Echoes from the ‘70s
by Scott Corlett
Toyota’s unloved ECHO will be heard no more. For 2007, the cute-as-a-bug Yaris replaces the ECHO as Toyota’s entry-level subcompact offering. Toyota already successfully targets the tiny mover market with its Scion division vehicles, so the Yaris is a bit of a double-dip. Fortunately for Toyota, with gasoline prices set to stay high, fuel-efficient econo cars are enjoying popularity unseen in the US since the last oil crunch. Therein lies the real echo, the one that presently causes a lot of heartburn in Detroit boardrooms: it was during the fuel shortages of the 1970s that Japanese car companies happened to have small, low-cost, high-mileage vehicles ready to sell, while Detroit’s manufacturers were still churning out big, gas-guzzling boats, which, today, are called SUVs and minivans.
Just in time for Labor Day weekend, a Toyota Yaris test vehicle arrived at our home in San Francisco. Living in a city where parking is tighter Kathy Griffin’s face the day after a lift, a small runabout like the Yaris always brings a smile to our own unadulterated, if imperfect mug. The Yaris is available in two configurations: a 150-inch-long, three-door liftback, which was designed in Toyota’s European studio, and a slightly longer, four-door sedan, which was inked in Japan. We mention the difference in design shops because there is something about the hatchback’s metal that is more whimsical and animated—and therefore more loveable in our book—than that of the sedan, which hews more closely to the Toyota aesthetic mandate to be, first and foremost, unoffending.
We dumped our duffle bag into the rear cargo space, which is good for a load of groceries or a weekend’s worth of luggage, and closed the hatch. After climbing onto the driver’s seat, we pushed in the clutch, cranked the ignition, and slid the five-speed manual transmission into first. We set off, and, as we shifted into third, we checked our speed—after turning our head to the right, that is. The Yaris, like the old ECHO and the Scion cousins, has a center-dash instrument cluster. While this arrangement definitely takes some getting used, it does leave the driver a less-obstructed field of vision and room for a handy, over-steering-wheel storage bin. The rest of the Yaris’s interior finishes are more conventional, in a simple, well-put-together way.
As we drove along the hilly San Francisco streets, the Yaris’s solely offered, 106-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine provided adequate juice; and, if we kept the rpms north of 5000, the Yaris’s performance was downright econo-peppy. The payoff for this kind of performance is the Yaris’s fuel economy, which is an easy-on-the-pump 34 city/40 highway mpg according to Toyota’s engineers. Once we reached the open highway north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Yaris continued to handle well despite being buffeted by winds from passing semis and speeding cars. This fact surprised us, since, on the freeway, many vehicles in this class drive like fallen leaves in a November storm.
We exited and then cruised along a twisty road through alternating patches of fall sun and shadows from overhanging Eucalyptus trees. At a rock-bottom base price of $10,950, the Yaris—with its Toyota quality, good fuel economy, and fun drive and design—is a steal any way that you slice or dice it. That said, in a vehicle of this size, we wish that Toyota had made the full armament of airbags (front, front-side, and curtain) standard; instead, the basic kit offers just the front two bags and you’ll have to spring for the “optional” protection. We eased off the gas and downshifted as we approached an SUV that lumbered up the curvy route. We sighed, looked over at the Yaris’s gas gauge, whose needle had barely budged from the full mark, and shrugged. Doubtlessly, we thought, the SUV will soon pull off to refuel and our little Yaris will zip right on by.
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