The Toyota that isn't really a Toyota

by Kelly Taylor  . Aug 26 2016

One of the most common automotive journalist complaints is that carmakers, eager to impress, offer out models loaded to the nines. Lost in the leather, dual-zone climate control, heads-up display and satellite radio is a sense of what the car really will be like for the average buyer.

That wasn’t an issue with the Toyota Yaris Sedan I’m driving, which was as standard as they come, save for the automatic transmission. I was given a refreshing look at the basic model, warts and all.

First, a refresher on this Toyota that isn’t really a Toyota: The story begins after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated parts of Japan. As the death toll approached 16,000 and with another 2,500 missing, car plants were flooded, production shut down and the economy staggered. In response, Toyota issued a moratorium on the construction of new plants while it recovered from the blow.

Meanwhile, Mazda was tooling up a plant in Mexico to produce the new Mazda2, a car it would later decide had limited market appeal, and which would be cancelled altogether in Canada. (It also doesn’t appear on Mazda’s U.S. website.)

With two new models looking for an assembly line — the Scion iA and its twin Yaris Sedan — and a plant facing an uncertain future, a deal between Toyota and Mazda was almost inevitable.

The deal: the iA would be offered in the United States and the Yaris Sedan in Canada. If you wanted a Mazda2, it was available only as a sedan and only with a Toyota nameplate.

In addition to not being a Toyota, the Yaris Sedan is also not actually a Yaris. The original Yaris — an actual Toyota — continues on as the same entry-point hatchback it has been since 2011.

The Yaris Sedan, however, is so different it probably shouldn’t sport the Yaris nameplate.

Unlike both the previous model and the current hatchback, the Yaris Sedan slots in above the Corolla in pricing and content. It bears no resemblance to the hatchback model at all. In fact, if it wasn’t for the large, stylized ‘T’ in the middle of the steering wheel, you’d think you were in a Mazda.

Toyota Canada spokesman Romaric Lartilleux said the vehicle was branded as a Yaris because of the popularity of its predecessor.

“It was obvious for Toyota in Canada to name it Yaris Sedan, as the previous generation Yaris sedan — a very popular model in Canada — had been discontinued in 2012 and there was still a high customer demand for it,” Lartilleux said.

The car is being rebranded as the Yaris iA in the United States for 2017 and beyond, but Lartilleux said no decision has been made for Canada.

Pop the hood and the first thing you see is a large plastic cover with Toyota’s logo prominently displayed. Pop off the plastic cover and you see — for all intents and purposes — a Mazda2 engine, complete with Mazda’s flying-wing ‘M’ logo on various labels around the engine bay.

This is good news, as it means the car benefits from Mazda’s Skyactiv technology, a suite of measures designed to save fuel while maintaining the car’s fun factor. My average after a week was 6.1 litres per 100 km, which is excellent considering the sub-$20,000 as-tested price, the automatic transmission and the fun-to-drive nature of the car.

The 1.5-litre mill won’t lay down rubber, and you’d be forgiven if you thought it was poky, and the handling of the car is good enough that you don’t need to scrub off too much speed for most corners. You can toss it into a corner and it will settle into your preferred line, even though the rear suspension is a torsion beam and thus only partially independent.

Mazda’s automatic transmission is also a boon, as it doesn’t take all of the fun out of driving. The excellent six-speed stick is the most fun to drive, but it also means you lose access to premium features such as heated seats.

Why carmakers force those who like to shift to deprive themselves of such features is beyond me, as an add-on option would be appreciated.

The car also doesn’t punish you to obtain that handling, with a smooth ride that also benefits from Skyactiv thinking, which aims to reduce weight everywhere — including, most critically, between the lower end of the springs and the road. That so-called unsprung weight is low enough it doesn’t have a lot of inertia to transmit much of the road’s bumps into the cabin.

There are some concessions to economy, however. The body, particularly when closing the rear doors, feels tinny, and doors lack a solid feel when they close. The upper part of the dash is textured, hard vinyl, but even on the base model, the surround for the vents is clad in a nicely upholstered soft vinyl.

I still find the snout of the car polarizing. It’s prominent, almost the Jimmy Durante of automotive proboscises. It’s like a blowfish that got punched in the mouth by a jealous halibut.

The Yaris Sedan’s base price is $1,000 more than the Corolla’s, but it also includes power windows, air conditioning and keyless entry as standard features, all of which are options on the Corolla. I’d argue it has become the new value leader for the brand, even though it is the costlier vehicle.