Can there be such a thing as sporty economy car? And if it's doable, does it make sense?

Toyota says the answer to both questions is the '09 Yaris S.

WHAT IT IS

The Yaris is Toyota's smallest and least expensive car - and the S is a spiced-up version of it, with larger wheels and tires, "ground effects" bodywork and other upgrades. It seats 4-5 people and is available in hatchback coupe, sedan and five-door hatchback bodstyles.

Prices run from $12,205 for a hatchback coupe w/manual transmission to $15,880 for a sedan with automatic.

WHAT'S NEW

The five-door hatchback bodystyle is new for '09 - and all trims now come standard with ABS and curtain air bags.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

All versions of the Yaris come equipped with the same engine - a 1.5 liter four with Toyota's variable valve timing system (VVTi) and 106 hp driving the front wheels. The standard transmission is a five-speed automatic; a four-speed automatic is optional.

With the manual - and the wind at your back - it's possible to get to 60 mph in under 10 seconds. But just barely. With the automatic, the car feels (and is) noticeably slower. More on this below.

Of course, "performance" - when you're shopping a car like the Yaris - probably means "fuel efficiency" rather than scorching 0-60 runs. And here the Yaris' stats are more appealing: 36 on the highway and 29 in city driving (with the manual; automatic-equipped Yari lose 1 mpg on the highway).

How does this stack up against the Yaris' main competition? It beats the more expensive ($14,750-$18,260) and hatchback wagon-only Honda Fit (27 city/33 highway), $11,495-$15,125 Kia Rio (27/33) and $11,965-$15365 Chevy Aveo (27/34) as well as the Nissan Versa (26 city/34 highway) though the Versa, which can be purchased for just under $10k brand-new, makes up for that big-time in upfront savings. More on this below, too.

Still, the Yaris is pretty much the most fuel-efficient gas-burning, non-hybrid new car on the road right now.

RIDE & HANDLING/DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The Yaris is tiny little nugget of a car - but bigger inside than you'd expect because of the fairly long wheelbase. The front and rear axle centerlines anchor the four corners of the car - and there's not much else ahead (or behind) of them. The car just ... ends.

This takes a little getting used to, especially if you're used to larger cars. From behind the wheel, you feel the road's almost physically unfolding into your lap. And find yourself praying that the engine doesn't end up there, too, if you run into something.

On the plus side, you know just how much room you've got left when you're trying to snug up close to something or parallel park; it's as easy to steer as a Moped - and will fit just about anyplace a Moped would, too.

The three-door hatchback especially is a fantastic little knock-about/city car.

Also, by pushing out the wheels to the far corners of the car, you end up with a car that feels bigger in terms of its ride and handling. Its wheelbase of 100.4 inches is actually only slightly less than the 102.4 inch wheelbase of the physically much larger (and longer and heavier) Toyota Corolla - which is 178.7 inches long from nose to snout vs. 169.3 inches for the Yaris.

So, although the Yaris may look like a clown car, but it doesn't drive (or handle) like one.

The S comes with 15 inch rims and larger tires than the standard Yaris - the chief functional performance improver you get for the appx. $2k more this package costs. You also get a body kit with rear airfoil and a stereo upgrade, but these things, of course, don't affect how the vehicle handles or drives.

Zero to 60 in 10-11 seconds isn't exactly zippy but it's adequate for poking along in traffic - which is what a car like the Yaris is built to do. Other cars in this segment perform similarly, so the "deciders" are going to be such things as gas mileage - and MSRPs.

One iffy point is the Yaris' optional 4-speed automatic. It rummages back and forth between third and fourth (overdrive) gear excessively, especially on hilly roads - which makes the car feel as though it's sweating hard to maintain its pace. The five-speed offers better control - and better mileage, too. Plus, you can save $800 "up front" by sticking with the manual ($12,205 vs. $13,005).

STYLING & UTILITY

The Yaris' beauty is not in its appearance but its functionality. Everything is designed for a purpose, not aesthetics - the pushed-to-the-corners axle centerlines being one example. Another is the centrally-mounted instrument cluster - which can be canted to the left for American markets and to the right for export markets. No need to make two different dashboards for the same car in order to sell it in multiple markets. This helps save Toyota money, which helps keep the price of the Yaris in check.

Other highly functional design features include fold-out cup holders built into the left and right hand sides of the dash - which I think is more convenient than the usual console-mounted arrangement. Also, there's an extra glovebox in front of the driver - courtesy of the room made by the centrally mounted instrument cluster. On the passenger side, there's a double glovebox - so you get three total in-dash storage areas.

The Yaris also has the advantage of multiple bodystyles - hatchback coupe, sedan and 5-door wagon. The Nissan Versa comes only as a sedan. Honda's Fit comes only as a hatchback wagon. The Kia Rio isn't available in coupe form - and the Chevy Aveo only comes in hatchback coupe or sedan bodystyles.

Cargo capacity is 13 cubic feet - a little better than the Rio and Aveo (12 and 12.5 cubic feet, respectively) and a bit less than the Nissan Versa (14 cubic feet). The Honda Fit kills them all on cargo with its amazing 57 cubic feet of capacity (back seats folded flat; even with the second row up, the Fit has 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space available). The downside, of course, is the Fit's not so economical price - which starts at $14,750 - about $2,500 more than the base price of a Yaris and nearly five grand more than what you could buy a new Versa for.

QUALITY & SAFETY

The inclusion of ABS and side/curtain air bags on even base models - along with its best-in-class fuel economy - makes the $12k (to start) Yaris a strong contender in its segment. The barely less expensive Chevy Aveo ($11,965 to start) doesn't even offer curtain air bags - and ABS is an extra-cost option. So is air conditioning - which is standard with the Yaris.

The Kia Rio coms standard with curtain air bags, but doesn't come with AC and ABS costs extra. And it's available only on higher-trimmed, more expensive versions. The Nissan Versa has both side-impact and curtain air bags - and ABS is available for $250 extra on top of the car's incredible $9,990 base price - making it the Versa's toughest "for the money" competition.

However, the cheapest version of the Versa doesn't come standard with AC. If you add that to the equation, the Nissan's advantage slims to about dead even.

THE BOTTOM LINE

As Toyota's new value leader, the Yaris makes a very solid case for itself. However, if the whole point is saving money, I'd skip the S package, buy the as-it-sits Yaris - and put the $2,000 extra toward gas money.