Goodbye Beetle: Toyota Echo (2000)
Love was lost in the motoring industry. Every year car companies launched cars that all looked and acted the same way. No particular vehicle was stealing glances or gasps anymore (except, when you’re driving in a Ssyang Yong Musso). However, when the Volkswagen New Beetle arrived in showrooms, our mojos (kudos to Austin Powers) all went, “yeah, baby, yeah!”
Problem is, that’s about as far as any normal person could get with the New Beetle. Indeed, it’s a cute little vehicle that pays homage to a car (and culture) of the psychedelic 60s, but for a steep admission price of PHP 1,200,000, people started to rethink their options (hmm…maybe an Accord would do me good). Come to think of it, underneath a shell (and interior) that’s inspired by a car that’s over 30 years old, the New Beetle offers nothing new in terms of automotive design. In fact, its running gear is the same as the more traditional Volkswagen Golf for Pete’s sake! This car shares nothing in common with the old one, especially when it came to affordability. This is not anymore what the Love Bug once was, it has now become a plaything for the rich.
Automotive enthusiasts are now back to square one: is there no car to take over the Beetle’s throne? Can't manufacturers build a small, simple, economical city runabout that’s as fun to drive, as it’s cheap to own? Well, the answer came in an unexpected way from a company whose local offerings were as desirable as a date with Dolphy: Toyota. Yes, the once and future king of the boring sedans has taken a 180-degree turn this year by introducing three perky new vehicles that breathed life into their line-up. Of this three, the one that’s destined to be the Beetle’s true successor is the Toyota Echo. The title first came with hesitation, but was securely planted by driving the punt around town. Clearly, this is the new Beetle of the new millennium.
From a distance, the little Toyota offers nothing new : it echoes (pardon the pun) the overall shape of any other hatchback particularly the Mercedes A-class. In fact, even when viewed from a few meters away, it’s strikingly similar to the baby Merc except for the more upright C-pillar and the bubble-shaped rear glass. However, when things get close and personal, then this Toyota really shines. In fact, the car could be likened to Anna Kournikova, who looks like any other tennis player from the far court, but pan the camera closer, then you’d see that’s she has assets that Venus Williams could only dream about (no, it’s not the tennis racket endorsement). It's the same story on the Echo: it’s the small bits that count.
One paper, the car is a packaging wonder. With a length 320 mm shorter than the Kia Pride, the Echo has a wheelbase only 45 mm shorter than the Mitsubishi Lancer GSR (in plain English, it means it’s cake to park, but roomier on the inside). Unlike the Merc, the Echo doesn’t employ any spectacular engine packaging to reduce its overall length. Instead, the ever-vigilant Japanese relied upon traditional techniques to reduce size: shorter overhangs, virtually no trunk space, and a steeper hoodline. Above all, the main source of space is the height: Look at the photo on the right, and you'd think that the Echo has tiny wheels. Those are actually 14-inchers--that gives you an idea of how tall this car is.
Overall, the car has a Kournikova-ish (that means pretty for our non-tennis fans) exterior with cute details such as a happy puppy look given by the bug-eyed headlamps and upper sloping grille and the central roof-mounted antenna, but it does have its weak moments. It’s particularly obvious when looked directly from the rear or three-fourths from the front. When looked from behind, the car looks too Spartan, with just ‘chicane’ look rear lamps for effect. As for the three-fourths view, the Echo looks too disproportioned because the tall roofline overshadows the shape of the car, causing the car to look too unstable. The signal lights located at the side isn’t a great finishing touch too. It looks too aftermarket with the lack in the design integration. Nonetheless, it’s still oddly pretty.
The Echo’s inner pieces looks more suited for Bubbles from the Powerpuff Girls than for your average Filipino. It's cute, cheerful, funky, but most importantly, useful. With no doubt, the first thing that’ll grab your attention inside is the center instrumentation pod. This new Toyota design is already being implemented in other Toyota vehicles, such as the 2001 Previa. Toyota reckons that drivers tend to look at the center rather than above the steering wheel (maybe it has something to do with the stereo controls being located there too). With this new design, Toyota has hit two birds with one stone: it gives the Echo a much-needed radical look and second, it gives the driver an unobstructed look at the road ahead.
According to Toyota, they’ve designed the Echo based on what the younger generation of car buyers’ wants. There are no sharp edges inside the interior of this baby Toyota. In fact, everything from the aircon vents to the hazard switches to the air re-circulate / fresh slide switch, it’s all smoothened out, giving the car a toy-ish look that’s even unmatched by the Volkswagen Beetle. The word of the day in the Echo’s interior is cubby holders: there are a ton of them. Count this: two open holders near the center dash; three (!) glove compartments and three cup holders. It's easy to lose stuff inside this car (in fact, editor Jason Ang forgot to get his cellular phone from the test unit because he misplaced it somewhere). The only negative thing about the dash is the rather hard plastic that Toyota used for the Echo. Sometimes it could be just annoying having to touch these types of controls, that you’d wish for Corolla quality materials. Toyota should also have lined the cubbyholes with felt or soft rubber to prevent objects within from rattling.
With the help of the curvy dash push all the way upfront, plus a tall roofline; the Echo has front passenger space that puts even the Camry to shame. It’s very easy to stretch legs without banging knees with the person on the passenger side…it’s that roomy! The door design has also been changed by putting the window switches at a lower position, giving the driver a much natural reach for the controls, plus it widens the leg and shoulder space of the car. The story is almost carried out to the people at the rear, with albeit a different ending. The space is huge for four people, even outgunning the Corolla for space, but when pushed to five people, it’s the shoulder space that hurts. What's more, the flat-bench that Toyota placed doesn’t help in overall comfort, but it does have separate headrests plus the fact that’s it completely foldable to increase the miniscule trunk space.
Given the go signal to test the car, we started her up, and with no surprise, the engine sound is still generic Toyota, although with a new hint of cheerfulness. The Echo is no Ferrari (or Civic SiR for that matter), but it’s powered by Toyota’s revolutionary VVTi engine. Much like rival Honda’s VTEC engine, it boosts available horsepower, but unlike Honda’s powerplant, the VVTi doesn’t carry a dual cam profile. What it does it that it has an additional gear that constantly changes the timing of the valves to boost up horsepower and torque. This means that there’s no kick-in feel, unlike the VTEC systems; it’s smoother and generally less noticeable than its Honda counterpart. Aside from improving power, the VVTi increases fuel economy as well, and in the course of interviews, the Echo has a claimed average of 14 kilometers / liter (4-speed automatic) compared with the Honda City Type Z’s 10 kilometers / liter (5-speed manual).
n the real world, however, all of these techno-gizmos are moot, as what counts is the true acceleration and cruising capabilities of the Echo. Before taking the car out for a spin on the open road, a devilish smile appeared on our faces and we made the car climb the service ramp first. Even when filled with four, full-grown adults, the 900-kilogram car equipped with a 4-sped automatic showed minimal fuss in going up. In fact, its pace is quite similar to the 1.6-liter Nissan Sentra.
Once satisfied with the climbing ability, the Echo was made to go through a slalom course. With no professional race track or cones to use, a substitute was made in the form of the service parking lot for the race track and the other cars for the cones (of course, this would be very expensive if we were to hit another car doing so), thankfully the Echo did go through with minimal fuss. In fact, it required nearly no correction as the car slipped past any obstacle whatsoever. The small body helped in the agility, but that really makes the car stand on its own is the ultra-responsive steering. The car would instantly respond even to the slightest of flicks, making it responsive and easy to drive. What's more the Echo was very easy to park, requiring almost no second maneuvering, again thanks to the small body and responsive steering. If the world were the Toyota parking lot, the Echo would pass with A+ in all categories, but how the car fare in the real world?
Bringing out the car, there was a stretch of highway with busy traffic. For any other car, particularly those with small engines, merging with this high-speed traffic would be quite a chore…but not with the Echo. By slamming the throttle, the Echo surged away as if it had a displacement 300 cc higher. The acceleration characteristics of the Echo are quite similar to the Mitsubishi Lancer, albeit a bit smoother thanks to the ultra-smooth Toyota automatic. There was no difficultly slipping through traffic; in fact it was easy overtaking Toyota Revos and Mazda 323s.At the same time, it’s easy to receive gawking glances from passer-bys clearly because of the car’s radical design.
Toyota thought of other amazing touches that make the car a joy in the interior as well. For instance, the instrumentation pod doesn’t show any indicators for engine temperature (in fact, it only has a huge speedometer and fuel gauge). On the other hand, it has an engine light that changes color to indicate engine temperature. For instance, at cold start-up, the indicator is blue, then it changes to yellow before shutting off, not requiring the driver to do anything unless in the case of a overheating, where the light comes back on as bright red. As for the creature comforts, the air-con is one blizzard machine, putting out cold winds that even masks Manila’s noon heat.4-speaker, Kenwood radio system has clear reception and the CD player sounds good too, although a CD changer could be more appropriate.
All is not perfect though. For example, Toyota took out the split rear seatback and sliding features of the rear seat, which would have made the Echo much more versatile. The rear luggage space is deep but quite short, and a split seatback would have made it possible to carry three persons and more luggage, or two persons tandem-style and very long objects on the other side.
These quibbles aside, it was easy to see that the Echo is what the New Beetle should have been: smart, cheap, cute, useable, gawking stares and fun to own. Toyota takes the ideas of basic transportation and raises it to a new level. Basic transportation doesn’t have to be bull or used Korean, but it could be cheerful and great. This concept won the car rave reviews in both Europe and Japan, capturing the Car of the Year honors in both those regions.
Back to the drive, the Echo has great power and speed with its primary and second gears, but the car shows its limitations when the third gear starts to engage. At this point, the car begins to slouch in terms of speed, rarely having enough to go beyond 120-km/h, whereas Honda Civics and Ford Lynx would consider the 120-km/h mark as way below its limits. However, bear in mind that the Toyota Echo is a city car; it’s no BMW M5 fighter. Thus, the engine limitations will not be hampering in terms of performance in Manila or even in weekend trips to Tagaytay or Subic.
Ride isn’t spectacular as well. Due to the car’s extremely short overhangs, Toyota placed the rear bench on top of the rear axle, making the ride a bit jittery and rough for the rear passengers. However, for the people at front, the ride is generally supple, if a bit soft and is evidenced by hard cornering. The interior is quiet hampered only by road noise, which could be easily eliminated because our test unit still hasn’t gone through rust proofing, that acts like a sort-of secondary sound insulator.
The Echo has successfully smashed any small car myth. No more did we think that small vehicles are impractical, stupid or too pathetic for Philippine roads. Through the course of this test drive, the Echo brought upon a new face in the small market: that it could actually be great to drive and fun as an ownership proposition. At the same time, we thought about what Volkswagen could have been. Come to think about it, VW was the first to introduce a small hatch in the market through the Lupo. However, pricing the 1.4-liter to match with the much bigger Opel Astra wagon was a big mistake. On the other hand, Toyota made the smart move by pitting the Toyota Echo squarely against the Honda City Type Z, and with almost the same features (though the Echo does have a CD player), the winner would clearly have to win on the basic of driving excitement and overall design, and this time, the Toyota Echo wins hands down. In fact, if there were such a thing as the Philippine Car of the Year, then the Toyota Echo would be our bet.
By Ulysses Ang | Photos By Ulysses Ang and Jason Ang
Originally Published in the August 2000 Issue