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Car reviews - Toyota - Echo - sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Interior space, economy
Room for improvement
Looks, price

28 Jun 2001

AS a hatchback, Toyota's Echo is definitely a style statement.

As a sedan, the statement is rather different. The short and tall look does not fit so well with a three-box sedan body. The boot looks too high, too narrow, and the profile more cartoon-like than Toyota surely intended.

Where the hatchback is cheeky and engaging to look at, the sedan merely looks like a mismatch between the avant garde and the conservative.

That is unfortunate because whatever you might think about the sedan Echo's looks, underneath it all lies a very cleverly packaged, very effective light car, a move along new trails first blazed by Mercedes-Benz with its new A-class.

And styling is a subjective matter anyway.

The sedan Echo sits slightly above its five-door hatchback sibling as the most expensive of the new lightweight Toyotas, but is equipped identically.

And here, the mini Toyota is pretty sparse. Only a standard driver's airbag finds its way into the Echo. Air-conditioning, electric windows, passenger airbag - and even anti-lock brakes - are available, but at a price.

The bottom line is that potential buyers might just as well forget about considering Echo in the same breath as other light cars. In fact, it is possible here to reach deeply into small car price territory without trying too hard.

Of course the new Toyota is a lot more than just another competitor.

The company has invested heavily in this new-age light car and its depth of design is much deeper than would normally be expected in the class.

Apart from offering the space benefits of the wide, upright body, the car is also said to rate highly on safety and aims to provide a satisfying on-road experience. This means that in addition to being thrifty, it is also intended to be seen as swift and responsive, comfortable of ride and deft at handling.

The sedan's 1.5-litre engine, like the 1.3 used in hatchback Echos, incorporates variable valve timing - a first for this market sector and more commonly seen at the higher end of the market.

The system is similar to that first popularised by Alfa Romeo during the mid 1980s in its 75 and works by altering the inlet valve timing to help extract maximum efficiency, whether slugging along at low speed or running at maximum rpm. Toyota says the variable valve timing (VVT) helps the engines produce more power than average for their capacity.

The engine is state of the art in other ways too. It is all aluminium and runs twin overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder with, naturally, electronic multi-point fuel-injection - just like Nissan's Micra from the early 90s.

The 1.5-litre engine's 80kW is very respectable indeed, as is the 142Nm torque figure, although it does come in at a very high 4200rpm.

Compared with the 1.3-litre, the sedan's bigger engine provides a noticeable boost in available power, even if the basic characteristics are the same. The 1.5-litre Echo quite likes a rev and will not produce its absolute best if left much under 4000rpm when darting around in traffic - although what feels like a flat torque curve means there is reasonable verve under that.

Like the hatchback, an unfortunately clunky, sticky manual gearshift action is of little assistance. The Echo slips quickly enough between the gears - although downshifts from fifth to fourth were difficult in the test car - but the sound and feel is anything but pleasant.

Again like the hatchbacks, the Echo sedan at first feels a little unsettling in the corners, due to a high centre of gravity and an inclination to lean noticeably when pushed. Once accustomed to this, the driver will find the Echo quite competent and secure, if not sporting in character.

Overall, the Echo's dynamics are slightly disappointing when seen in the context of its avant garde design.

The suspension (by MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam setup at the rear - same as Starlet) is nothing special, offering good ride quality but allowing a fair bit of tyre noise into the cabin. The steering, with standard power-assistance on sedans, is far too light to be communicative.

Official fuel consumption figures show a city figure of 6.3L/100km and a highway figure of 4.6L/100km - virtually the same as the 1.3-litre and close to the most frugal on the market.

To driver and passengers the Echo sedan, like the hatchback, feels more substantial than it actually is - as with the Mercedes A-class, the high stance and deep dashboard give an illusion of bulk as well as offering unexpectedly good legroom front and rear.

Locating the instruments at dash centre is little else but a gimmick although despite early reservations drivers quickly adjust to looking slightly left to gather information.

The digital instrument display is intriguing but basically pointless, less easy to read than a regular analogue display, particularly the tachometer which is lost in the array of diminutive flashing pixels. On the credit side, there is plenty of space for storage, in two deep cubbies either side of the steering wheel, in three separate gloveboxes on the left side of the dash (two if a passenger's airbag is fitted) and door pockets.

The boot is generous enough with a decent (but very light) lid allowing storage of reasonably bulky objects and the handy 60-40 split/fold facility makes best use of what is available. However the sedan does lack the versatile slide-forward rear seat seen in the five-door hatch.

Parked next to other cars, the Echo sedan surprises with its height. It stands taller than just about anything else apart from a 4WD or an A-class.

But while this might work for the hatchback, it does not sit so happily in sedan format.

Those who have flocked into Toyota showrooms eager to get their hands on this cheeky newcomer will surely pay little attention to the dumpy sedan version sitting alongside.

Looking more closely, the idea of a faster 1.5-litre engine would undoubtedly appeal but such issues are not likely to be as significant a motivating force as the sheer attraction of being one of the more visually outstanding light cars on the market.

And, as with the hatchbacks, the Echo sedan is no cheap light car.

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