Whatever it was called, it was an award-winner everywhere it sold - except in North America. We got a different version of the car, known as the Echo.That left many people wondering, "What did we do to deserve this?"
The Echo was nearly as repugnant as the Pontiac Aztek. It was so ugly, in fact, an editor at Car and Driver magazine ranted that Toyota should be ashamed of it.
Why should people who don't have a lot of money to spend on a car, the editor wondered, be forced to buy ugly?
That raised interesting questions: What is the correlation, in the automobile industry, between inexpensive and ugly? Must inexpensive, entry-level vehicles, by definition, be homely little slugs?
Why can't "affordable" and "attractive" co-exist?
A car in its most basic form is merely a sculpted piece of metal. It seems that it shouldn't cost any more money to shape that piece of metal into a form pleasing to the eye, than it does to do a whack job on it.
Toyota seemed stung by the criticism of the Echo.
But, internally, its research corroborated the fact that Echo owners did indeed hate the looks of their cars - so much so they were embarrassed to drive them. But the thrifty little Echo was all they could afford to own and operate.
When its life cycle mercifully came to an end, Toyota decided the Echo had worn out its welcome in America. They decided to replace it, rather than redesign it. This coincided with the need to restyle the Yaris-Vitz-Platz line.
So Toyota, in the interest of global cost savings, decided to make the Yaris, in liftback and sedan versions, its subcompact class entry worldwide.
Toyota assigned one of its Lexus chief engineers to the liftback project. Normally, this might have seemed like a demotion - being sent from the luxury division to econoboxes - but the engineer, Kosuke Shibahara, knew better.
He had also been in charge of Toyota's "2010 Vision" program that tried to define how Toyota should be doing business in the second decade of the 21st century.
The decision was that Toyota had better start "thinking young," or get ready to lose the next generation of customers. The youth-oriented Scion line was a result.
A different chief engineer, Junichi Furuyama, was assigned to the sedan. Furuyama, Toyotaphiles might recall, was chief engineer for the current 4Runner.
Although Shibahara and Furuyama did not work together on the two projects, their parallel universes quickly came to the same "light-bulb" moment: Pride of ownership was the key.
"Sport utility buyers," Furuyama soon learned, "have a pride of ownership that isn't shared by all subcompact purchasers." D'oh.
Shibahara, who had never even driven a subcompact, did some research about the advantages to owning one. Besides being cheap to buy, he found they can be maneuverable, urban-friendly and economical.
But they generally had no curb appeal. The idea would be to design something simple, yet classy.
"There is a Japanese word called 'ikebana,' which was my inspiration," Furuyama said. "Ikebana is a traditional art of flower arrangement. The art of the arrangement is in its simplicity. Unnecessary decoration is shunned in place of a single, simple design. In a sense, less is more."
That was the guiding design philosophy, and the world's automotive press has seemed to give Toyota successful marks toward achieving its goal.
Both the Yaris liftback and sedan offer no-frills curb appeal. Their platform is longer and wider than the hopeless Echo, and it has an athletic - no longer boxy - stance.
The bargain-basement liftback has an eager, "motion-forward" stance that makes it look faster than it is.
The sleek sedan looks like a baby Lexus, although some cost-cutting in the interior give it up as the economy car it is. But there is nothing here that would rack up Echo-caliber complaints.
Power is not overwhelming - it shares the same 1.5-liter engine that's in the Scion xA and xB - but Yaris gets stellar fuel economy: 37 mpg city, 40 mpg highway. That's better than most hybrids. (Although, ironically, not as good as the Starlet, Toyota's first American subcompact, which was introduced 25 years ago and got 44 mpg way back then!)
Yaris also runs on regular unleaded gas. Fuel economy is virtually the same with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Handling is adequate, with a MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear. It doesn't feel the least bit tippy or top-heavy as did the ungainly Echo. It has electronic power steering, like Toyota's hybrids. ABS brakes with brake force distribution are optional, not standard.
Parking is especially easy in the 12 1/2-foot liftback; the sedan is 14 feet long.
The $10,570 Kia Rio, a principal competitor, offers more air bags as standard equipment than the Yaris does; side air bags and side curtain air bags are options.
A nice standard feature is air conditioning. The interior appears more upscale than subcompact buyers have come to expect. Fabrics and plastic surfaces at least feel as if quality materials were used.
The gauges, center-mounted like in the Mini, are easy to read - and a rather fun touch.
Seats are comfortable; in the liftback, the back seats recline, slide and track independently - definitely an upmarket feature. In the sedan, they can be laid flat.
Cargo room is a generous 13 cubic feet in each model. Storage cubbies galore should delight even inveterate pack rats. A stereo is standard, but the more powerful one that young people will want is an option.
Yaris should appeal to the young and young at heart, people buying their first car, others on a budget, or just a lot of folks who are fed up paying a lot to buy and run their everyday driver.
But just how appealing is the Yaris? When you consider its MSRP - $10,950 for the liftback and $11,825 for the sedan - and its 40 mpg fuel economy, the Yaris starts to look downright fetching.
Jim Farley, the Toyota vice president in charge of marketing the new Yaris, said he learned something in his days at Scion. "Budget-minded consumers," he said, "don't want to be seen as losers in cheap cars."
In a Yaris, it's a lot less likely they will be.
2007 Toyota Yaris
Body style: Subcompact, front-wheel drive sedan or liftback
Engine: 1.5-liter DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 106 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 103 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic
Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph, 8.4 seconds
EPA fuel economy estimates: 34 mpg city, 40 highway, manual; automatic, 34/39
Fuel capacity: 11.1 gallons
Cargo space: sedan, 12.9 cubic feet; liftback, 12.8
Front head/leg/shoulder room: sedan 38.8/42.2/51.6 inches; liftback 39.4/40.3/51.4
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: sedan 36.7/35.6/50.2 inches; liftback 37.5/33.8/48.3
Length: sedan, 169.3 inches; liftback, 150
Wheelbase: sedan, 100.4 inches; liftback, 96.9
Curb weight: sedan, 2,293-2,326 pounds; liftback, 2,293-2,326
Standard features: Air conditioning, tilt wheel, front-rear cup holders
Optional features: CD-MP3 audio, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, rear wiper, rear defroster, ABS, keyless entry, power windows/door locks, cruise, rear spoiler
Safety features include: Dual-stage driver and passenger air bags, 3-point safety belts with front seat pretensioners, child seat tether anchors
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion
Suspension: Front, independent MacPherson struts; rear, torsion beam
Tires and wheels: P175/65 R 14-inch on steel wheels
Base price: sedan, $11,825-$13,325; liftback, $10,950-$11,850
The competition: Kia Rio, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Chevrolet Aveo
Where assembled: Japan
PLUSES: Economical, maneuverable, not as ugly as an Echo
MINUSES: No radio? No curtain/side air bags? No ABS?
SIDEBAR: THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
If you've been working to develop your video library of the greatest car chases in movies, your handbook has arrived.
"The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time," by Jesse Crosse, goes "Beyond "Bullitt," "Gone in 60 Seconds" (both versions) and "Vanishing Point" to give directors' details, stuntmen's recollections and the how-to of the men and women who made those machines fly, jump and crash.
There are plenty of studio photos with a foreword and comment throughout by Peter Yates, director of "Bullitt."
The book gives behind-the-scenes details on 20 films. Can you name them?
Available at bookstores ($25) or www.motorbooks.com.
Jerry Garrett is a freelance motor journalist and contributing editor to Car and Driver magazine.