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Toyota Echo 5-dr


Great car, pity about the price. It's a trite phrase, I accept, but unfortunately where Toyota's nifty Echo T-Sport is concerned, it's also true.

The warm hatchback which uses the 80kW 1500cc motor from the unlovely Echo sedan and gets neat sports-type styling touches inside and out and suspension tuning to sharpen handling, weighs in at $31,750 in five-door form.

And that, really, is its only problem.

People either love or loathe the Echo hatchback's chic and cheeky looks, but the balance tends more to a favourable reaction, especially when the car's in hatchback T-Sport form.

The deep chin spoiler and grille/intakes give the car a purposeful look that is enhanced by the little spoiler at the top of the hatch and the good-looking multi-spoked 14-inch alloy wheels.

The T-Sport is a smartly-styled, very contemporary car which oozes a somewhat sassy character, and it drew a favourable reaction from most people who looked at it.

But then came the cruncher: how much?

"Well, it's $31,750." The favourable reaction was replaced by a sense of dismay.

Toyota New Zealand doesn't expect to sell a lot of Echo T-Sports - it sees the car as a niche model - and at the price (the three-door we tested a few weeks ago is $30,500) that's probably understandable.

It also expects the car to sell to the fashion-conscious buyer who isn't concerned primarily with price but with having something out of the ordinary and up to the minute.

It also expects the T-Sport Echo to appeal to people who buy similar-sized sporty models marketed by European manufacturers.

That's the territory the Echo is in, price-wise. Toyota points to the fact the car's styling team was led by a Greek designer who hit the nail right on the head. The hatchback is selling well in Europe where it's known as the Yaris (in case you're wondering, he didn't design the gawky-looking sedan; that was a Japanese-styled exercise for the all-important US market where four-doors-and-a-boot rule the day).

Toyota sees Volkswagen's equally chic Polo GTi as a key rival. It has a 90kW/152Nm 1600cc motor which endows it with quicker acceleration than the T-Sport, and it has a sticker price of $33,490.

Whether the VW is better value than the Toyota we can't say: we haven't driven a Polo of any sort.

But there appears to be a public perception that European cars like the Polo - and particularly German cars - can command a higher price than similar products from Japanese manufacturers, and are not overpriced at $33,000.

And we suspect that's the nub of the incredulous response you get when you tell someone the T-Sport costs $25 less than $32,000.

It wears a Toyota badge, and in the public psyche that badge is not associated with high pricing. Sure the Volkswagen may have started as the people's car and is still the inexpensive line in the VW/Audi/Porsche stable, but the marque has taken on an upmarket cachet in New Zealand, boosted by the success of the highly-desirable Golf.

Toyotas, no matter how good they may be, don't have that sort of cachet and that's where the Echo T-Sport five-door's price becomes a problem.

But if you decide the price is reasonable - or if matters such as price don't concern you - and you just have to own an Echo T-Sport five-door, what do you get for your $31,750?

In a phrase, a highly-competent, nicely thought-out small car with room for four comfortably (though perhaps not their luggage), excellent road manners and adequate performance.

I stepped into the test Echo T-Sport immediately after returning a Subaru Impreza STi and initially felt the power steering was over-assisted.

It was just a matter of re-adjusting and after a few kilometres the steering felt fine. It's very light at city speeds, but weights-up nicely on the open road.

The five-speed manual gearbox has nicely-chosen ratios and shifts quickly with unbeatable synchromesh. The gearshift itself is a little switch-like and lacking in feel, but the short, fast throws make it perfect for long runs on second-third-second gear roads which require frequent shifting.

The motor revs freely and develops its maximum power of 80kW at 6000rpm. Peak torque of 142Nm is delivered at 4200rpm. So to get the ultimate you need to use revs.

In the city the Echo is a brisk, nimble performer with zip and zing for cut and thrust traffic and great manoeuvrability. Its compact length - 3615mm - makes it easy to park and navigate in tight spaces.

The high seating position gives a commanding view of the road, and visibility to the rear is good.

The sports-style front seats are comfortable and provide good support during vigorous cornering.

There's ample front and rear cabin legroom, and the high roof means there's plenty of headroom. Luggage space with the rear seat in use is quite small.

The dashboard uses digital instrumentation, housed in a centre-mounted binnacle. I don't buy Toyota's argument that the central location is more logical and takes the driver's eyes off the road for a shorter period than it takes to scan instruments placed directly behind the steering wheel.

That may be the case in theory and may be so when measured against timing equipment, but in practice I think the traditional positioning is preferable.

I like the digital speed read-out, though, and it looks perfectly in place in the slightly off-the-wall Echo.

Describe the silver and charcoal leather-wrapped steering wheel and it sounds hideous, but it actually looks very smart. And the wheel itself is a gem, with a perfect diameter and a nicely-proportioned rim - neither too thick nor too thin.

Standard equipment includes power exterior mirrors, a single disc Compact Disc sound system and a driver's airbag.

There was only one thing about the interior that we didn't like, and it's a feature that comes with the European influence.

Though the front windows are electrically operated, rear door windows are wound manually. It's a typical European touch, but one that I think is rather cheap and mean-spirited. A full electrically-wound system is available but adds $950 to the price.

Also un-Japanese were a couple of dashboard rattles, something you don't normally associate with Toyotas.

There's a moderate amount of tyre roar and wind noise but general refinement levels are reasonably good for a small car.

The tall stance suggests the car will roll around during hard cornering, but in fact body roll is well-contained.

The 175/65 tyres provided strong grip on wet or dry roads and a reassuringly-high level of roadholding.

The T-Sport turns-in to corners very crisply and changes direction instantly and precisely. The longish wheelbase (2370mm) and wheel-at-each-corner layout make for a high degree of stability and enhance cornering nimbleness.

We enjoyed the new-model Holden Barina we tested recently, rating its handling as excellent. Subjectively we think the five-door T-Sport is a touch ahead of the impressive Holden.

For instance, there's less tendency for the rear end to move around in tightish corners taken hard.

The T-Sport's level of handling and grip is high enough to make the car's handling virtually vice-free even in hard open-road use. Naturally there's a tendency towards understeer when the car is being pressed hard in tight corners, but in most running the T-Sport feels pleasingly neutral.

The disc front/drum rear brake system stops the 955kg car quickly and effectively and was completely fade-free during a hard open-road drive.

The Echo T-Sport is a well-designed car with reasonable performance (0 to 100km/h in about 12 seconds), excellent handling and a high fun quota. You may love or hate its looks, but you'll love the way it handles and you'll want to keep driving it (fuel economy is a strong point which will help here). Certainly we didn't want to curtail our open road testing but the car was due to be returned that afternoon.

It's a nicely-balanced package and has plenty of character.

But we think it's just a few thousand dollars too dear. And that's its only real shortcoming. Otherwise it's among the most accomplished small cars on the road, a car that epitomises Toyota's thorough and thoughtful design standards.

AutoPoint road test team.

Auto Trader New Zealand