It’s All About the Drive – 2020 Toyota Yaris XLE Review

The Yaris presents some excellent qualities along with some surprising faults, but does it contain the elements Toyota has become known for?

Check out our video review here or at the bottom of this article.

Funny how the Big Three used to get criticized for badge engineering—Olds Cutlasses the same as Buick Regals under a veneer of differences, Ford Crown Victorias all but mirrored in the Mercury Marquis—and now here you have the Japanese manufacturers doing it, and nobody’s complaining.

Maybe there’s nothing to complain about, especially if you take the contemporary example of the Toyota Yaris, which is really a Mazda 2 wagon with a Toyota front end and tail lights (and other corporate identity features). Is it a Mazda in Toyota skin or a Toyota with the heart of a Mazda?

Yes. To both, and the combination produces some surprises, the most notable of which will possibly transform Toyota enthusiasts into driving enthusiasts. Then again, those same Toyota-philes will give up some of the mechanical refinement that they might be used to in their home brand’s vehicles.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

So if you’re a Mazda nut, why would you go to Toyota for this vehicle? Because it’s not sold as a Mazda in the US.  Conversely, what would make a Toyota loyalist drive a rebadged Mazda? It’s an interesting conundrum. Do I buy a car that’s maybe not quite what I expect from “my” car company? The answer: yes, if you like what you get that you would likely not if this were an actual Toyota: sporty driving dynamics and a drop-dead perfect interior.

In fact, the inside of this car took me quite by surprise the first time I got in. I had observed the exterior from the curb, and it was swoopy and somewhat interesting, but not stunning. And the front end is that Toyota schnauz that we all know is a love it or hate it thing.

But any misgivings of that nature go away once you feel the solid thunk of the driver’s door and observe what the cockpit presents to you.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

The steering wheel is leather-wrapped and fancy-stitched with blue accents. The seat skins are perforated leather (or a very convincing vinyl equivalent). The shifter boot is leather-appearing also, nicely covering the bottom of the gear knob.

Shifter boot? I did a double-take, knowing this to be a six-speed automatic. Well, it is, if you want it to be. Snick it into D and you’re away, never thinking about the gearing. (Except when you try to zoom it, and there’s a bit of a wait for tip-in as it downshifts for more power.) If you don’t want to let the machine select the gears, the tranny is an auto-manual, with you deciding when to shift through the six speeds. Each time you pull back on the stick, you go up a gear. Push forward, and you’re downshifting. The gear you’re in is displayed in a small digital gauge in the middle of the also-digital tachometer to the left of the speedo.

The transmission and its sporty-car pretentions are nice, and perfectly synchronized to the engine’s abilities, though I’d bet that if you’re like most people, you’re going to try out the manual shifter function, realize it’s kinda cool, and then never use it in manual mode again. But if I’m wrong, you will enjoy the way this one works.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

And if shifting for yourself is not for you, there’s Sport Mode, a toggle button at the trailing end of the shifter area announcing its presence. Flip the switch anytime, driving or not, and you get a different transmission mapping, with the lower gear held longer and tip-in to lower gear happening faster.

All sounds perfect so far. You potential Toyota-loyal Walter Mitty types will finally be able to get your Zoom, Zoom! on.

But there are compromises. The Sport Mode, while a cool idea, isn’t so much fun cruising at 35 mph. At that speed, the RPMs are around 2600. Buzzy, too. Toggle back to normal driving mode (which is not signalled—it’s either an orange dash light that says “Sport” or nothing), and you’ll drop down to a more comfortable 1200 RPMs. Use the feature this way: Take off from the lights in Sport, and then tip the switch for conversational clarity when you get up to the 35-mph speed limit.

The engine itself has a buzzy, tractor-like quality on start-up, until the car comes off high idle about fifteen seconds into the cycle.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

Also in terms of the mechanicals—the tip-in upshift in regular mode is slightly delayed, as if the tranny is trying to decide whether to give you the power you’re asking for. And sometimes, when the upshift happens, there’s kind of a “swoosh” sound somewhere out behind you.

Other than that, the Yaris is solid, capable, and more than a bit sporty. Now, if you’re a self-conscious car person, you’re gonna feel a bit silly driving what is, in effect, a tiny station wagon like it’s a Miata. It’s not like you’re gonna be drag racing the car, or auto-crossing it. But you’ll feel like you could.

And that’s the thing about this car—its incongruities are striking. As I said, the interior is fantastic, but start-up says, “needs refinement.” The body lines are swoopy, but the Toyota front end is obtrusive, though not as much as it is in other members of the Toyota-Lexus line. The cockpit and the mechanical fitments are sporty, but it’s a wagon. Those aren’t necessarily criticisms.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

Inside, it’s large-feeling. Even in the rear, there’s lots of room for an adult-sized human. The only complaint is that the headrests, which are kind of built in to the seatbacks, hit you where you don’t want them to. But the rear seat is plenty adequate. And when you have cargo, it folds, expanding the rear wagon area. It’s not big enough for a sheet of plywood, but you could fit a portable air conditioner in its box to bring it home to get the house ready for summer.

The drive is actually quite nice. There’s precision in the steering that’s laser-on. The car corners flat, though its wheelbase is short enough that the ride is a bit bumpy. The power is at least adequate most of the time, though note that I tested it with just me or me and my videographer—so not loaded down by any means.

Gas mileage is displayed in a gauge which responds to your driving in the instant—when you’re cruising down to a stop, you’re getting an effective 170 MPG, for instance—and as an aggregate. The car mostly returned about 32 MPG, with the driving mixed city to highway and no particular effort to conserve. In other words, of course we matted the pedal to get onto the freeway, though that produces a just-enough feeling as far as power goes. If you live in SoCal and you’re on a ramp that asks two cars to merge near the top, you’re probably not winning the drag race.

Turning to safety, the car features what the manufacturer calls a “Low-Speed Pre-Collision System,” which operates at 18 MPH or slower. In other words, a “freeway laziness in traffic system.” Good for commuters, but not with the level of sophistication of the safety systems built into, say, the new 2020 Corolla.

Finally, the radio is really great. The screen in the dash tells you what’s going on, but the action is in a knob and a wheel that sit where you hand falls after you pull it back from putting the car into gear

The knob and wheel are accompanied by several buttons, and the knob is used to control a number of functions, including navigation (which this car did not have). OK, the radio: you hit the little “star” button twice to get to your pre-programmed favorites. This gives you a list that you can scroll through using the knob. Select a station and press down, and it tunes that station, including satellite radio. The volume is controlled by the wheel, and that also mutes the sound with a push. It’s a far cry from old-school, and the better for it. A quick study of the abbreviated manual (the quick-start guide) gets you acquainted with the functions in ten or fifteen minutes.

2020 Toyota Yaris XLE
Photo by Gabriela Moya

One thing I didn’t like: there’s a bad glare from the grill surround on the driver’s side that reflects in the windshield. This is a case of trying too hard—the surround doesn’t have to be the big shield-like shape that it is.

But overall, and for the money, you’d do well in this car. It’s solid, super-well-appointed from the driver’s seat POV, decent to sit in in the rear, and built with a quality that might be just a tiny notch below the perfection that a Toyota-badged- and -built model would be, but still more than good and somehow without the feeling that you’re in an economy car.

Check out our video review of this 2020 Toyota Yaris XLE.

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