Nobody asked me, but . . .

There are very few arrows in Toyota’s quiver that haven’t found the mark, but the Echo, introduced in 2000, was one of them.  As an attempt to appeal to a youthful audience, the homely, ungainly, Echo was beloved by few.  But while the Echo did not find a welcoming home in America, it’s spawn has successfully spread around the world to more than 150 countries (including here in the form of the Scion xA and xB) where it has become the third-best selling vehicle in global sales for Toyota behind the Corolla and Camry, under the Yaris, Platz and Vitz nameplates.

And being known as a company with a “can do” attitude, Toyota is striking back in America with a second-generation Echo using the same name as in Europe: Yaris.

In a seeming contradiction, the new Yaris is both larger and smaller than the Echo.  This slight of hand is accomplished through the magic of two unique models: a very small 3-door Liftback that’s only seven inches longer than the diminutive Mini Cooper and a small 4-door sedan that’s about five inches longer than the Echo but almost two feet longer than the Yaris Liftback, the model we’ve evaluated.

Say what you will about its smallness, the Liftback’s shape evokes words like cute and huggable.  And inside, words such as roomy, airy, simplistic, comfortable, accommodating, functional and symmetrical (It’s designed for easy conversion to left- or right-hand drive) come to mind.  Simple readable gauges centered above the dash.  A tachometer is optional; the coolant temp “gauge” is a warning light.  Plenty of storage bins and trays, including dual passenger-side glove boxes and a smaller box for the driver.  Thoughtfully designed and placed bottle, can and cup holders.

The seating configuration is what I’d describe as  “the Yaris hall of mirrors” because what you see is not what you get.  Initially the rear compartment seems horribly cramped for adults.  But before you start berating the packaging engineers, check the Toyota magician’s sleeves because lurking back there is an extra six inches of leg room.  How?  The 60/40 split folding seats also slide fore and aft.  You gain passenger room or cargo space.  Your choice.  These seats are an option, but one I wouldn’t be without.

Under the hood of both models lurks a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder pumping out 106 hard-working ponies.  This engine reeks of technology, including a lightweight plastic intake manifold, drive-by-wire electronic throttle, and variable valve timing to improve pulling power in all speed ranges and to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.  It also has a liquid-filled upper engine mount to reduce engine noise and vibrations.  And a timing chain instead of a rubber belt for added durability.

Despite its small size and output the Yaris 4-cylinder is “the engine that can.”  Zip around town? All day without breathing hard.   Merge onto the Maine turnpike with two aboard?  No problem.  Cruise at 80 mph? Willing and able.  Accelerate hard from 50-80 when loaded with four adults?  Not likely.  There’s a limit, even to Toyota engineering magic.

Final EPA fuel numbers aren’t in yet but good estimates would be 34 city/39 highway mpg with the automatic and 34/40 with the manual.

Teamed up with this engine in my test was an optional 4-speed automatic (a 5-speed manual is standard) that is so sophisticated it even knows when you are climbing or descending hills and eliminates annoying hunting between third and fourth gears.  It also features a gated shifter for convenient manual gear changing, a first in this subcompact class.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Yaris’s ride, handling, steering and braking characteristics were lessons learned in Europe. The front vented discs and rear drums have a strong solid feel often lacking in small cars and the fuel-saving electric power steering system is nicely responsive.  The ride is exceptionally smooth for a car with such a short wheelbase and the sporty handling rewards those who like to drive with a bit of verve in the curves.  But the coupe displays some side-wind sensitivity and the Bridgestone radials were unusually prone to wander on grooved pavement and metal bridges.

Safety is always an issue with small cars.  Besides the required front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags and front and rear side curtain airbags are optional in the Yaris.  Also optional are anti-lock brakes with Electronic Brake-force Distribution, which balances the braking forces—front-to-rear and side-to-side—to assist the driver with vehicle control.

The Yaris hadn’t been priced as we went to press, but based on the Echo, I’m guesstimating a base MSRP for the Liftback of $10,500 plus destination charges of $580.  Optioned out with the Convenience and Power packages, auto trans and side airbags would add around $3,000.  Add the “Toyota Factors” of quality, durability, reliability and strong resale and this becomes a lot of small car for around $14,000.

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