You have to hand it to Toyota, when it sets out to do something it usually does it well. In the case of the Echo, though, it’s probably a case of doing it too well. The Koreans changed the hatch market when they brought in the concept of the cheap and cheerful chariot with low driveaway pricing that made it tough for the big established carmakers to compete.
Toyota, the car maker that has to be involved in every market segment going, had a crack with a couple of models, but barely landed a punch on the segment stars from Seoul. The problem was that the Toyotas were always priced at a premium, the company believing that discerning buyers would pay more for a well-engineered car that boasted an array of technology the Koreans couldn’t match.
But the small hatch market wasn’t tuned to sophistication, buyers were happy with the Korean ‘drive away, no more to pay’ concept, which made it tough for Toyota. Price was the key ingredient to success and carmakers like Toyota had problems matching the Korean stickers.
So it was with the Echo, a well engineered little hatch or sedan that delivered a level of technology, build quality and standard features that set it apart from the main players in the segment. Unfortunately it also came at a price that set it apart.
The Echo was a breath of fresh air after the stodgy Starlet, Toyota’s previous entry in the small hatch segment. Unlike its predecessor the Echo was smartly styled, undoubtedly aimed at the young and cool, who bypassed the Starlet in droves.
It came as a three-door hatch in base form, but was also offered as a more practical five-door, and the oldies were looked after with a booted sedan. While the hatches, the three-door in particular were attractive, the booted sedan looked like a styling afterthought, it wasn’t in the least appealing with its boot looking like it had been stuck on at the last minute when it was too late to do anything better.
The swoopy design of the exterior was carried through to the interior, which was well laid-out with a central dash pod and had plenty of useful storage bins and boxes for all of life’s daily necessities for the young on the run.
For power the Echo hatches had a double overhead cam 16-valve 1.3-litre four which boasted Toyota’s VVTi variable valve timing system to ensure it had enough zip to keep it competitive. The fuel-injected powerplant had class leading power with peak power of 63 kW and top torque of 122 Nm.
The sedan relied on a larger, more powerful motor. At 1.5 litres it also had double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and fuel-injection, which all went together to produce 80 kW and 142 Nm.
Transmission choices were a five-speed manual, which had a nice shift in the usual Toyota manner or a four-speed auto.
Steering was non-assisted rack and pinion on the hatches at the launch in 1999, but power steering became standard in 2002. It was standard from the outset on the sedan.
Standard features on the three-door included a driver’s airbag, adjustable column, cloth trim, engine immobiliser, and radio cassette sound with a couple of speakers. Add to that a CD player and a couple more speakers and you have the standard features of the five-door.
The sedan also boasted a remote control boot release, and a CD player from 2002 when it also got remote central locking.
ON THE LOT
The trade has a nickname for the Echo, which for reasons of good taste won’t be repeated here, but suffice to say it isn’t kind. It is in fact a reflection that they are hard to sell on the used car market. Few wholesalers will handle them, and dealers aren’t keen to have them in their yards because they move so slowly. If you really want one, and why not, look for an independent dealer with one sitting in his yard, and haggle hard as you might just negotiate yourself a bargain.
1999 Echoes will have around 50,000 km on the clock, and you’ll pay up to $13,000 for a three-door hatch, $1000 more for a five-door hatch, $1200 for a four-door sedan. Add a further $2500 for ’02 models.
IN THE SHOP
Echoes are still showing low mileage and won’t have reached the point they need a major service involving a belt change and the like, but it’s worth checking for a service record for peace of mind.
Toyota engines are generally bulletproof as long as they are serviced so don’t expect any problems under the bonnet. Same goes for the transmissions and driveline.
Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any major problems with the suspension, steering or brakes. Even after clocking up 75,000 km in short time our reader from the NSW south coast hasn’t had to replace brakes.
Trim and body work stands up well in typical Toyota style so don’t expect bits and pieces to fail off, distort or break. Seating trim is generally hard wearing, will show signs of wear on sides of driver’s seat, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.
Generally look for dings and dents along the body sides, and corners of the bumpers, which might indicate a careless or uncaring owner. Look of course for colour mismatches, distorted panel seams and poor fitting doors, bonnets and boots that might indicate crash repairs.
Michael Pitt’s wife thought the Echo looked “nice”, she also liked the colour, which he admits is no way to buy a car, but despite the unusual purchase process he says he’s happy with it. He says it’s comfortable and economical, he reports 5.7 L/100 km, but is critical of the road noise, its susceptibility to side winds and says its ventilation is poor.
Casey Padey has racked up 75,000 km in just two years at the wheel of her Echo, mostly travelling to and from Sydney from her south coast NSW home of Mogo. She loves its looks, says it’s cute, and has had no problems with it.
• Cute styling makes it a stand out in the generally boring hatch market.
• VVTi four-cylinder engine gives it the performance to match hatches with bigger engines
• Renowned Toyota reliability means relatively trouble free run in the long term
• Practical interior with comfortable seating and lots of useful storage
• Little side protection against parking lot scrapes
• Capable little hatch around town or on the open road
• Daewoo Matiz – 1999-2002 – $8600-$11,100
• Daihatsu Sirion – 1998-2002 – $9000-$15,500
• Mitsubishi Mirage – 1996-2001 – $10,000-$13,800