The Echo may lack frills, but it doesn't lack sophistication. The Echo bears an awesome little engine that's clean and efficient. The quality suspension helps produce the ride of a much larger car, and anti-vibration tricks in the chassis make the car amazingly smooth at highway speeds.
Frills? We don't need no stinkin' frills.
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 40 mpg.
You might also be passing them, propelled by your smooth, energetic, high-tech, 108-horsepower, politically correct LEV (Low-Emissions Vehicle) engine.
The Echo's shape would probably be better complimented by a bolder color than that of our test model, whose dark Electric Green paint was anything but electric. Despite the short/tall outline, an excellent drag coefficient of 0.29 is achieved through subtle, careful curvature and upswept lines; this is most evident under the windows between the A and C pillars.
The roof is tall at 59.1 inches, but 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 transverse engine installation is extremely tidy. The battery is mounted in the same line as the engine, directly between the front wheels, providing good balance and the best possible traction. The hood slams shut with a very solid sound, as do the doors and trunk.
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.
Toyota says the Echo was designed for young buyers. Despite the test magazine ad that suggests you can fool around in the back with the rear seats down, it may take more styling tricks for Echo to appeal to the young.
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 even for stiff old knees and backs. 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. Again, the advantage goes to the aging, as the increased distance to the gauges makes numbers sharp without bifocals. Toyota's intent was more likely to reduce the cost of building right-hand-steering cars, as the location would be unchanged. At night the instrument lighting reflects in the windshield, however, after ricocheting off the shiny vinyl dash.
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 windshield, but fills the rearview mirror, and when you're backing up, neither the roofline, C pillars nor hips create blind spots.
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 left foot flat on the floor when it's not stretched to the dead pedal, during open freeway driving. There's also plenty of right knee room, between the manual shift lever and the sound system/climate control console.
The four-way adjustable front seats are fairly comfortable, despite having a round shape that seems to be an interior theme. New frames with 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.
Toyota claims only that the acceleration is "on par" with cars like the Neon, Honda Civic and Ford Escort, but the new 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, having an alloy block, composite intake manifold and stainless steel exhaust manifold to save weight
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 1.5-liter does? -- so if you're just cruising and want a burst of speed, a downshift is needed. The shifter throw will be quick, precise and smooth. Not only does it upshift neatly, but with the responsive throttle, foot room and pedal location, it's easy to brake and downshift at the same time, using the heel-and-toe technique.
The steering rack is mounted to a chassis subframe to absorb vibration, and very little is transmitted to the steering wheel. The engine buzz is minimal. Because of tall gearing, cruising at 65 mph in fourth gear is feasible; 65 is even within reach of third gear, a comfortable place to upshift on freeway on-ramps.
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. Never before had that happened in anything other than an expensive luxury sedan.
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, allow 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 twisties. The suspension features rack-and-pinion steering, and toe-correcting geometry in the rear. There's enough softness tuned into the struts that the car leans a little bit when pushed through the turns, and it won't drive itself around them. It takes some concentration to keep the direction precise, which is not bad, just interesting. 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.
Toyota has chosen a low-profile but highly important global category to design a car to begin the new millennium. It's an intelligent design and an appropriate effort. Depending upon how seriously you believe the sky is falling, it may even be noble. 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 Toyota knows the world is bigger than the U.S.