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The funky-looking little Echo is the least expensive way to drive a new Toyota. You won't wow your friends with this one, but it will give you Toyota's quality, durability and reliability starting at less than $10,000.
The Toyota Echo comes with a spunky four-cylinder engine that can achieve over 30 mpg around town. You get front-wheel drive, a nicely tuned suspension that delivers the ride of a much larger vehicle, and Toyota's anti-vibration tricks that 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 cost extra on the Echo. Air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, antilock brakes and a CD player all require a bump in your monthly payment book.
The Toyota Echo comes with a wonderfully zippy motor and a tight five-speed gearbox. The 108-hp engine feels remarkably free and nimble when paired with the five-speed manual gearbox. It almost feels like a four-seat Miata, and Toyota claims acceleration is on par with cars such as the Dodge Neon, Honda Civic, and Ford Focus.
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.
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 P175/65R14 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 $340 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 $250 option.
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.