SAN DIEGO - The Echo will replace the Tercel at the bottom of Toyota's lineup. But Toyota hopes its new entry-level subcompact will do more than just make up for lost sales.
The Tercel, which was axed in 1998, tended to be picked by new-car buyers on a wafer-thin budget, regardless of age. With the Echo, Toyota will reach out to a new generation of consumers: people under 30, many of whom don't think much of Toyota, if they think of the company at all.
And Toyota is counting on an eye-catching interior, a spirited engine and a reasonable price to do the trick.
'Critics of small cars say times have changed and that the small-car market is dead. Actually, the small-car segment has never been more important,' said Don Esmond, Toyota Division general manager.
'Toyota's future success lies in its appeal to young buyers looking for something new, different and affordable. We need to speak to their needs ... and their wallets.'
The Echo's target base price is $10,000. A well-equipped version will sell for about $12,500. Toyota hopes the Echo will undercut significantly the Honda Civic and Dodge Neon, which begin in the $11,000 range. But Toyota also is taking on the Civic and Neon in the design category with a far more forward-looking package than the conservative Tercel it replaces.
'The problem in recent years is that the entry-level small car has not been able to keep pace with buyers' demands for roomier, safer, better-equipped vehicles at an affordable price,' Esmond said.
That means $10,000 will not mean a car that looks cheap, he said. Tilt steering wheel, AM/FM radio, 14-inch wheels and color-keyed bumpers and door handles will be standard at that estimated price.
An Echo in the $12,500 range is expected to include air conditioning, power steering, intermittent wipers, a sport body kit and an AM/FM/cassette/CD system with six speakers.
Toyota hopes the interior packaging - which has the identical interior volume as the more-expensive Corolla - will combine with a peppy, fuel-sipping powertrain to convince young buyers that Toyota is a good value.
52 MPG ON THE HIGHWAY
The 16-valve, 1.5-liter engine uses variable-valve timing and a high compression ratio to crank out 108 hp. Yet the Echo travels 38 mpg in city driving, 52 mpg on the highway. The engine is new and built for the U.S. market. It meets low-emission vehicle standards.
Toyota sought to bring in the Echo at just more than 2,000 pounds. Engine weight savings came from a plastic intake manifold, stainless exhaust manifold and aluminum block.
The five-speed manual transmission carries over from the Tercel. But the automatic transmission is a new four-speed with uphill shift logic, which holds the car in lower gear. It replaces the Tercel's boggy three-speed.
'Buyers want economy, but they also demand performance,' Esmond said. 'The Echo is no underpowered econobox.'
But it's the interior packaging where Toyota focused. Perhaps most eye-catching is the center-mounted instrument gauge cluster. There are cubbyholes for gear in every possible place. And the low-floor, high-ceiling design means a tall seating position that seems to provide more front- and rear-seat room than the Tercel.
The Echo goes on sale Oct. 1. Toyota hopes to sell 50,000 Echos a year. The latest edition of the Tercel, which was redesigned in 1995, peaked at 76,289 in 1995 before dropping to 31,651 two years later.