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Great car, great price

Nifty Echo by Toyota is truly love at first drive

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I was intrigued with the new 2000 Toyota Echo when I saw it on the floor at the Utah auto show last month, but after a week behind the wheel of this innovative new ride, I'm not just intrigued anymore, I'm enthralled.

For reasons that are obvious, the carmakers usually prefer to put their best and brightest into the hands of media types like me, which means I tend to get top-line cars, loaded with options, and with prices to match.

Last week's Mercedes-Benz S500 was the ultimate example of a car nearly as complex as the Space Shuttle and only slightly less expensive.

Not this time. The "black sand pearl" (basic black) Echo coupe I've been driving this week is simplicity itself. I can't remember the last time I had a car with manual window cranks and outside mirror adjusters. There were no power seats, no tachometer, no cruise control, no "theatre lighting," no automatic climate control . . . it didn't even have a cassette or CD player for Pete's sake, just an AM/FM radio.

But guess what? I didn't miss any of those things. I didn't dislocate my shoulder cranking the window, nor did I miss not having a CD player. I only listen to NPR anyway unless Robert, Noah and Linda are doing their third story in a row on the Middle East "peace process." Then I check in at Oldies 94.1 or 97.9 The Breeze.

My daughter, Lindsay, doesn't share my tastes in radio stations, of course, and like most teens, she views a car as an audio support system. Not to worry. The Echo — named for the progeny of baby boomers (the echo generation, get it?) — is aimed squarely at first-time car buyers, and there are several audio upgrades available.

Beauty is subjective, of course, and some may find the Echo odd looking. Personally, I love it. I can see this car developing the same kind of cult status as the old Volkswagen beetle, which it somewhat resembles with its high roofline.

That roofline is the secret of the Echo's success. It means you enter and egress with ease, sit up high as in a small sport utility vehicle, have a great view of the road and, most importantly, feel as though you're in a much larger car. I've driven Buicks that feel less roomy than the Echo.

Ditto for the back seat, an area normally fit only for Munchkins in most small cars, but the Echo can accommodate two adults or even three in a pinch back there because they made the seat flat (no derriere indentations.) Even the trunk is bigger than it has any right to be in a sub-compact car, and you can drop the rear seat back to add even more cargo space.

In the same vein, kudos to Toyota for all the little storage bins and cubby holes they scattered around the car along with the double-decker glove compartment.

Nice touch department: A little blue light on the dash winks off when the car has warmed up enough to run the heater— a first in my experience.

But the marvelous space and ergonomics of the Echo wouldn't mean much if it were a slug to drive. It's not. Its 1.5-liter, 105-horsepower, twin-cam four-cylinder engine is plenty peppy for this lightweight (just over 2000 lbs) little sedan. Moreover, Echo handles beautifully, will make a 360-degree turn virtually within its own length and fit in parking spaces that are off limits to many.

OK, I'll stop beating around the bush. The fact is, I fell in love with the Toyota Echo and I hated to let it go. Never mind the echo generation, this is a great car for anyone, whatever their generational niche.

Here's why: How many great cars do you know with a base price of $10,795. You could buy eight Echos for the price of one Mercedes S500 and have enough left over for a trip to Disneyland.

True, few people will actually buy one at that price because in this market niche almost everything is optional. My tester had a $1,020 upgrade package (clock, split back seat, power steering, etc.) that is normally standard on plus-$20,000 cars, and air conditioning was $925. Along with a couple of other items and a $455 delivery charge, the bottom line came to $13,634, still a heck of a bargain to my mind.

But don't get the idea that the base Echo is a stripper. Automatic transmission with overdrive was standard (you can also get a five-speed manual) as was the four-speaker radio, tilt steering wheel, vanity mirrors, reclining front seats, trunk light, dual outside mirrors, dual air bags, variable speed wipers, remote trunk and fuel lid openers . . . a whole raft of stuff.

Toyota isn't afraid to venture off the road most traveled. The instrument panel, such as it is (speedometer, fuel gauge and six warning lights) isn't behind the steering wheel where it usually resides. It sits in a pod at the center of the dash, angled toward the driver. This takes a bit of getting used to (maybe a day or two) — especially at night when there are no lighted gauges behind the steering wheel where you expect them to be.

I presume this setup is so the folks on Toyota's assembly line can switch from right to left hand drive cars with minimal fuss (they drive on the "wrong" side of the road in Japan, remember?) Simply angle the instrument pod to the right or left.

Here's what seals the deal in my book: Fuel mileage (regular unleaded) of 34 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway (manual transmission) and 31/38 for the auto transmission version. With its 11.9 gallon tank, that gives the car a highway range of 487 miles for the manual version and 452 for the automatic, although that would mean draining the tank dry, which isn't a good idea.

Long time readers of this column know that I usually favor manual shifters, particularly in small cars where an auto tranny drains precious power from the small engine. I still feel that way but not as strongly with the Echo as I have in the past.

My tester had the automatic, and it works so slick that I found myself thinking I would choose it over the manual, what with the hassle of self-shifting in the heavy traffic that now seems to clog all the roads in Salt Lake County. Heresy, I know, but there you are.

One caveat: If I were to buy an Echo, I'd opt for the four-door version over the coupe because it makes the car more accessible to passengers and for tossing your stuff in the back seat. The coupe allows rear access only from the passenger side where the front seat slides forward and the seat back drops and then returns to its original position. No such luck from the driver's side.

E-mail max@desnews.com or fax 801-236-7605. Max Knudson's car column runs each Friday.