Intent on infusing it with an extra measure of buyer appeal, Toyota has performed a major makeover on its entry level model line. Sharing much of its new look and character with a European version already on sale, the U.S.-spec 2012 Toyota Yaris arrives here significantly better, and better prepared, to wage an ever-more-intensive battle for the hearts and minds of the budget-constrained.

All new sheetmetal and more distinctive character cues match with bolder lighting treatments to add a welcome measure of visual punch to the 2012 Yaris, which also is modestly longer (+2.9 inches) and lower (-0.6-inches) while benefiting from a 2.0-inch stretch in wheelbase. The recast Yaris is available in three-door and five-door hatchback configurations, as well as L, LE and sporty SE trims. The last, in addition to being a five-door only exercise, also nets unique exterior cosmetics---including a color-keyed grille/front spoiler/rear spoiler, rear diffuser, smoke-trimmed halogen headlamps and a chrome exhaust tip---as well a sport-tuned suspension, upgraded disc/disc brakes and larger 16-inch alloy wheels with 195/50 tires. On the new-tech front, Toyota has fitted the Yaris hatch family with a single-arm windshield wiper system that it says is both lighter and more effective than the traditional two-wiper configuration.

All versions of the 2012 Toyota Yaris share the carryover 1.5-liter/106-horsepower inline-four that drives the front wheels through either a standard five-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed automatic. However, minor tweaks to the electronic control software coupled with friction-reduction gains help raise EPA numbers by one mpg in the city and two on the highway on cars fitted with the five-speed (to 29/38 mpg) and bring the city stat up by one mpg on autoshifted versions of the 2012 Yaris (to 30/35 mpg). The gains are further abetted by its new body structure that uses more high-strength steel to add rigidity while helping reduce curb weight by 25-50 pounds.

Regardless of trim level, all members of the 2012 Yaris family boast a more refined interior design, highlighted by a new soft-touch dash pad, upgraded upholstery fabrics, more supportive seats and a flat-bottom steering wheel on a tilt column. The main instrument cluster boasts a more contemporary look and moves from its previous center location to a conventional position ahead of the driver, with the SE getting its own dedicated setup with Multi-Instrument Display in addition to grippier sport buckets. The 2012 redesign still leaves the Yaris a technical subcompact. However, while people space only grows marginally, a considerably longer rear floor area helps boost cargo capacity by huge 64/68-percent in the three-door/five-door, respectively, with the rear seat up.

As for creature features, even at L level, the Yaris standards roster is impressive. Highlights include power windows/locks, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA audio with USB and Aux ports, intermittent wipers, Cold Weather Package, the Toyota Star Safety System (stability control, traction assist, anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake force Distribution), plus Smart Stop Technology and nine airbags.

Moving up to LE adds items like enhanced appointments, power windows, keyless remote entry, SiriusXM Satellite radio with Bluetooth streaming capabilities, HD Radio, multifunction steering wheel controls and a 60/40 spilt-folding rear seat back in place of the single-piece drop-down in the element in the L. The top-line SE nets all of the aforementioned sport-spec elements and interior tweaks as well as cruise control, which is an LE option.

The 2012 Toyota Yaris will be arriving at dealers in October. Despite gaining over $1,000 in additional standard features, pricing will remain nearly spot-on a comparably equipped 2011 model. A 2012 three-door Yaris L with manual transmission is set to start at $14,875 while an autoshifted Yaris SE five-door will open at $17,960.

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