A big ride in a funky-looking small car.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $9,995
As Tested (MSRP) $13,530
This is the least expensive way to drive a new Toyota. With an entry-level price of under $10,000, the Echo provides front-wheel drive traction, a spunky four-cylinder engine that also gives you over 30 mpg around town, and lots of Toyota quality. You'll also get a suspension system that helps produce the ride of a much larger vehicle, and anti-vibration tricks in the chassis make the car amazingly smooth at highway speeds.
What you won't get are a lot of extras. Features that are standard on many cars are all extra-cost for the Echo. Air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, antilock brakes and a CD player all require a bump up in your monthly payment book.
The Echo is available in two body styles: the 2-door ($9,995) and the 4-door ($10,525). A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic is an $800 option.
Not only is the Echo not frilly, some will say it looks funky. Not boldly funny-looking like the New Beetle, but just odd. It wasn't designed for looks. It was designed for comfort, convenience, safety and affordability.
So it's tall. Way tall. Unheard-of tall for a subcompact. Like, taller than a Cadillac. With one swift, upward stroke, Toyota designers have erased the biggest factor against owning a small car: that feeling, when you look up at the vehicles around you on the highway, that they could squash you like a bug. With Echo, no longer is everyone bigger and faster than you. Now you look down at Cadillacs, as you get nearly 40 mpg on the highway.
You might also be passing them, propelled by your smooth, energetic, high-tech, 108-horsepower, politically correct LEV (Low-Emissions Vehicle) engine.
While the roof is tall at 59.1 inches, the windshield takes a long time to reach the summit, making it expansive as well as rakish. There's a cool little radio antenna at the upper left corner, reclining as if blown by speed. The high rear deck allows for a relatively huge trunk with 13.6 cubic feet for cargo.
The optional sports body kit includes fender flares and rocker panels of truly funky flat gray plastic. We wonder if their absence might improve the aesthetics, but we'll probably never know because the kit is part of an option package that includes things most buyers will really want: power steering and a 60-40 split folding rear seat.
The hood slams shut with a very solid sound, as do the doors and trunk. Even though this is the least expensive Toyota, it doesn't feel cheap.
Big slanted-eye headlights and a short hood comprise the Echo's cab-forward design. The narrow black grille connecting the lights doesn't compliment them the way it might. Most of the opening for air to the engine is under the molded bumper. The 14-inch steel wheels with six wide spokes might also be snazzier.
If others think your Echo is funny looking, you may think it's retro cool when you look over your shoulder to back up. From the inside, the curve of the C panel, especially with the unbroken window line of the two-door, is reminiscent of a Hudson Hornet.
You might also congratulate yourself on your own minimalist efficiency each time you climb inside, which, with Echo's low floor and high roof, is easy. There's not one gauge or button or knob or display more or less than is needed. The instrument binnacle is strikingly clean and simple, with a speedometer having handsome black-on-white lettering reminiscent of a Lexus, glowing bluish at night. Seven little round black dots, warning lights, are bunched so they look sort of like a domino on the dash. The digital clock is easy to read. There's no tachometer (that's a frill) but there is a rev limiter (which is not).
The binnacle is recessed into the deep dash, and uniquely positioned in its center, canted toward the driver. Glancing right to check speed soon becomes as natural as glancing downward. Why this design? Most likely, Toyota wanted to reduce the cost of building right-hand-steering cars, as the location would be unchanged.
Visibility is excellent through ample glass. The wipers that come with optional Upgrade Package #1 ($1020) have long, broad strokes, and the washer fluid squirts from six holes. The rear window is not spacious like the front windshield, but fills the rearview mirror; there are no blind sports when you're backing up.
The simple vinyl steering wheel has the correct diameter and thickness. It tilts, but only from low to about medium-low. There's still ample knee room, and space between the door and the steering wheel allows the driver to place his/her left foot flat on the floor when it's not stretched to the dead pedal, during open freeway driving.
The four-way adjustable front seats are fairly comfortable, despite having a round shape that seems to be an interior theme. Integrated headrests are designed to reduce whiplash. The fabric covering has almost no pleating. Toyota points out that the high roof allows for more upright seating, which might have had something to do with why we couldn't get the seatback to feel quite right, as if the shoulders and lumbar were unmatchable. Both front seats recline, and there's enough rear legroom that the rear passengers' knees aren't squished.
The interior may be spartan but it's hugely versatile, including tremendous storage spaces. There are deep vertical pockets, one on each side of the climate control/sound system, useful for tapes and CDs. There are smaller pockets on each front door, and big bins on both sides under the dash. Cupholders lie forward and on each side of the shift lever. Big holes, unmovable, unbreakable. Big cupholders in the rear, too.
There's a grab handle over the passenger-side window. Power door locks are part of option group #2 ($1420, including air conditioner and 6-speaker CD), but there's no remote control. Surprisingly, cruise control is not even an option.
The Echo comes with a wonderfully zippy motor and a tight five-speed gearbox; it almost feels like a four-seat Miata might.
Toyota claims only that the acceleration is "on par" with cars like the Dodge Neon, Honda Civic and Ford Focus, but the 108-hp engine feels remarkably free and nimble when paired with the five-speed manual gearbox.
Echo's power comes from a double overhead-cam, 16-valve, 1.5-liter, low-emission, high-mileage engine with variable valve timing and electronic fuel injection.
On the highway, a steady 70 mph in fifth gear is smooth, silent and relaxed. The engine doesn't generate a lot of torque -- what small four-cylinder does? -- so if you're just cruising and want a burst of speed, a downshift is needed. The shifter throw is quick, precise and smooth.
The engine buzz is minimal, and cruising at highways speeds is not a painfully loud experience.
Possibly the most astonishing characteristic of the Echo is that you might find yourself going way fast without knowing it. On a curvy two-lane stretch where we carefully respect the law by driving no faster than 60 even in the straight sections, we glanced over (not down) at the speedometer and were startled to see 72 mph. Not once, but twice.
Another outstanding feature that contributes to this subcompact phenomenon is the super ride quality. MacPherson struts and coil springs in front, with torsion beams in back, allows the 2020-pound Echo to glide over bumps. Against a pothole your teeth can get rattled as in almost any other car, but the Echo feels tough, and takes the hit like a bantamweight boxer standing up to a jab.
A minimal ground clearance of 5.5 inches compensates for the height to keep the center of gravity relatively low, so it doesn't feel tippy in the twisty curves. The optional power steering has such good feel that it's difficult to imagine its not being worth the money ($270).
On the freeway, the Echo wants to move around a bit, but not seriously. In 40-mph gusts it found curves that weren't there. But it probably would have taken 12-inch-wide tires to prevent that, given the height and light weight. Speaking of tires, the P175/65 R14 Bridgestone Potenzas handled high-speed puddle jumping with only the slightest of hydroplaning.
There is good, solid, smooth resistance to the brake pedal, which triggers the front ventilated discs and rear drums. It doesn't take much to slow such a light car down. Our test model had anti-lock brakes, a $590 option with daytime running lights.
Also in the safety arena, there are a number of structural elements, including side-door impact beams and other beams framing the dash area with a trapezoid. Toyota says crash test results for the Echo are as good as for its 3200-pound Camry. Front passenger side-impact air bags are a new option for 2001.
Even with all its highway strengths, it's hard to imagine a better city car than the Echo, whether New York, Sao Paulo or Tokyo. Because the competition is solid, Toyota might not have fired a shot that echoes 'round the world, but it's a great little blast.
Toyota might not sell tons of these small one-ton cars in the U.S., land of milk and honey and big honkin' SUVs, but the company knows the world is bigger than the U.S.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.