Car reviews - Toyota - Echo - Sportivo 5-dr hatch
Engine performance, road manners, seating versatility
Room for improvement
Expensive price, no auto option, rear drum brakes
10 Aug 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
TOYOTA already had a hot budget hatch in its Australian stable before Echo Sportivo came along: the Daihatsu Sirion GTvi - a car that's tiny and tinny, but cheap, quick, involving, joyous at times to drive and loaded with character and equipment.
It also has a derivative of the Echo's engine under the bonnet, a lively and perky 1.3-litre four-cylinder that can propel the lightweight mass and its operator to 100km/h in less than 10 seconds - about the same length of time it'll take the big hand to point northward on the 1.5-litre Sportivo.
And the dinky Daihatsu is considerably cheaper to buy.
So why bother with the sports-oriented Echo at all?
Toyota claims Echo is in a different league to Sirion. And in a sense, that's true. In terms of style, quality, seating versatility, interior design, safety innovations and, importantly, road manners, the Echo is something of a revelation. Always has been.
But it has also been downright expensive right from the word go.
Priced at launch from $19,990 for the three-door and $21,990 for the five-door, Echo Sportivo - without air-conditioning, anti-lock brakes, a front passenger airbag/seatbelt pretensioner or any such incentive as drive-away pricing or a long warranty - was stretching its compact-car customers further than ever before.
You do the sums. For more than $4000 over the stock-standard Echo, the Sportivo has the significant addition of the 1.5-litre engine previously reserved for the sedan as well as the "power pack" - quietly dropped from the base Echo hatches and now only available on the sedan - containing a single-disc CD player, remote central locking, power mirrors and front windows, a nicer, darker, level of cloth trim and manual driver's seat cushion height adjustment.
Plus a neat collection of sports-filled details. There are bolstered front seats, a leather-clad gearknob and steering wheel, mock carbon-fibre inserts around front-door switchgear and metallic paint on the wonderfully big heating/ventilation dials and interior doorhandles.
There's also a sticker on the front door sills presumably designed to look like a genuine chrome scuff plate.
No chance of white-faced dials, alas. The centre-mounted instrument pod continues with the 3D digital display, which is excellent for its speedo visibility but requires a complex brain task when the bar-graph tacho is read in conjunction. The driver soon learns to listen to the engine rather than decipher the tangle of graphics.
On the outside, the tall, stubby Echo body gains combative front and rear bumpers, mesh grille, front foglights, black headlamp surrounds, side skirts, a chrome tailpipe extension and alloy wheels.
Stop and think about the makeover for a minute and it all feels as though a lot of fuss has been made around the insertion of the 1.5-litre engine, which delivers 80kW at 6000rpm and 145Nm at 4200rpm.
Like the 1.3-litre engine, it is a high-tech, all-alloy 16-valve DOHC unit with variable valve timing to maximise the power and torque spread. And as per the 1.3, it has excellent characteristics - it's smooth, strong, refined and, significantly, frugal on fuel.
It's noticeably faster than the 1.3 though, responding quickly to driver demands and showing a great deal more tractability when engine revs are at mid-range. There's a slight tendency to tug at the steering wheel under hard acceleration, but there's also no need for the driver to wring the engine's neck or drop to a low gear to get a desired result.
Really, there is little else to savour in the Sportivo that can't already be had in the base model.
The driver still sits high and parking difficulties will still be encountered with the lack of front-end visibility, though the bolstered front seats curtail any feeling that the tall body is prone to lean it's not, and indeed there's precious little body movement during directional changes.
Front-end grip typically degenerates when pushed into corners, however, the understeer is progressive and insubstantial compared to many of its rivals (did someone mention Sirion?).
The standard power steering lacks feedback but is direct and does a good job of suppressing kickback through the tiller when ripples are encountered during mid-corner.
Moreover, Echo is accomplished in terms of ride quality, refinement and braking performance, although across a mountain pass the extra acceleration soon reveals that the rear drum brakes aren't always up to the task when asked to work hard.
Other aspects that fail to impress, and which serve to give the car a low-budget feel, include the featherweight, tinny doors, the mountain of hard interior plastic and some loose-fitting pieces of trim on our test car - one such item, the driver's doorhandle, was noticed time and again.
The bottom line is that Echo is a well-rounded, well-thought-out commuter. Some might find its appearance controversial - made even more garish with the Sportivo bodykit - but the packaging is nothing short of brilliant.
The hatch variants have a huge array of storage spots, a refreshing interior design, user-friendly controls, excellent headroom throughout and an excellent 60/40 split-fold rear bench seat that can slide 150mm fore/aft and tumble forward to maximise either cargo space or rear seat legroom.
Independent crash tests have also shown the Echo performs as well as the best compact hatches from Europe. Head restraints are fitted for all seating positions, however, the centre-rear position makes do with an inferior lap (as opposed to lap-sash) belt.
Sportivo is a good reminder of just how clever and competent the Echo is. But at the top of the range, the five-door now finds itself amid nameplates like the Holden Astra and Peugeot 206.
The less impressive but equally image-focussed Sirion GTvi was being offered for $5000 less than the Sportivo five-door at the time of writing - with the added incentive of drive away, no more to pay.
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