On the downside of Hubbert's Peak lie gasoline shortages and higher prices.

Hubbert's Peak tells us that while China and India seek to industrialize like we did, the fuel that powered our industrial growth is disappearing. As it becomes scarcer and more expensive, we need to take steps to curb our petroleum thirst, starting with our vehicles. We need to wean ourselves from monster SUVs and gas-guzzling trucks. We can't afford not to.

Only a few car companies saw the post-Hubbert's Peak world well enough to design for it, beginning with Toyota and Honda. They're the ones taking the next step with hybrids and alternative fuels. A lot of lip service-a lot!-has been paid by other companies to the notion that they're preparing for some hydrogen future, but their bottom line has always been quarterly returns to shareholders at the expense of increased investment in research and development.

Short-term thinking has long-term consequences. And, like the dinosaurs that gave their all to give us our oil, they face extinction.

Only so many tears can be shed in a global economy, so let's stop feeling sorry for our failing auto industry and start looking at which companies offer us the best alternative, the best way to conserve gas and save money.

And what will we pay, beyond $11,850 base and $14,065 optioned out, for our car of the future? (When a co-worker learned the price, he just shook his head. "They'll sell all they can make," he said.)

From behind the steering wheel, there's not a lot of compromise needed. The front seats offer plenty of leg and shoulder room. The dashboard features the Toyota "Cyclops" instrument cluster, located dead center atop the dash. That does take a bit of getting used to, and I constantly shifted my eyes down, searching for instruments that were "up and to the right."

To its credit, the little car has excellent visibility in all directions. But the most impressive thing is how the Yaris seems to be tightly constructed. The car has a solid feel about it, more than just a lack of rattling bolts. It's the way it centers at speed, or takes a corner with just the right amount of steering input. The Yaris has the feel of a well-made car. That is remarkable for an automobile that sells for $11,850.

The one practice that Toyota might be criticized for is making essential items optional. For instance: Want anti-lock brakes? Of course you do. Doesn't every vehicle today have them as standard equipment? Not the Yaris. They're a $300 option. Do not buy any vehicle without them.

And how about side air bags? Crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have proven the life-saving value of side bags and head curtains. But if you want just the side bags in a Yaris, you'll have to pay $650 more. Our tester also had a whiz-bang audio system as part of a catch-all "convenience package" costing $630.

But to Toyota's credit, an automatic transmission is standard (and almost essential in today's bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic, where a Yaris will shine). Air conditioning is standard, but cruise control isn't even offered (come on, Toyota; it improves fuel economy on the Interstate).

The 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine that powers the Yaris is toylike and produces 106 horsepower. That's adequate for most traffic situations. And remember that early Beetles had 40 horsepower.

A Yaris weighs slightly more than a ton-2,335 pounds-so there's not a lot of mass to keep in motion. The only major drawback is wind roar when a window is lowered. The Yaris "booms" when that's done at highway speed. This poses a particular problem for smokers or anyone who just wants to hear the surroundings. The noise is intolerable, like someone clapping a cupped hand against your ear repeatedly.

After a week in a Yaris, however, I came to think of it as a fine commuter car. It's not the only future for vehicles, but this is one route to greater efficiency and better use of the world's limited resources.

With Toyota's vaunted reputation for reliability, a lot less maintenance should be involved in owning a Yaris. A selling point, for sure. But the Yaris doesn't need to be sold. Many in the world have been waiting for a reliabile Toyota product just like this $11,850 econocar.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a ForbesBest of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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