ATLANTA, Georgia - Toyota doesn't make too many marketing mistakes, but the Echo could be considered a notable misstep. Over its six-season lifespan, the two- and four-door Echo sedans failed to capture buyers in numbers that even began to approach Toyota's customary success stories. Some faulted the Echo's tallish profile (for a subcompact) and timid appearance. Some observers disliked the central-mounted speedometer inside, or were unimpressed by the sedan's road behavior.
Whatever the reason, the Echo is gone, edged aside by a brand-new model that comes in a choice of two body styles. Actually, the Yaris isn't exactly new. It's been a best-seller in Europe for several years now, having launched in 1999. The second-generation Yaris debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in early fall of 2005.
Called "distinctly different" by Ernest Bastien, vice-president of Toyota's vehicle operations group, the Yaris was developed to "attract mainstream youth." Liftback and sedan body styles were created by different chief engineers, on all-new platforms. Both were developed at the same time, Bastien said, but "did not share a common workspace."
Size differences between the two are massive, with the sedan measuring more than 19 inches longer than the liftback. Each has a different grille, but they're the same basic shape. Only two body colors are shared.
Built on a 96.9-inch wheelbase, the Yaris liftback is 150 inches long. In contrast, the sedan has a 100.4-inch wheelbase and measures 169.3 inches overall.
Inside, a simple dashboard includes central instrument clusters. Dashboards differ between the two body styles. The liftback's front passenger seat has a "walk-in" lever for access to the rear seat. Optional for the liftback is 60/40-split rear seat that can slide forward and back. Sedan trunks hold 12.9 cubic feet of luggage.
Shared with the Toyota Prius and Scion xA/xB, the Yaris's 1.5-liter, 16-valve dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine develops a modest 106 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 103 pound-feet of torque. Equipped with direct ignition and electronic throttle control, the engine operates using variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-1). A five-speed manual gearbox is standard. The optional four-speed automatic transmission incorporates uphill/downhill shift logic, to reduce the number of gear changes on hilly terrain.
Antilock braking with electronic brake-force distribution is available (not standard), and the Yaris uses electric power steering for a turning circle of 32.6 feet. Toyota says the Yaris's suspension is 47-percent stiffer than that of the Echo, adding that the torsion-beam rear suspension eliminates the need for an anti-sway bar.
Dual-stage frontal airbags have a weight sensor. Front-rear side curtain airbags are optional. So are side-impact airbags, at a time when several competitive lower-priced automobiles are making side airbags standard.
With an automatic transmission, the Yaris sedan is a lovely performer all around. Somehow, it manages fairly spirited acceleration, despite a relatively low-powered engine The automatic runs easily through gears, and downshifts promptly and effectively.
Turning to ride comfort, on smooth roads the Yaris ranks several cuts above the small-car norm, and its suspension manages to absorb much of modest bumps as well. This subcompact sedan is enjoyable, and even fun, to drive through curvy roads as well as on expressways. Tight turns produce considerably less body lean than expected - or feared. Maneuvering smartly and crisply, the Yaris follows the lead of the steering wheel with surprising certainty.
Center-mounted gauges do take some getting used to, especially since the speedometer overlaps the tachometer. But they're not too bad to read, though at first it feels like you're looking both over and downward. Abundant glass assures good visibility all around.
Even the short seat bottoms aren't unpleasant, and seatbacks feel nicely cushioned (bottoms almost as much). Except for mild noise when accelerating moderately, the engine is hardly noticed. Push the pedal to the floor and the engine does snarl, as it approaches 6,000 rpm.
While the backseat is comfortable enough, legroom is scant if the front seat is pushed rearward very much at all. In the center rear, many occupant heads will touch the roof, but the hard perch isn't the worst. The glovebox is low but adequate, and the fair-sized trunk has a slightly high liftover.
In the cute little liftback, a simpler dashboard with no tachometer is easier to read. Engine noise is more noticeable on acceleration, but ride and handling qualities are similar to the four-door. Not only does the front passenger seat slide forward for entry, but a taller person's legs can actually fit back there. Cargo space is meager below the cover.
With a manual gearbox, the Yaris feels pretty spirited - more so than with automatic. Though the shifter feels on the loose side, it permits snappy gear changes.
On sale this spring, the Yaris targets "budget-minded consumers," Bastien said, who "don't want to be seen as losers in cheap cars." A typical customer "likes good taste, but still likes to fit in."
Toyota claims a fuel-economy rating of up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway and 34 mpg in city driving. Bastien notes that the Yaris is competing "in a segment that's frequently [seen] as mundane," but he expects that segment to grow. The Yaris name, incidentally, denotes a minor Greek god (of health).
Standard equipment includes air conditioning and tilt steering wheel. A Convenience package adds a CD/MP3 player, rear defroster, 15-inch wheels, and 60/40 backseat. The S sedan includes the Convenience package plus front/rear under-bumper spoilers and side rocker panels. Individual options include antilock braking, seat and side-curtain airbags, 15-inch alloy wheels, and foglamps.
Prices start at $10,950 for a liftback with manual shift. An automatic transmission adds $900. The base sedan stickers for $11,525 with the manual gearbox, while the S sedan starts at $13,325.