There's a style of Japanese animation, collectively know as Anime, that has quite a following both within the United States and worldwide. Crossing over from cartoons to comic books to role-playing games, Anime combines fast action with almond-eyed heroes and bizarre landscapes to create unique and compelling atmospheres. One of the most common features of Anime films is the disproportionate, other-worldly cars (and motorcycles) that dominate the genre and manage to look weird and wonderful at the same time. It was this collection of rendered vehicles that we kept thinking of whenever we looked at our Toyota Echo coupe during a one-week test period.
Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), what works as a cartoon doesn't usually work in real life. Picture a fast-paced animated sequence built around a Toyota Echo sliding between heavy downtown Tokyo traffic as crazed motorcycle thugs give chase, and you'll have an idea of where this car's design makes sense. For the young, hip, and ever-so-cynical Generation Y at which this car is targeted, it seems a bit off the mark.
From directly in front or directly behind, the Echo looks hysterically narrow and frail, almost like Courtney Cox in the last three seasons of "Friends." The car's pizza-cutter 175/65R14 tires don't help matters, appearing like tepid attempts at keeping the little Toyota planted firmly on the pavement. Studying the Echo's profile or three-quarter front and rear views somewhat lessons the effect. At these angles you don't notice the paper-thin tires or disproportionate height and width. Make no mistake; it's still not an attractive vehicle, though the comical effect is greatly reduced. Our particular test vehicle was outfitted with optional rocker panel and fender molding done in a black plastic. These pieces didn't enhance the Echo's appearance, but the lower moldings on the doors did prove useful for protecting the car's paint (which had major orange-peel in it) when parking next to curbs or gas pump islands.
But let's not focus purely on the Echo's goofy looks (Oops, did I say Focus? I didn't mean to say Focus. Why should I use the word Focus in an Echo review? Let's just forget all about the car -- uh, I mean term, focus, and act like I never brought it up. By the way, we have an interesting review of Ford's excellent small car offering at Road Test: 2000 Ford Focus). Anyway, if the Echo's problems ended at the outer shell, we'd have to see past them and acknowledge the car's positive traits. After all, it's the 21st century and we're supposed to be over the looks thing, aren't we?
All superficiality aside, there are plenty of functional reasons to hate the Echo. Let's start with the lovely center-mounted gauge cluster. How annoying is it to look down at the dash when checking speed or fuel level and find...nothing? After a one-week loan period we still weren't used to it. We kept looking from the windshield to the dash directly in front of us and then thought, "Oh, yeah, I'm in an Echo," as we ratcheted our head over to the upper central dash area.
Once our eyes arrived at the centralized "gauge cluster" (gauge cluster is a stretch because other than fuel level and speedometer there's nothing but idiot lights in there) we strained to read the tiny numbers. The diminutive markings would have been hard to read even if they were properly located which, of course, they weren't. We should also note that at this point our eyes had been off the road for about 5 seconds just to "glance" at the speedometer. Deciding a speeding ticket was preferable to an accident, we rarely looked at the instrument panel after awhile. Toyota says this gauge cluster placement is for safety concerns. We agree: Putting the speedometer there IS a safety concern.
Ignoring the speedometer did allow us to concentrate on the Echo's driving traits, both good and bad. Acceleration, for instance, was one of the car's strong points. Despite making only 108 peak horsepower, the 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine propels the Echo with authority, helped in large part by a broad torque band (courtesy of Toyota's VVT-i technology) that peaks at 105 foot-pounds and allows for tire spin from a standing start. A featherlike 2,000-pound curb weight also contributes not only to the Echo's acceleration but to its high EPA mileage ratings of 34 and 41 city/highway.
Keeping the throttle pegged until redline will get you 38 mph in first gear and 65 mph in second due to high transmission gearing. High rpms don't appear to faze the engine and it remained smooth and civilized even when pushed hard. The tranny can be difficult to shift quickly with its long throws and rubbery engagement, but we managed an 8.5-second zero-to-60 time with the quarter mile passing in 16.6 seconds at 85 mph. Stopping was equally satisfactory with 132 feet required to halt from 60 mph. The ABS feels competent but pedal pressure gets stiff and non-progressive under maximum braking.
Those numbers are in line with the competition from Honda (Civic), Dodge (Neon) and Ford (guess). Where the Echo falls faint is in the area of ride and handling. Those 14-inch tires under that tall exterior profile conspire to create a floaty, tippy feel at highway speeds. It doesn't help that the overall ride height and seating position mimic a small SUV. Catch a crosswind just right and the Echo feels like it might just pull a Suzuki Samurai on you. Not fun.
We did manage to have some fun with the car on our favorite canyon roads. As on the highway, excessive body roll was always an issue when navigating tight corners, but the small tires performed better than expected, providing adequate grip and offering plenty of warning before giving up. At the track, the Echo proved frightening during quick transitions in the 600-foot slalom and unsettling on the 200-foot skidpad. Its narrow width, tall seating position and excessive body lean sent chills up our road test editor's spine (something about the inside rear tire lifting off the ground). He did manage an unexpected .79 Gs on the skidpad, but the laggardly 55.9 mph slalom speed was representative of the Echo's twitchy nature.
Without question the Echo's most impressive feature is the amount of room afforded by its cabin and trunk. The tall greenhouse and narrow roof pillars offer unobstructed visibility and acres of headroom, beating out the Civic, Neon, and Focus in this area. Front seating is comfortable as long as the "propped up" feel doesn't bother you (we slowly got used to it). Rear seat legroom, despite being a coupe, was completely adequate for two full-sized adults, but only the front passenger seat slides up when tilting the seatback forward, making rear-seat entry from the driver's side a real pain. A total of five cupholders (the two front units being both large and well-placed) shows that, despite is Anime look, the Echo really wants to be a hit with Americans.
Interior materials on the Echo were about par for this class with the cheap plastic A- and B-pillar covers, along with the hard steering wheel and foamy headliner, proving a disappointment even at this price level. Both climate and radio controls were well-placed and logical, but the slide control for inside/outside air ventilation had a toylike feel to it. The optional six-speaker sound system provided clean highs and tight bass response when blasting out the latest youth music that will likely be played in these cars.
We can't lie and say that the Echo was hard to give back at the end of our test period. Its freakish appearance and floppy handling were disheartening, while its irrational gauge layout was downright annoying. Value is another area where the Echo loses out to the competition. The base car is only $10,000 but it doesn't even include power steering or a clock. Equip it with features like ABS, air conditioning and a CD player and the price is suddenly approaching $12,000. For just over $13,000 you can have a Focus ZX3 with air conditioning, ABS, CD player, 15-inch alloy wheels and far superior performance.
The one editor on staff who fit the Echo's target audience (female, 26, and very hip) absolutely hated the car and the idea that Toyota was targeting it at her. "I was ashamed to be seen in it," was the nicest thing she had to say. If the rest of her peers feel the same way, Toyota's Echo could represent the acoustics in all of those empty dealer showrooms.