On Autos: Toyota subcompact offers great fuel economy but no hatchback

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The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA is a fuel-efficient subcompact sedan with lots of standard features. (Brady Holt/The Current)
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When fitting a car into a small parking space, every inch can count. That’s one reason so many city drivers gravitate toward hatchbacks over sedans — not only do they offer additional cargo flexibility, but they’re not as long as equivalent four-doors.

That’s why it’s disappointing that the largely appealing Toyota Yaris iA subcompact car comes only as a sedan.

To be clear, there is a Yaris hatchback, sold with either three or five doors. But it’s an aging design without the outstanding fuel economy and sprightly handling of the Yaris iA sedan. The iA is actually built for Toyota by Mazda, and it’s sold as the Mazda2 in other countries. Most of the world does get a Mazda2 hatchback, but when low gas prices reduced Americans’ interest in subcompact cars, Mazda discontinued this vehicle from the U.S. market.

The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA has a distinctively designed cabin but not a lot of interior space. (Brady Holt/The Current)

For buyers who truly favor a small car, and who don’t mind that the iA comes only as a sedan, this model has some clear appeal. First of all, it’s rated for an excellent 35 mpg in mixed driving with the automatic transmission — compared to just 32 mpg from the Yaris hatchback — and 34 mpg with the tested six-speed manual. It also features a stylish, high-quality interior that’s similar to today’s Mazda vehicles.

While the Yaris iA isn’t a sports sedan, Mazda’s focus on driving enthusiasm comes across in this model’s handling. There’s a composure to this Toyota’s suspension that is missing from subcompacts that were designed merely to be as cheap as possible. The steering is too slow for the Yaris iA to be downright zippy, especially at low speeds, but it inspires confidence if you try to approach its limits.

The 2017 Toyota Yaris iA is built by Mazda and shares that brand’s styling language from some angles. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Also, for those who prefer to shift their own gears, Toyota offers a manual transmission even when the Yaris iA is fairly well-equipped. That’s a tough combination to find among today’s subcompact cars, many of which have automatic transmissions on all but the most stripped-down model. At $16,845, the Toyota’s base price is on the high side for its class, but that’s because nearly every option (except the automatic transmission) is already standard equipment.

Aside from the missing hatchback variant, the Yaris iA has one other key flaw: a tight rear seat. While that may seem like a given for a subcompact car, this Toyota is particularly cramped when compared to the class’s modern standards. And you can even get surprisingly spacious accommodations — at least for four adults — on such subcompacts as the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Mitsubishi Mirage G4.

The redesigned 2018 Kia Rio eschews the stylistic flair of some subcompact cars. (Brady Holt/The Current)

One of Toyota’s subcompact competitors is newly redesigned for 2018: the Kia Rio, which is sold both as a sedan and a five-door hatchback. A quick preview drive of the 2018 Rio hatchback suggests that it’s a pleasantly ordinary transportation appliance, with unexciting but unobjectionable styling and driving dynamics. The chief complaint was noisy, harsh-sounding acceleration from its little engine.

The Kia’s gas mileage also trails the Yaris iA’s at 32 mpg in mixed driving with an automatic transmission, and the manual transmission isn’t widely offered. And even though the Rio is newly redesigned, an emergency automatic braking system — standard equipment on the Yaris and Yaris iA — is limited to the top-of-the-line Rio EX.

The 2018 Kia Rio is available with a dressy two-tone interior, and controls are user-friendly. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Rio does trump the Yaris iA for interior space, even if it doesn’t match the Fit, Versa or Mirage for rear-seat comfort. It also delivers more modern smartphone integration and a classy two-tone dashboard.

Furthermore, Kia provides a wider range of models, allowing a lower base price ($14,795) and available luxury gear such as leather upholstery. Toyota instead makes nearly every feature standard, with little extra available as an option, resulting in a single variant that’s equivalent to a mid-level Rio.

Consider the Rio if you’re willing to trade some interior volume from the Fit or Versa for a posher interior and more available luxury features.

Also shop the Rio against the Yaris hatchback, which costs more and feels more pedestrian but which has similar interior space and more standard safety equipment.