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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 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.