For a long time, compact passenger cars in Australia were best summed up in two words: cheap and cheerful.
Flash forward and we’ve found ourselves in an interesting predicament: SUVs rule the roost, the baseline criteria for safety and technology have skyrocketed, and compact cars are increasingly on the chopping block.
It’s a world where small hatchbacks must adapt or die. And as they are forced to compete with kitted-out utes and seven-seater SUVs with roof racks and wading depths, the unfortunate victim has been their hip-pocket-friendly price tags.
Previously, the most expensive Toyota Yaris you could buy was the ZR variant at $22,760 before on-road costs. These days, it’s the 2021 Toyota Yaris ZR Hybrid we’re testing here, which starts at $32,100 plus on-road costs and now represents the line-up’s flagship if you exclude the performance-focussed GR Yaris.
This is the first time Toyota’s well-established hybrid power has been available on its smallest car, which typically pumps the price up, but these figures put it in small-SUV territory. It’s a little more expensive than a base-spec Toyota C-HR.
It’s also more expensive than its core, mass-market competition that kicks off at $18,240 before on-road costs for a top-spec automatic Kia Picanto, and tops out at $26,990 before on-road costs for a top-spec Suzuki Swift (excluding hot hatch performance variants).
So, what are you paying extra for? For starters – and this one’s important – the Yaris is the first city hatch to earn a five-star score from ANCAP under its stricter 2020 criteria. That means you’ll likely be surprised by just how much safety kit is on this car – especially if you’re used to the kind of hatchbacks that feel like they could be blown away by a gust of wind.
Eight airbags, a pre-collision system that detects pedestrians during the day and night and cyclists during the day and can warn or brake as required, live speed limit information, lane-trace assist, lane-departure alert, active cruise control, automatic high beams and a blind-spot monitor are just a few of the highlights.
I’ll never not be impressed by a compact, non-luxury car that can guide itself though lane markings while on cruise control, although I found the Yaris’s lane-trace system tugged left and wasn’t quite as advanced as those I’ve experienced in other cars.
There are front parking sensors, too, not that you’ll ever need them considering you can see the entire bonnet from the driver’s seat.
Other standard equipment highlights include the heavily tinted rear privacy glass, the full-colour head-up display and the well-placed, elevated 7.0-inch colour touchscreen, which is incredibly easy to use while on the move.
Still, there are a few things Toyota could have included on its top-spec Yaris that might have sweetened the deal when paying more than $30,000 for the Danny DeVito of cars.
Those include leather seats with heating functionality and electric adjustment (the fabric seats are scratchy and feel cheap), some creature comforts in the back seat (there aren’t air vents, cupholders or an armrest), and possibly dual-zone climate control (although the car is so small it’s unlikely to make a difference).
A sunroof would be the cherry on top.
|2021 Toyota Yaris ZR Hybrid|
|Engine||1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol with electric motor|
|Power and torque||85kW (combined)/141Nm|
|Transmission||Continuously variable automatic|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim (combined)||3.3L/100km|
|Fuel claim on test||4.0L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 (tested 2020)|
|Servicing costs (12 months/15,000km)||$170 each for first five visits|
|Main competitors||Kia Rio, Mazda 2, Suzuki Swift, Volkswagen Polo, Mitsubishi Mirage|
|Price as tested||$32,100 excluding on-road costs|
Of course, you’re also paying for the added benefit of hybrid power and the improved fuel economy that brings.
Under the bonnet of the ZR Hybrid is a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol engine and an electric motor driving the front wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission.
Toyota quotes 3.3L/100km combined fuel consumption for the ZR Hybrid, but a week of predominantly urban driving – peppered with four or five half-hour freeway sprints – left me with 4.0L/100km overall.
Still, that’s the best figure I’ve recorded in a review car in a while – and once you remove longer open-road driving and stick exclusively to the city (as most Yaris drivers likely will), the hybrid system will likely thrive and improve that figure even further – Toyota claims better efficiency in town (2.8L/100km) than on the open road (3.6L/100km), the reverse of traditional cars.
And, damn, is the hybrid Yaris fun to drive around the city. The steering is perfectly matched to the car – light and fuss-free with a joyously small 10.2m turning circle.
I expected to find the ride much more bumpy than it was – the Yaris perfectly pairs rigidity with protectiveness. You’ll be aware of the undulating road beneath you, but conveniently sheltered from its unpleasantries – it all adds up to an engaging on-the-road experience.
My colleague Josh Dowling described the Yaris hybrid as “perky” and I couldn’t agree more. While I found the transition from electric to petrol power a bit noisier than I have in other Toyota hybrids I’ve driven, it’s remarkably smooth and the two work beautifully together.
This results in the Yaris’s modest power output of 85kW feeling far greater. I was particularly grateful for this when a rogue truck driver missed me in his blind spot (the perils of being a small car) and tried to merge into me without warning. I planted my foot and the Yaris delivered an immediate and impressive power surge that may or may not have saved my life.
Another thing that really stood out for me was how the Yaris maximises the use of its cabin space. Seats are set low so head room won’t be an issue, even for taller adults in the back seat.
I found the front seat really made you forget you’re in a compact car, with plenty of elbow room, even when sharing the car with a far taller colleague. The seat material might not be all that nice, but the seats themselves are soft yet supportive and mould nicely to your body.
The back seat is, as expected, not exactly roomy, but actually fairly viable for taller adults – I had just under 5cm of leg room with my seat in the regular driving position and roughly 3–4cm of head room and I’m 178cm tall.
Boot volume is 270L, and while that won’t get you much of a Bunnings haul, it’s actually very serviceable for supermarket shopping, medium luggage for two people, or even certain items of furniture with the 60:40-split rear seats folded flat.
Visibility is similarly maximised for the car’s size, although you’ll be tempted to remove the rear headrests to take full advantage of the rear windshield’s moderate scope.
The Yaris ZR Hybrid is one of the few compact cars I’ve driven in my time at CarAdvice, and I have to say I’m impressed by how far the class has come.
The Yaris arguably epitomises this leap forward. For me, it’s a boon that such a pipsqueak of a vehicle can offer so much safety, interior space, driver technology and oomph.
Sure, it’s expensive, but you’ll save on fuel and servicing costs on the other side (it’s just $850 all up for the first five visits), and you’ll feel safer than you ever did in that beat-up Corolla you owned as your first car.
I, for one, reckon that peace of mind is worth forking out some extra cash for. But Toyota could have at least thrown in some seat heaters.