I "inherited" this little car from my wife, who is the original owner, upon the purchase of a new car for her. I had always looked down upon the diminutive Echo, but it has some high points, which have prompted me to do an about face on my opinion of the car.
Styling is, well, rather lacking in aesthetics. Tall, stubby, and suffering from an unusually severe case of forward rake styling, the car has ungainly proportions from any angle.
The interior is well-constructed out of price-point-appropriate materials. Toyota provided a huge amount of storage space; this is either a Godsend or a nightmare, depending on how organized you keep your car. Controls are a snap to use, one benefit of a simple car. The exception would be the centre-mount gauges: even though I am by now quite used to it, I still find it somewhat awkward to glance off to my right to read the gauges, not to mention it just looks... odd. On the up side, the heater is very effective, provided you allow the car to thoroughly warm up first, and the air conditioner, though it saps a lot of the little engine's power, is also at least average. The seats, however, aren't very good. More on that later.
Driving the car, the little 1.5L DOHC four is a surprise. Toyota smartly dressed it up with what was then quite and advanced variable valve timing system for such a low-priced car. Along with the vehicle's diminutive curb weight, it has surprising zeal in day-to-day driving, and both are largely responsible for the car's phenomenal fuel economy. Mash the gas, though, and it has little more to give, and at highway speeds, though it will maintain any legal speed limit in the US, it likewise has little left in reserve for passing. Compounding this is a failing fuel pump in my particular car, resulting in a loss of power when the throttle is opened much past what's needed to maintain highway speed. However, it possesses two attributes which make it exceptionally attractive: one, it is utterly dependable, and two, the fuel economy is nearly matchless. Even current offerings struggle to attain the economy this little car effortlessly provides. It is not the smoothest runner, with noticeable vibrations at idle. The 4-speed automatic transmission is, well, very average; it's neither particularly good nor terribly bad. It shares the rest of the car's reliability. The ride is also among the most compliant in the subcompact segment, surpassed only by Nissan's Versa. On the downside, handling is relatively tame, as the tallish car feels tippy, and the suspension allows a heavy amount of understeer. Also, the car's narrow tires, tall profile, and light weight make it feel a little nervous at speed.
Roomwise, there is plenty of space up front and adequate space out back; for a young family of three it will be as much as you need. Larger families, look elsewhere. Trunk space isn't bad, but the trunk opening unfortunately prevents larger items from being put into the trunk which would otherwise fit.
As a highway tripper, its frugal nature and plush ride should make it a winner, but those aforementioned seats and the car's lack of freeway speed stability make trips much over an hour a real chore. The seats are hard and flat, with little support, and eventually it gets impossible to remain comfortable, no matter how you position yourself. The tendency for it to dance around the lane when travelling at speeds in excess of 60mph also puts undue fatigue on the driver on longer trips. The car is therefore a better errand and city car than it is a roadtripper. A shame, as I feel it has a lot of wasted potential for being a fantastic road car.
Fuel economy is the car's biggest competency. I am consistently averaging 37 MPG on my commute, and have occasionally seen in excess of 46 MPG on open freeway driving, keeping my speed at 60mph. 400-mile tanks are the norm, and carefully managed, a theoretical highway range of 500 miles is possible. Equipped with a manual transmission, it would likely be capable of 2-5 MPG more.
Considering the general lack of maintenance, the car's condition at 220k miles is phenomenal. I see no reason I could not get another 100k out of the car if I take care of some of the niggling issues. I did have to replace the catalytic converter at approximately 205k miles, but that is an expected failure item and lasted about twice as long as it should have. The fuel pump is failing to provide enough fuel pressure or volume for more than casual driving; again, fuel pumps will fail from time to time, so I won't necessarily penalize Toyota for this. I can penalize Toyota for this though: the fuel gauge does not read under 1/4 tank, something which left me stranded when I first drove the car. There are few rattles, and all accessories still operate normally. The transmission shifts normally. Few vehicles could survive the treatment this car has.
Overall, this is an underrated machine for commuting. Easy to drive, cheap to operate, and sturdy, the car is not without its faults, but is overall a strong choice for economical transportation.