A cheap and cheerful sedan with a complex family tree.
Tracing the Toyota Yaris iA’s family tree is no easy task. For one thing, this small sedan’s name is misleading: “Yaris” suggests a relation to Toyota’s subcompact hatchback, which isn’t true, while “iA” is a meaningless moniker held over from when the car still was sold under its maiden name, Scion. Above all, none of these badges indicate that the Yaris iA was designed and engineered and is built by Mazda.
2 for the Money, 2 for the Show
Essentially a sedan version of the Mazda 2 (which is no longer sold in the United States in any form), the Yaris iA is produced at a Mazda plant in Mexico, uses a Mazda 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and features an interior that will look familiar to anyone who has sat in a new Mazda within the past few years.
So perhaps it is best to think of the Yaris iA as the Yaris hatchback’s adopted stepsibling from a more esteemed pedigree. The partnership certainly benefits Toyota, as the Yaris iA retains many of the tenets that earn the larger Mazda 3 a spot on our 10Best Cars list—namely an engaging demeanor and a strong value proposition.
Other than the iA’s grafted-on nose, which garners mixed reviews (at best) around here, this Toyota could easily be mistaken for a shrunken Mazda 3. The sedan’s tall stature and slab sides make for dorky proportions, but given the other choices in the sub-$17,000 arena in which the iA resides, we won’t complain about the looks too much.
Punching above Its Weight
The Yaris iA positively shames the other bargain-basement entries once you step inside, with a genuinely high-quality feel to the plastics and the cloth upholstery. A Mazda-spec console-mounted knob that controls the standard 7.0-inch touchscreen operates with a precision and a weight that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Audi. The front seats are comfortable and well padded, and while rear-seat legroom is somewhat tight, the Yaris iA’s relatively tall body means that headroom is adequate for most adults.
Beyond choosing between a standard six-speed manual and an $1100 six-speed automatic transmission, Yaris iA buyers need only select an exterior color. The lack of option packages is a holdover from the old Scion days, and the car is a screaming value given the amount of standard equipment. Bluetooth, keyless entry, cruise control, a 7.0-inch infotainment display, a rearview camera, and even forward-collision warning all are included on every Yaris iA. To get that sort of equipment on a Chevrolet Spark, for instance, you’ll pay $1680 more, while neither the Honda Fit nor the Ford Fiesta offers forward-collision warning on any trim level.
Slow Car Fast
The Mazda MX-5 Miata has long been a poster child for the joys of driving a slow car fast, but with a zero-to-60-mph time under six seconds, the MX-5 isn’t so slow anymore. Let us propose the Yaris iA as a new representative of that idea. It’s certainly slow—8.7 seconds to 60 mph and a 16.8-second quarter-mile at 84 mph—and yet is a joy to drive quickly, thanks to a smooth and satisfying shifter, nicely weighted steering with great on-center feel, and a rev-happy little four-cylinder.
And the sharp and responsive handling doesn’t come at the expense of comfort, either. The ride is supple and composed in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere else in this price range. It’s even relatively quiet at highway speeds, thanks to a six-speed transmission that keeps revs low above 70 mph. We also averaged 32 mpg overall, meaning the Yaris iA is nearly as thrifty as it is entertaining.
Our only real complaint with the Yaris iA is that it’s offered only as a sedan on our shores. Neither Toyota nor Mazda see fit to sell a hatchback version of the 2 in the United States; with a Toyota badge, such a car would likely cannibalize sales of the actual Toyota-designed Yaris, and with a Mazda badge, it wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the CX-3 crossover that shares the 2’s platform. So we’re stuck with the iA sedan, with its 13-cubic-foot trunk that, while not small by sedan standards, lacks a hatchback’s practicality.
As such, the Honda Fit is perhaps the strongest argument against the Toyota, largely because of its more versatile interior. But the Fit, which costs $10 more than the Yaris iA to start, can’t match the Mazda/Toyota in driving enjoyment or standard features. The Yaris iA, then, remains an unbeatable value and a thoroughly pleasant small car—no matter what badge it wears.