First Drive: 2020 Toyota Yaris ZR Hybrid Review

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

The all-new 2020 Toyota Yaris is the cheap city hatchback that is no longer cheap. We’ve just spent a couple of weeks with it, so what’s it like? Let’s find out.

Sure, the Yaris is still here, back for another city brawl and now more convincing than ever in its latest fourth-generation guise (there was also Starlet and Echo before that). It’s also still a hatchback that slots beautifully into the city streetscape.

But a hefty 43% price hike means it’s anything but cheap, the $22,130 list starting price launching it perilously close to the territory occupied by larger small cars, including Toyota’s own Corolla.

Throw in an auto transmission and on-road costs and there’s not much change from $27K. That is now Toyota’s most affordable small car. Wow!

2021 Toyota Yaris Review
2020 Toyota Yaris. (R-L) Toyota Yaris ZR with optional black roof, Toyota Yaris SX and Toyota Yaris Ascent Sport.

Stepping up on gear (and price!)

Blame those price hikes on safety (mostly), as well as exchange rates, general pricing pressures and the fact the Yaris is far less cheap car in the way it looks and feels and far more mature overall.

Toyota has thrown the sort of safety kit at the Yaris still not available on many very expensive machines. There’s full autonomous emergency braking (AEB), active cruise control, road sign recognition and auto high beam. The Yaris is also the first affordable car to get centre airbags between the front seats (making for eight airbags in total). Popping out of upper seat bolsters between the two front seat occupants, they’re designed to stop heads clashing in a side impact.

They’ve been fitted to help the car achieve the stricter ANCAP safety ratings. It hasn’t yet been rated, but the expectation is it’ll achieve the maximum five stars.

A Yaris Hybrid is also available for the first time and it’s the first Toyota to get lithium-ion batteries (the tech every electric car has been using for a decade or more) The lithium-ion batteries replace the old nickel-metal hydride ones that have made Toyota hybrids the most affordable (and, therefore, the most popular) in the business.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

The Yaris Hybrid replaces the Prius C that has been quietly put out to pasture. The Hybrid costs $2000 more than the regular Yaris but is only available on the two most expensive model variants. The Yaris also gets a generous level of kit, including a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included.

There are three model grades, starting with the Ascent Sport, then the SX and most expensive ZR. It’s not until the SX ($27,020 plus on-roads or another $2000 for the Hybrid) that the equipment level more closely matches the premium price tag. Steel wheels are replaced with alloys and the plastic steering wheel has a leather finish. The SX also picks up smart key entry, sat-nav, automatic air-conditioning and an interesting digital instrument cluster with two prominent circular displays. The ZR comes nicely kitted out and includes things such as a head-up display, a small rear spoiler, 16-inch alloy wheels and some red highlights inside. But still no leather trim for its $30,100 ask.

What’s the Yaris like inside?

The Yaris is a small car, officially classified as a light car (which sits below the regular small cars such as a Toyota Corolla). That’s most noticeable with cabin width. Up front you’re more likely to knock elbows with the person next to you, and in the rear three is a tight squeeze.

But the front head room is generous and there’s good vision and adjustability to the driving position. Storage is generally good, too, with a couple of binnacles half way up the dash that work perfectly for phones. There’s no covered centre console storage, with more binnacles. At least the door pockets are broad.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

In the rear there are no air vents and legroom is tight. While you’ll coerce a flexible adult back there, it’s best left to the little ones.

The finishes and materials throughout are a step up on the previous Yaris, with less of the built-to-a-price look and feel. Darker plastics alone lift the ambience and there’s less cheapness to the touch. The seat trims, too, are elegant (we prefer the darker SX look to the light grey of the ZR) and the red inserts of the ZR add some visual interest.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

What’s the Yaris like to drive?

We spent time in two versions: an SX and a ZR Hybrid. We’ll kick off with the non-hybrid, because it’s expected to account for most Yaris sales.

The big news is beneath the bonnet. For the first time the Yaris gets a three-cylinder engine. But despite the step down in the cylinder count it’s a step up in outputs. The 1.5-litre makes 88kW and 145Nm, so it’s a peppy unit. There’s a hint of that loveable three-cylinder engine sound that adds to the fun factor of many modern three-pots, but there’s also a sense this engine is more about getting the job done than making the hairs on your neck stand to attention. It’s solid but mostly uninspiring.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

That’s not a bad thing, because the Yaris is basic motoring, after all. It’s matched to CVT auto, which also gets a launch gear similar to the system used in the Corolla and RAV4. It’s a traditional single automatic ratio that then allows engineers to reduce the size of the CVT side of the gearbox, while bringing other benefits.

It’s a neat solution that gets rid of the sloppiness some CVTs experience when taking off, instead providing crisper responses when you push the throttle. Then as revs rise that traditional first gear hands over to the CVT, constantly adjusting revs depending on what you’re asking of the car. All of which makes for thoroughly peppy performance, provided you’re prepared to throw some revs into the equation.

The Hybrid uses the same basic 1.5-litre three-cylinder, but it’s been tuned to run on the Atkinson cycle. That means less power (67kW) and more of a focus on efficiency and everyday driveability.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

The Hybrid also gets a 59kW/141Nm electric motor to help out. And it’s the electric motor that transforms the car. It provides a really nice initial torque hit that makes for more effortless acceleration than you get in the petrol-only Yaris.

That added flexibility on light and mid throttle loads makes for a thoroughly useful around town machine.

The Hybrid is also impressively frugal. The official claim is 3.3 litres per 100km (versus 4.9L/100km for the non-hybrid CVT) and it’s easy to get near that. We spent plenty of time giving it full throttle and darting around town and on the occasionally 80/90km/h cruise and could never get it over 4.0L/100km.

Don’t get too tempted by the Electric mode, though. It rarely works because you’re either travelling too fast, pressing the throttle too much or there ain’t enough charge in the (small) battery pack.

Think of Electric mode as a way to sneak in and out of the driveway without using the engine. Sometimes. Elsewhere, the Yaris is a massive step up on the previous model.

It sits on Toyota’s latest TNGA architecture, which brings inherent benefits in body stiffness and a lower centre of gravity, all of which feeds into how it drives. Thankfully that part better lives up to the bigger price tag.

2021 Toyota Yaris Review

There’s a newfound solidity to the Yaris, in a small car sort of way. Yes, it’s still light and zippy around town, but it’s more convincing than ever once you lean on it.

Light steering is faithful but yields better responses when you point the nose. Sure, the tyres ultimately give up with some understeer as you wind up the pace, but it’s all very well behaved and predictable.

The Yaris also recovers more adeptly over bumps, making for a more comfortable ride and less rocking and rolling. Combined with a quieter cabin it makes for more relaxed motoring at any speed.

So, is the new Yaris worth it?

The competition is thinning out in the traditional sub-$20K domain of the Yaris. Line it up against its most natural rivals – the Mazda2 and Volkswagen Polo – and it’s by no means a done deal.

While the Yaris is a step up on style, those rivals arguably have more convincing interiors, including leather (and leather-look) options. The Polo is also a very classy thing to drive.

Where the Yaris does stand out is safety. Toyota has left nothing on the options list, to the point where it hurts the price tag. Perhaps this is the new city car normal… Then there’s the way it drives. Convincing, yes. But it’s more dragging the Yaris towards the pointy end of the field (it was previously a long way off) rather than setting any new benchmarks.

Sure, the Yaris has a hybrid system, but these aren’t thirsty cars, so the benefits aren’t as great. The biggest benefit with the hybrid is how it improves around-town acceleration and enjoyment. It’s a fun device.

But the Yaris is no longer cheap and cheerful. Cheerful, mostly. But at this price it’ll be one for the Toyota faithful and the downsizers rather than those hoping to snap up their first car or a baby bargain.

2020 Toyota Yaris specifications

Price From $22,130+ORC Warranty 5 years, unlimited km Safety Not rated Engine 1.5-litre 3-cylinder Power 88kW at 6600rpm Torque 145Nm at 4800-5200rpm Transmission 6-speed manual or CVT auto Dimensions 3940mm long; 1695mm wide; 1505mm high; 2550mm wheelbase Boot space 270 litres Fuel tank 40 litres Spare wheel Temporary Thirst 5.4L/100km (man), 4.9L/100km (auto)

2020 Toyota Yaris Hybrid specifications

Price From $29,020+ORC Warranty 5 years, unlimited km Safety Not rated Engine 1.5-litre 3-cylinder and Power 85kW combined (67kW at 5500rpm from petrol engine, 59kW from electric motor) Torque 120Nm at 3800-4800rpm, from petrol engine 141Nm from electric motor Transmission 6-speed manual or CVT auto Dimensions 3940mm long; 1695mm wide; 1505mm high; 2550mm wheelbase Boot space 270 litres Fuel tank 36 litres Spare wheel Temporary Thirst 3.3L/100km

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If it's on four wheels, Toby Hagon has probably driven it. From the latest supercars to rock-hopping off-roaders (or anything in between!) he loves a road trip and works on the thinking that no road is too long or windy. The former National Motoring Editor at Fairfax these days runs his own show, contributing to Wheels, Which Car, News Corp, Qantas magazine and ABC Radio, and MotoFomo.