It may come as a shock to you that I don’t closely follow the evolution of subcompact cars. I keep up with the news, yes, but as one who loves big power, wide tires and shouty exhausts, cars like the 2020 Toyota Yaris Hatch aren’t at the center of my radar. But, when Toyota dropped one off and claimed it was “all new,” I got to spend a week diving deep into the world (and history) of Yaris. And I came away relatively impressed.

What Is It?

Buckle up, this is quite a tangled tale to unweave. Toyota claims the 2020 Yaris Hatch is “all new,” which is true. It’s a totally different Yaris Hatch compared to the 2019 model. What it isn’t is “a brand new car for 2020.”

The Toyota Yaris is an evolution of the Tercel, which was produced until the mid-1990s. Tercel was replaced, and everywhere but the United States, that new car was called Yaris. We got it as the Toyota Echo. Americans finally got a Yaris-called-Yaris for the 2007 model year, available as a sedan or hatchback. That 2007 Yaris was heavily updated for 2012, and the hatchback version lasted until 2019.

Meanwhile, Toyota had created a youth-oriented brand called Scion. Scion ended up selling some funky cars to people who weren’t always that young. In 2016, Scion needed a new sedan for their lineup, and they obtained it from Mazda. Toyota and Mazda have a small partnership, and Mazda had released the all-new Mazda2 the year prior, though it wasn’t offered in the States. So, Scion put their nose on the Mazda2 and changed the airbag cover, and started selling the Scion iA sedan.

Six months or so after the Scion iA went on sale, Scion dissolved. The Scion iA was absorbed into the Toyota lineup, renamed “Toyota Yaris iA” and replaced the old Yaris sedan. The old Yaris hatchback soldiered on until very recently. Toyota finally got ahold of the Mazda2 hatchback, applied the same styling tweaks, and for 2020, introduced the all-new Yaris Hatch. So, the 2020 Yaris Hatch is a hatchback version of the 2017 sedan version of the 2016 Scion version of the 2015 Mazda2. Got it? Good.

Anyway, while approximately 1% of Yaris shoppers will care or understand the history of the 2020 Yaris Hatch, it’s worth mentioning. The 2020 Yaris Hatch is a Mazda2 hatchback in everything but name. It’s powered by a 106 horsepower, 1.5 liter four-cylinder. Most Yarises (Yarii?) will be sold with a 6-speed automatic transmission, though you can get the base-model Yaris sedan (Yaris L) with a 6-speed manual.

My Yaris Hatch was an LE trim, which is the lowest on the totem pole available in hatchback form. The XLE adds a bit of luxury flair to the Yaris Hatch, with LED headlights, leatherette seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and rain-sensing wipers. Regardless, the LE is well-equipped for most folks, with heated mirrors, alloy wheels, and push-button start all notable options.

The 2020 Yaris Hatch LE carries a MSRP of $18,705 including destination. The sedan can be had for a few thousand less in L trim.

Driving the 2020 Toyota Yaris Hatch

“By all means, move at a glacial place. You know how that thrills me.” Miranda Priestly would be flat-out thrilled with the acceleration of the Yaris. It’s not fast, with the 106 horsepower and 104 ft-lb of torque pulling the 2,400 lb hatchback to 60 in 9.4 seconds. But it’s worth mentioning the Yaris is indeed faster than its competition – the 2020 Nissan Versa takes 0.3 seconds longer in the same drag race.

Clearly, no subcompact is going to be very quick. But acceleration aside, there’s a lot to like about the Yaris’ driving characteristics. Steering and brakes are both solid, and the chassis feels very eager turn. It’s light on its feet, which may come from the lack of weight (that new Versa weighs 250 lbs more). The ride can be a bit harsh at times, likely due to the short 101″ wheelbase. In general, though, it’s comfortable.

These subcompact cars are often loved by enthusiastic autocrossers, who find the small size, light weight, and peaky power delivery perfect for weaving through courses on Sunday mornings. And indeed, the Yaris hatch could work well for that form of motorsport. Although a manual transmission isn’t offered with the hatchback, the automatic offers a manual mode and will hold gears against the rev limiter – no automatic upshifts here.

Whether the engine is singing its heart out at 6,000 rpm or (relatively) loafing along at highway speed, the Yaris is a noisy car inside. Wind noise prevails, though if you want more insulation everywhere, Toyota will eagerly sell you a Corolla or Camry.

I found the Yaris Hatch to be comfortable enough but not outstanding for someone of my height. It is, clearly, a small car. At 6’1″, I couldn’t sit behind myself. The door armrests are far forward and don’t work for tall drivers, and there’s no center armrest offered. We fit a bicycle in the hatch with rear seats folded, but had to move the front seats up to allow it to fit.

Although the Yaris offers low-speed emergency braking assist, its older roots show through as it doesn’t offer any other driver assistance technology. Competitors do offer more tech in their subcompacts.

Putting the 2020 Yaris Hatch in Perspective

I grew up in a subcompact car. My mom owned a 1988 Nissan Sentra E, which was the “least worst” option she could find when she was shopping for new cars with little money to spend. It had vinyl seats, minimal instrumentation, manual everything (including steering) and no passenger door mirror because that cost extra, too. It made something like 90 horsepower and may have been carbureted.

I bring up her bright red Sentra because we still have the paperwork for it. She paid $8,313 for the Sentra E with air conditioning as its only option. Adjusted for inflation, Mom spent roughly the same as she’d spend today on this 2020 Toyota Yaris Hatch. Seriously.

And the Yaris is light years ahead of that Sentra, or any other entry-level subcompact from the 1980s or 1990s. Hell, even the 2000s. If Mom were buying today, she’d be in a car that had nice cloth seats, power locks/mirrors/windows, cruise control, good instrumentation, and a standard 7″ touchscreen that supported Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Her music would come from six speakers that sound good enough, instead of two that don’t. She’d even have two door mirrors.

The other important piece to note is regarding safety. Older subcompacts put safety last. Our ’88 Sentra had no airbags and lap belts in the backseat. It may have had some crumple zones, but I still wouldn’t want to be hit in it. By contrast, the Yaris has six airbags (including seats and curtains) and has been designed to perform well in all sorts of crash scenarios.

Most of these Yaris Hatchbacks will be purchased by people who “just need wheels.” They will want a new car for the sake of reliability, less repair, and a strong warranty. They want the car to be safe and to get them anywhere with little concern. They want good fuel economy. They won’t notice the extra wind noise or slightly harsh ride over certain bumps. If they do, they don’t care.

Just like the 1988 Sentra E offered my parents the peace-of-mind that comes with a new car (compared to anything pre-owned with questionable history), so does this 2020 Toyota Yaris Hatch. It just fills that role while being so much better in every way possible.

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