Although a sporty econobox sounds like a contradiction in terms, it isn't always. Take the subcompact Ford Fiesta ST, a delightfully athletic little hatchback that derives plenty of oomph from its 197-horsepower turbo and nifty cornering qualities from its sport-tuned suspension.
The sporty version of Toyota's Yaris, the SE model - with about half the horsepower and torque - doesn't act as profoundly on the pulse rate. Then again, it doesn't act as profoundly on the purse, either. When equipped with a manual gearbox, as all Fiesta STs are, the Yaris SE's base price of $16,820 is $5,440 less than the Ford's. (The automatic-equipped test car based at $17,620.)
The Yaris received a mid-cycle refresh for 2015, a move Toyota hoped would improve its sagging sales. Like most refreshes, this one amounted essentially to fresh front and back-end styling. The sheet metal between the grille and the taillights remained the same, as did the car's drivetrains. Its structure was beefed up slightly, and the SE model's suspension was tweaked to improve handling. A significant amount of insulation was added to quiet things down a bit.
The Yaris continues to be powered by a venerable 1.5-liter engine whose horsepower rating barely breaks triple digits (106). Transmission choices include a five-speed manual and an archaic four-speed automatic that seems to downshift with very little provocation. These drivetrains don't engender excessive Gs when leaving a stoplight (0 to 60 is pushing nine seconds), but they are inexpensive, durable, and (with the help of the SE's low, 2,335-pound curb weight) deliver quite acceptable EPA mileage ratings of 30 city, 36 highway.
Though it uses the same drivetrain as the other models, the five-door SE hatchback does get a sportier suspension and steering than its three- and five-door stablemates. The sport-tuned suspension feels firmer than the regular Yaris I drove previously, and the sporty steering gear is pleasantly responsive. Plus, the SE gets disc brakes fore and aft, instead of the disc/drum setup on the cheaper models.
The SE designation also comes with the requisite sporty cosmetics, including a special black grille, black-accented alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter, and decently bolstered fabric sport seats.
The SE's exterior is graced by characteristic Toyota body fits and diminished by that grotesque guppie grille. The tester's interior was more to my liking. While hard plastic predictably predominates at this price point, the design had a purposeful simplicity about it that proved quite engaging.
The test car's interior was much more interested in ferrying folks than in hauling stuff. Someone 6-foot-2 could adjust the driver's seat to fit and then find generous leg room in the seat behind it. The hatchback's cargo area, on the other hand, was relatively minuscule.
Driving the Yaris SE, while something less than a sporting experience, is not unpleasant. That hardworking little engine gets a bit buzzy when punched, but is reasonably quiet under normal driving conditions. And the car does a decent job of shedding road and wind noise.
The SE's ride, while firm, is comfortable enough. Handling is competent, although the car still has a bit of body roll, even with the suspension tweaks. Steering and braking are fine.
The SE is nicely equipped for a car starting under $17,000. The tester's standard gear ranged from alloy wheels and cruise control to a rear window wiper/defogger.
The SE has a number of safety features, including nine air bags and whiplash-deterring front seats. It has an overall federal safety rating of four stars out of five.
Base price: $17,620.
As tested: $18,625.
Standard equipment: 1.5-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission, front-drive, sport-tuned suspension and steering, an array of safety gear, and amenities ranging from alloy wheels to integrated fog lamps.
Options: Carpeted floor and cargo mats.
Fuel economy: 30 city and 36 highway.
Not a high card.
Ride comfort: Good.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, bumper to bumper.
The Ben key: four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.