Review: The 2016 Toyota Yaris SE with a five-speed manual proves going back to basics doesn’t suck

We test drive the 2016 Toyota Yaris with the sporty SE package and a five-speed manual to see if they make it better.

Economy cars are meant to meet the basic automotive needs in life. The trouble is, nobody likes basic, regardless of how much pumpkin spice is involved. So you can imagine how unexcited I was when Toyota offered me a 2016 Yaris for a week.

To see if the grace could be saved, the only possible glimpse of hope that I saw for positive remarks lie with the option for a manual. Believe it or not, a manual transmission can make all the difference in the world, particularly if like to drive. To my relief, a manual fully-loaded 2016 Yaris SE was later loaned to me for trial.

A third pedal in what you’d likely get as the cheapest rental option available should make it less of a bore to drive, right?

The Toyota Yaris is currently the company’s most affordable car for sale in the United States. Its MSRP of only $15,250 already provides a clue that packaging and amenities should be more minimalist than an a la carte entree at a French restaurant.

In recent years however, automakers have been redefining the formula for basic transportation so that it doesn’t have to be torturous. With the Toyota Yaris, this holds to be true. Despite upward trends and improvements year over year, the Yaris remains to be as stimulating as eating a slice of Wonder bread for dinner. But what happens if you equip a 2016 Toyota Yaris in a way that caters to the car enthusiast? Can a Yaris in sporty SE trim and a manual transmission hold any redeeming qualities?

Read on to find out.

2016 Toyota Yaris SE with a five-speed manual

Style: Subcompact five-door hatchback
Seating Capacity: Four and a half passengers
Base Price: $15,250
Price As Tested: $18,824
Engine: 1.5L DOHC naturally-aspirated 16-valve inline-four with VVT-i variable valve with smart adapatation – 106hp @ 6000 rpm; 103 lb.-ft. @ 4200 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual (optional four-speed automatic)
0-60 MPH: 8.9 seconds (10.2 for automatic)
Top Speed: 108 MPH
Curb Weight: 2,425lbs
Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 30 / 37 (30 / 36 with automatic) w/ 11.1 gal. tank

2016 Toyota Yaris SE Manual Review

Modest price, modest size

Cheap and basic cars are conservative in size and the Yaris fits this bill perfectly. We’re conditioned to correlate sheer size and volume with wealth and opulence. But with the Yaris, it’s the complete bottom of the totem pole. The vastness of its sheet metal is just as modest as its price tag. The 2016 Yaris SE doesn’t particularly win any aesthetic awards, but it’s hardly ugly and even neutral. I’d even go as far as calling it a hip little thing in comparison to the last one, which resembled a toppled dinosaur egg.


Even though small cars are looked down upon in this country, their abundance in markets abroad are unmatched. They sell in the same vast numbers around the world as smartphones in all of western society. So it has to be styled to sell, and this one has it safe. The sportier alloy wheels, blacked out grille, fog lights and rear spoiler of the SE model liven things up a bit. No need to drive it with a paper bag over your head.

Making the Yaris an even safer bet is the amount of kit the car comes with. This is one of the ways automakers are reformulating the package of the basic vehicle. Not only does it come with four wheels, seats, and a motor, but it comes with a lot of stuff you’d never thought to find on a plain Jane, cheap Toyota.


In this top-spec SE version, a touchscreen infotainment system with a decent JBL-based speaker system, air conditioning, power windows and locks don’t need their checkboxes ticked. But above all, Toyota throws in some safety features that you’d expect to find on a car twice its price.

For instance, Lane Departure Alert, Automatic High Beams, and Toyota’s Pre-Collision System are standard for safety. So if you feared the Yaris is scantily equipped, that is not the case. Instead, the Yaris proves basic cars don’t have to be so basic on the amenities.

2016 Toyota Yaris SE Manual ReviewIf there was one criticism, the driving position is awful. The uprightness closely resembled that of a golf cart’s, making foot action with the pedals feel awkward.

SE actually means sporty something…

Does the Yaris’ driving experience with the SE package and five-speed manual squeeze some more fun out of the barebones recipe? In some ways, yes.

Toyota boasts the Yaris in SE form specifically gets sport-tuned steering and suspension. It doesn’t quite transform the car into a raging hot hatch. Instead, it actually brings a competent ride and handling compromise. The steering is surprisingly quick and light. But like all electronically-assisted racks, the Yaris can still benefit from more feel.

Because the Yaris’ footprint is tiny, there isn’t much weight to move around. So the Yaris lends itself some zippy, agile and composed handling, all things considered. Again, the Yaris SE is far from a tire roaster. But it can at least crack some smiles if you chuck it into a corner or on-ramp.

Don’t expect any thrills from the right foot, however. The 2016 Yaris’ naturally-aspirated 1.5L four-banger churns out a sufficient 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque. Otherwise, it has the verve of a DeLonghi blender. It provides the Yaris with just enough go power to get it moving. But it can’t nearly match the liveliness of the competing 1.5L in the Honda Fit.

Save the manuals!

To answer the original question, yes, its five-speed manual improves the Yaris’ road-going demeanor by at least making it engaging. With the manual rower, not only do you get an extra pedal, but an extra forward gear as well. Opting for the antiquated automatic transmission drops it down to a woeful four-speed.

2016 Toyota Yaris SE Manual Review

It may be a manual, but like the 1.5L four-pot, it’s mediocre at best. Clutch action is light and the catch point is vague. Shifts are nowhere near as clicky accurate as the Fit. But it’s still manageable. The act of getting a Yaris SE going from a standstill resembles that of driving a terribly underpowered Volkswagen Bus. Give it a healthy jab of throttle to rev the mill to 2500rpm, then let the clutch out smoothly but swiftly. Only, the Yaris revs faster and if you like wide-open throttle, hitting redline is a regular occurrence to make sure you keep up with New Jersey traffic.

Quibbles notwithstanding, the Yaris SE is not as bad as you’d think it would be. It’s surprisingly comfortable, quiet, rides well and handles decently. Opting for a manual, which is required if you have a pulse, certainly makes the car more interesting. Even if you don’t know how to row your own, it would be a great time to learn. The Yaris makes for a learning easy experience, thanks to its light clutch.

Going back to basics doesn’t have to suck, but you still have choices

Small cars are perceived as not very good and often depicted as woeful because they’re designed and built with budget consciousness in mind. They also represent everything that stands for the cheap, crappy and unenjoyable car, giving off the socioeconomic vibe that things aren’t going well in your life.

But the Yaris SE is not a bad car. It completely succeeds at being a cheap form of transportation, but with lots of value to complement. Thanks to automakers reworking the formula, the Yaris comes well-equipped for its $17,200 MSRP price tag. Upgrading to the automatic, which technically makes it fully loaded, bumps the invoice to $18,000. But my advice, save your money and learn how to drive a manual.

The Yaris SE with the five-speed manual is perfectly decent subcompact and packs a lot of civility and fun than you’d ever expect to get from a car this cheap. Though stiff competition still presents many other alternatives. The Chevrolet Sonic is an excellent and fun driving thing in LTZ Turbo form, as is the Honda Fit when in Sport guise. Both have much livelier and peppier powertrains and still offer a manual, but with proper six forward gears.



·         Surprisingly well equipped ·         The engine has the verve of a Delonghi Blender
·         Capable of cracking smiles ·         Golf cart-like driving position
·         Manual still an option ·         The steering needs more feel
Verdict: The 2016 Toyota Yaris proves that going back to basics doesn’t have to suck. Fun to drive factor and value are decently high. But there are still other, more fun-driving choices.

– By: Chris Chin

Editor’s Note: Toyota Motor Company provided the vehicle, plus insurance, and a full tank of gas. All remarks here are my own and I paid for all subsequent car washes and gas.

Follow Chris Chin on Twitter @SirChrisChin and Instagram @CSquaredPhotography or @egmCarTech

Photos Copyright 2015 © C Squared Photography for egmCarTech.

Chris Chin

Chris Chin is the Editor-In-Chief of egmCarTech and is a regular contributor to Automobile Magazine.

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