1 Oct 1999
Toyota’s replacement for the competent but dull Starlet couldn’t have been bolder. Or better at the time.
The Echo (Yaris in Europe, Vitz in Japan) was designed to conquer Europe and its legion of light car “superminis” headed by the VW Polo, Renault Clio, Ford Fiesta, Opel Corsa/Holden Barina and Peugeot 206.
To that end Toyota Europe engineered a strong and versatile three and five-door hatchback, while Japan devised the shockingly dowdy and tippy-toed four-door Echo Sedan that was meant to appeal to American and Asian markets. It bombed in both.
Made in Japan rather than in France, Aussie-bound Echo hatchbacks were powered by an eager 63kW/122Nm 1.3-litre DOHC 16V Variable Valve Timing (VVT) four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox.
It quickly shot to the top of its class, aided by a spacious and versatile interior, agreeable dynamics, a comfy ride and space-age (albeit divisive) digital instrumentation.
But base models hatchbacks were spartan, with only a driver’s airbag and cassette player included.
The much-needed power steering wasn’t made standard until October ’02, while safety gear like a passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes were only available via a costly Safety Pack.
From March ’01 the Echo Sedan’s 80kW/142Nm 1.5-litre DOHC 16V VVT engine was slightly reworked, along with the suspension, steering, cabin trim and wheels, for the manual-only Echo Sportivo hatchback.
Despite these additions though it wasn’t a very convincing baby hot-hatch.