COAL: 2009 Toyota Yaris Sedan- Thinking Small

The little Yaris among some BIG trees. Taken in the Stout Memorial Grove Redwoods near Crescent City, CA.


When it comes to buying cars, there are only two things I really want to have: small size and bullet-proof reliability. If you’ve been reading my posts, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I’m not really any kind of motor/gear/piston-head. That’s not saying I don’t like cars (I do- why else would I be here?), but I guess what I like and find interesting about them may be a little different from the norm. First, I see cars as cultural objects, their styling and features reflecting a particular zeitgeist. How cars intersect our daily lives and why they generate so much admiration fascinates me even more. I mean, no one gets nostalgic about their old washing machine. “Ah, remember the ol’ Maytag? Boy, she sure could scrub the hell out of a load of skivvies…” So it may have been a bit of automotive nostalgia, coupled with my unnatural love of little cars, that led to our next car purchase.

In the spring of 2009, the old Honda had right around 239,000 miles on the clock, and, according to my maintenance schedule, was due for another timing belt change in about 1000 miles. So yeah, I was pushing it. I was taking Miss E to her swimming practice one afternoon, and soon as I exited I-5, I heard the most god-awful grinding and rattling sound coming from the engine bay. The car didn’t even make it to the end of the off ramp. Yep, the timing belt broke, the valves were shot, and the repair was going to run us about $2000.

So here was the question- do we sink $2000 into a 13-year old car with almost 240K on the clock, Honda or not, or do we just put a down-payment on a new ride? We were still a one-car family, so we figured the best thing to do was get a little piece of mind: buy a brand-new car and drive it into the ground. So that raised another question- what to buy? Well, one thing was for sure, it was going to be either Honda or Toyota.

I didn’t have any magical formula to figure out car purchases. I read Consumer reports, placing an almost obsessive emphasis on the number of red circles with the little white dots (best). I didn’t give a Flying Wallenda whether or not CR “recommended” a car because I noticed they started to downplay reliability and economy in favor of power and features long ago. Not that power and features aren’t something to consider, but reliability and economy are always at the top of my list if I’m laying out that much green for anything. Yeah, I know, time to get out of the 1980s, Matt.

No surprise Honda and Toyota compared favorably in terms of reliability. But the latter were a little less expensive so we ended up at the Toyota dealer where we drove both a Corolla and a Yaris 4-door sedan. You already know what we chose because I assume you read the title of this post (you did, didn’t you?). Remember a couple of posts back where I said that maybe I was a little funny in the head because, thanks to that Tercel, I had developed a fondness for small cars? The Corolla was about $1500 more, and we could have swung it just fine, but the Yaris had a little bit more of that “go-cart” feeling. It was also funkier, what with that much-maligned center instrument cluster. At first, I wasn’t a fan, but I grew to appreciate it (more on that in a bit). But mostly, I think the Yaris reminded us of the beloved old Tercel, although the new car was much nicer in every way. Nostalgia about a Tercel? Yep…a little funny in the head, remember?


This is our Yaris a day or two after we brought her home. Sedan styling was markedly different from the hatch version. You can see the cover for the tow-hook on the lower part of the bumper cover- that and a VIN that started with “J” meant she was made in Japan.


For trim, we didn’t go full-on hair-shirt like we did with the Tercel: we chose power everything as well as cruise control. Most Yari (plural of Yaris?), including ours, already had six airbags, anti-lock brakes, A/C and a CD player standard, so I never felt the car was any kind of a penalty, box. Though a little narrower than the Corolla, it actually had a bit more rear-seat leg room thanks to clever and efficient packaging. We only had the one child, so we really didn’t need a larger car. The Yaris also got stellar gas mileage at a time when gas was costing upward of $4/gallon. I once calculated 40 mpg on a trip to Klamath Falls and back and that was with the A/C running. I wasn’t complaining, especially when I filled up the car for about $35 and the owner of the over-sized SUV next to me was paying close to $80 for a fill. Yes, I will confess to a little bit of automotive schadenfreude. (Gee, that’s the second German term I’ve used in this post).


A 106-hp DOHC 4 with Toyota’s VVTi meant power was fine- certainly nothing worse than any other car we had owned. None of our previous vehicles had been street racers, anyway. So far, so good, right? I mean you, dear reader, might have wanted a larger car with more power, but I’m hoping you can see the logic of this purchase for us. That being said, here’s where I’m probably going to lose you. But please stay with me and I’ll explain: our car was equipped with Toyota’s venerable 4-speed auto. Oh, dude… Wait! Come back and let me finishyou see, by this time we had moved to Battle Ground, Washington, which is at the northern tip of the Portland metro area. We like to go into the city to do stuff. A lot. Driving in Portland traffic and on the city’s narrow and often hilly streets quickly becomes tiring in a standard. So whereas you might think there was a madness to our method, there was actually a method to our madness. The car’s small proportions also made it highly maneuverable in traffic and a snap to park when taking that trip to Powell’s Bookstore.

Inside, the little Yaris came up short compared to the old Accord. By this time many Japanese car makers, Honda and Toyota included, had been cheapening their interiors. Everything felt solid and soundly put-together but, alas, it was mostly hard plastics. My biggest gripe, however, was the seat fabric. It looked nice enough, but even if you only spilled water on them, it left a dark stain that was impossible to remove. And it wasn’t like you could use water to remove the stain, either because, well, you know…the seats apparently can’t get wet! Whose bright idea was this?


Love it or hate it, this was the gauge cluster, mounted in the middle of the dash.


Internet grab showing an expanded view. Lovers of symmetry would have little to complain about here.


Then there was the instrument cluster, mounted smack-dab in the middle of the dash. Toyota had also taken this approach with our car’s predecessor, the Echo (which, of course, was called “Yaris” in other markets). The logic being that this way a single part could be used for countries in either right-hand or left-hand drive markets. Okay, whatever you say, Toyota. I quickly learned that this unorthodox setup wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. By the time we bought this car, I was 43 and just beginning to wear bi-focal lenses. I noticed that having the instruments a little further away than typical was a good thing because I could use the top part of the lenses rather than shifting my view to the bottom. So a quick glance to my side was all that was needed and I could still see the road fine in my periphery. So there. And to any of you younger readers who may be snickering right now…geezerdom comes to all and you’ll get your turn.

Despite the fairly low-rent interior, the Yaris overall had all the goodness and refinement I had come to expect from the automaker. Truth be told, nobody, except maybe Honda, can screw together a little car like Toyota. By this time, they may have moved on to making mostly bigger cars and SUVs, but if our Yaris was any indication, they still knew how to make the kind of car that made them great. I may sound like a broken record here as I made a similar comment about both the Accord and the Tercel, but the car never gave us a lick of trouble. Oil changes, tires, a couple of serpentine belt replacements and other regular maintenance was all she asked of us. Even after 140K miles, the car didn’t feel the least bit old or worn out, and even had the original brakes (really!). Everything worked, there was hardly anything in the way of squeaks or rattles and if you didn’t look at the seats (I eventually had get seat covers to hide the stains), you’d think the car was less than half its actual age.


After the first rear-ending, the body shop replaced the entire left-rear quarter panel, back bumper and decklid. Ouch.


So though the Yaris didn’t give us any trouble, trouble did come to our little Yaris on a few occasions. In 2010, Ms. D was rear-ended by a Toyota 4Runner while waiting at a stop light. The car was still pretty new, so insurance picked up the $7000+ repair tab. Fast forward to 2018 and a friend accidentally side-swiped the driver’s side with his SUV while backing out of his driveway. That bill was $2300, also picked up by insurance. But the fatal injury came in November of that same year when I was rear-ended by a guy driving a stolen  mid-’90s Chevy Blazer (with Alaska plates, no less). The street was soon swarming with local LEOs and if you’ve ever watched an episode of “Live PD,”  the resulting scene was kind of like that. They cuffed the guy while telling him he was “just being detained.”* Son of a gun, police really say things like that. This time, the repair estimate was $6300- a little too much so the Yaris had the dubious distinction of being the second Toyota I’ve owned that had to be totaled.



Miss E collecting sugar pine cones at a stop along Oregon 58 southeast of Eugene.


But I really can’t complain- that’s life in the outskirts of the big city, I suppose. The Yaris served us well for over nine years and ferried us down to Klamath Falls to visit my folks so many times I almost felt the car knew the way by herself. That drive was always one I enjoyed, especially the Oregon 58 segment that ran from Eugene to US 97. There, the highway crosses the crest of the Cascades before heading out into the vast reaches of the pumice plateau of central Oregon. On the way up the west slope, drivers are treated to dense forests of Douglas-fir and hemlock, mountain lakes, and some splendid views of Diamond Peak. On the other side of the Cascade crest, the scenery abruptly changes to dry forests of Ponderosa and Lodgepole pines, and, as illustrated below, the occasional Sugar pine. Summer drives like this can be fun and satisfying, even in a little car like our Yaris. I sorely miss this car, but I ended up finding a replacement I liked almost as well. That is the subject of a future COAL, but next week I’ll be talking about a different car- a car that finally brought us into the ranks of two-car families. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few more photos taken along Oregon 58.


The reason Miss E was collecting the Sugar pine cones: at a foot-long or more, they are prized Christmas decorations and just plain interesting.


A view of Diamond Peak from Odell Lake


Oregon 58 looking west near the Waldo Lake turn-off.


* Turns out the driver of the Blazer had borrowed the car from a friend, so they let him go (without the Blazer of course!).