It may look like someone stepped on a Volkswagen Beetle, but the Toyota Echo is a groundbreaking car in many ways. First, it happens to be one of the first attempts by Toyota’s Genesis youth marketing group to attract new, younger buyers to Toyota. Second, it’s maybe the only economy car in the world that struts out tall-roof packaging, a lightweight steel structure and a small displacement, high output four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. To be sure, the Echo strays far from the status quo in the subcompact segment in the U.S.
Technology and Genesis influence aside, the real question is whether it’s a car worthy of your consideration. Despite all the technological and engineering fireworks it brings to the party, the Echo doesn’t light our sparklers.
Styllng is the Achilles heel of the Echo. By the time the Genesis group was formed in September of 1998, most of the Echo’s development had been completed, including the shape. But they were able to make some minor modifications, including jettisoning the wheel covers for new ones, and adding an overfender and ground-effects package that imparts a slightly less awkward look. Inside, the Genesis team tossed out the anemic audio system originally specified for the car and added an impressive six-speaker sound system with an available cassette/CD combination head unit.
Uncool on campus
Genesis influences notwithstanding, judging by the reactions we have heard, most still seem to think the car is rather unappealing. In fact, "dorky" is a word oft heard to describe the car’s aesthetics around college campuses and Internet chat rooms.
(To be fair, some also said they thought it was "cute," but we have also heard that word used to describe the now-defunct Ford Aspire as well as the Chevrolet Metro and Suzuki Swift, cars that won’t grace any Car of the Century list in this millennium.)
2000 Toyota Echo
2000 Toyota Echo interior
The Echo’s gauges sit in the center of the dash — not the first place you might look when speeding.
To fix the styling, we suggest the radical notion of bringing over the hatchback variant of the Echo. Toyota’s PR department has openly said they’d love to see the Echo hatchback in this country in 2001. The European and Japanese hatchback versions of the Echo, called Yaris and Vitz respectively, are altogether more appealing to the eye than the Echo. Like the Ford Focus sedan, another tall-roof small car, the Echo’s lines are rather appealing in the form of two and four door hatchbacks, but they don’t lend themselves kindly to a sedan bodystyle.
Opting for the more interesting (and likely more expensive) front-end treatment of the Yaris or Vitz would certainly be another step in the right direction. A snazzier set of aluminum wheels, at least 15 inches in diameter, would go a long way, too. While they’re at it, Toyota could make those wheels a little wider as well. From the rear, the car appears to be riding on its tiptoes.
Another quandary presented by the Echo is its modular instrument panel. While it enables easy left- or right-hand-drive construction, it plops the instrument cluster in the center of the panel. It’s at least angled toward the driver, but it doesn’t take an ergonomics engineer to know it’s less than ideal. Our $14,000 tester also had no tachometer, which the company says isn’t relevant to Echo buyers. We’d disagree.
2000 Toyota Echo
Lack of a tachometer aside, the Echo’s interior fit and finish are better than competitive cars. In addition, the car has an abundance of storage space inside its interior. And don’t forget that magnificent audio system we mentioned earlier.
Nonetheless, the Echo’s appearance hides one of the car’s best assets – its packaging. It seats passengers in a minivanlike position with an abundance of leg room and excellent forward visibility. That makes piloting the Echo reminiscent of a small European delivery van and not a subcompact car — a good thing, we believe.
Base Price: $10,450
Engine: 1.5-liter in-line four with VVT-I;
From behind the wheel, the Echo is a fun car, as well as a roomy one. Besides getting amazing gas mileage, it is actually quite zippy, thanks to its low weight and 108 horsepower 1.5-liter engine. But with its training wheel-esque tire and wheel combination, the Echo is not quite what it could be in the turns. We think the car would be well served by sportier suspension tuning — and we’re sure the California crowd will spend good money elsewhere to do it themselves.
The Echo compares favorably to other subcompacts, cars like the Chevrolet Metro, Suzuki Swift and the Hyundai Accent. At a base price of $10,450 for the coupe, the Echo suggests a decent value. But while the base two-door Echo coupe starts out at that low price, our not-even-fully-optioned test vehicle — an automatic-equipped four-door sedan — rang up to nearly $15,000. In that territory, there’s some serious competition from the likes of the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota’s own Corolla. Toyota tells us that for the first six weeks the Echo was on sale, the average transaction price of the car was nearly $14,000, the hairy outer edge of economy as we see it.
The Echo breaks new ground in the subcompact segment, but that cutting edge comes at a price. Toyota is banking that customers will pay a premium for legendary Toyota reliability and for a high-tech engine. But at the bottom of the price ladder, how many buyers are willing to trade great looks for those less obvious perks? Only the sales charts will tell.