As a hatchback, the Echo looks right. As a sedan, it looks squished, almost as if it was a not entirely successful attempt to hack off the hatch and graft on a trunk.
As a hatchback, it's hip: as a sedan, it's somebody's parents' car.
Toyota will launch the Echo Hatchback at the end of July. At a time when little gets sold in Canada without being sold in the U.S., be it a car, pop culture, furniture or appliances, that the Echo Hatchback is an "only-in-Canada" model not only speaks volumes about Toyota Canada's knowledge of the Canadian car business, it's downright cool.
For once, the American economic juggernaut takes a back seat to Canadian practicality.
The Echo Hatch also blows away the sedan in hipness in the way it is almost infinitely customizable. A wide variety of customization options are available and don't force customers to buy them in groups. Want a base-level three-door CE with five-speed manual AND the 15-inch alloy wheels? No problem. Want a CD player but don't want air? Not a problem.
Want anti-lock brakes? Don't worry: ABS is standard equipment on all hatchback models, even the sub-$13,000 three-door CE.
The Echo Hatch is sold in four variations: CE and LE 3-door models, and LE and RS 5-door models. CE three-doors ($12,995) are the most basic. If you step up to the LE, you get power steering, four-speaker audio system and rear window wiper/washer.
The five-door LE is better equipped: it has the four speakers, rear wiper and power steering. The RS package adds aluminum alloy wheels, front sport seats, coloured rear spoiler, coloured side skirts, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and RS scuff plates.
Air conditioning is optional on all models, and even here, A/C is packaged in a way that you don't need to get cruise control or keyless entry to get air. For $1,290 on CE three-doors and $1,250 on both LE models and the RS, air is available with minimal additional options (rear bumper protector on LE and RS and rear bumper protector and front and rear splash guards on CE).
Keyless entry is available on five-door models and cruise control is available on all models but both require buying air conditioning. Some automotive marketing habits die hard, I suppose.
Toyota originally planned this ride-and-drive for Japan, where a number of pre-production Canadian-spec Echoes would have been available for driving. But the SARS scare (Toyota Canada is based in Toronto) forced relocation to this island just off the Kingston, Ont. harbour after Japan instituted 10-day quarantines for those coming from SARS-affected regions.
So they had only four models, the first Echo Hatchbacks to arrive in Canada: a three-door CE and three five-door models, an LE and two RS. One of the RS models was fitted with two performance options, a Borla low-restriction exhaust and a cold-air intake system, which Toyota estimates combined provide a three- to six-horsepower improvement.
In a word, fun. All four models are perhaps the most fun-to-drive econoboxes going. The light weight means that the 105-horsepower I4 provides plenty of thrust and means that handling is quick, precise and without a lot of body roll.
With the manual transmission, the fun factor is even higher. Honda may be the undisputed leader in front-drive manual transmissions, but the Echo Hatch's is pretty close. It snicks through gears as smoothly and sweetly as any Hondas. There is no, zero, zilch wet spaghetti feel in the linkage as their is with other Asian models in this price class. As well, the pedal placement is well-suited to heel-and-toe shifting.
With the Borla exhaust and cold-air intake, the peppiness is perked up a bit. With a car this small, even a small gain in horsepower will make a noticeable difference.
The car handles so well, we were able to scoff at curves and their suggested 30 km-h speeds. It's small enough that it's front-drive nature isn't overwhelming. There's some torque steer on hard acceleration, particularly on split-mu surfaces (where one drive wheel has more traction than the other), but it was barely a concern.
We didn't have an accelerometer on hand, but a seat-of-the-pants (one steamboat, two steamboat) count suggests 0-100 times in the 10-second range and 80-120 km-h times at similar times.
The Echo Hatchback is powered by a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder gas engine with double overhead cam, variable valve timing, aluminum alloy block, direct coil-on-plug ignition and sequential multiport fuel injection. It's the most sophisticated engine in the segment and delivers 108 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm.
Fuel consumption is rated at 6.6 l/100 km city and 5.1 l/100 km highway with the manual and 7.1 city and 5.5 highway with the automatic. (In Imperial terms, that translates into 43 miles per gallon city and 55 mpg highway with the manual.) As well, it qualifies as a Low Emissions Vehicle.
The transmission choices are a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic with uphill shift logic to eliminate gear hunting while climbing.
An independent coil-on-strut suspension is at the front while the rear has a torsion beam suspension with shock absorber and coil springs. Front discs and rear drums provide braking with three-channel, four-wheel ABS standard on all hatches.
Two front air bags, front seat-belt pre-tensioners and force limiters provide the safety components. Pre-tensioners tighten the belt on impact while force limiters ease the seat belt out after impact to reduce impact between chest and seat belt.
The fun stuff
The tentative option list is extensive. Prices on options won't be released until just before launch, but so far, the list includes: a choice of four audio systems, subwoofer, dash accent kit, cargo net, cargo liner, 14-inch and 15-inch alloy wheels, side skirts, rear spoiler, exhaust tip, Borla exhaust, fog lights, roof rack, keyless remote, TRD suspension kit, TRD front suspension brace, cold-air intake, sport shift knob and sport pedals.
Toyota expects few Echo Hatchbacks to be alike.
RS models get a chrome dash accent kit that's not entirely successful. It has clearly a glue-on, aftermarket appearance to it. Unfortunately, you can't get an RS without it. Black spray paint would be in order for some folk. Better would have been a carbon-fibre type treatment. It would still look aftermarkety, but it would look better.
The sport shift knob and sport pedals are great looking, however.
The Echo Hatchback is only available with manual, roll-up windows. There is no interior hatch release but there is a central locking switch between the seats.
There are storage areas galore. Two massive bins on each side of the centre console swallow tons of stuff. As well, there's a two-level glove box and another shelf under the steering wheel. Door map pockets, cupholders and a rear-seat centre console round out storage.
The choice of audio systems is convenient. All models come with an AM/FM/Cassette. Or at least, a place on the dash where that will go. Also available are AM/FM/Cassette/CD, AM/FM/CD and AM/FM/CD/MP3 units. All are dealer installed, but the advantage is that the buyer need not pay to have the base system uninstalled to install an upgraded system. The AM/FM/CD unit is an extra $150 while the other systems are an extra $200. But if the buyer chooses the base system, the dealer simply installs it and away they go.
Also available is a 75-watt, 10-inch subwoofer that mounts in a separate enclosure in the cargo area. It is surprisingly effective: good for thumping if that's what you want, but also excellent at helping fill in bass for people who just want something to sound good.
This car is likely to restart the econo hatchback trend in Canada. It is hip, fresh and edgy and packed with value. That it's built by Toyota gives it instant creds in the reliability department. They expect to sell 7,000 this year and 24,000 next. I suspect their estimate may be a little low.
Here's the deal: this car is priced so well, in three-door CE trim at least, that it can't help but to steal sales from the used-car lots. With $500 down, lease payments are less than $200 per month and loan payments are just more than $250. It's hard to see how a used econobox could compete.
Toyota wants to win Canadian Car of the Year with the Echo hatch. In my mind, they already have.
2004 Echo Hatchback
Engine: 1.5-litre DOHC 4-cylinder.
Power: 108 hp @ 6,000 rpm.
Torque: 105 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm.
Transmission: five-speed manual, four-speed automatic (opt.).
Steering: rack-and-pinion, power-assist (opt.).
Brakes: front disc, rear drum with three-channel, four-wheel ABS.
Suspension: Coil over strut front, torsion beam with shock absorber and coil spring, rear.
Safety: dual front air bags, seat belt pre-tensioners and force limiters.
Length: 3,733 mm (147 in.).
Width: 1,660 mm (65.4 in.).
Height: 1,500 mm (59.1 in.).
Wheelbase: 2,370 mm (93.3 in.).
Weight: 3-door: 944 kg. (manual), 966 kg. (automatic). 5-door: 948 kg. (manual), 971 kg. (automatic).
Fuel economy: manual, 6.6 l/100km city, 5.1 l/100km highway; automatic 7.1 l/100km city, 5.5 highway.
Three-door CE $12,995, manual, $13,995 automatic. Three-door LE $13,965 manual, $14,965 automatic. Five-door LE $14,600 manual, $15,600 automatic, 5-door RS $16,300 manual, $17,300 automatic.
On three-door, LE adds power steering, four-speaker audio and rear window wiper/washer. On five-door, RS adds aluminum alloy wheels, front sport fabric sport seats, coloured rear spoiler, coloured side skirts, RS grille badge, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and RS scuff plates.
Three-door CE option packages include: 1. air conditioning, rear bumper protector, front splash guards and rear splash guards ($1,290), and 2. all of package one plus cruise control ($1,730). Three-door LE packages include air conditioning and rear bumper protector for $1,250 and air, bumper protector and cruise control for $1,690.
Five-door LE packages include: 1. air and rear bumper protector ($1,250), 2. package one plus keyless entry ($1,625), 3. package two plus cruise control ($2,060).
Five-door RS packages include: 1. air conditioning and rear bumper protector ($1,250), 2. all of one plus chrome tail pipe and keyless entry ($1,735) and 3. all of two plus cruise control ($2,170).
Prices for customization options have not been announced.