It was electric green mica, a shimmering blue-green that appeared light green in the sunlight and light blue under the glare of urban street lamps. The paint was neither pretty nor ugly. But there was no ambivalence about the body of the car, the 2000 Toyota Echo sedan.

It was cute--a box with curved corners, with a wedgy nose and an uplifted rear. It had a high-rise roof atop a sharply slanted windshield and a more modestly angled back window. The side glass was ordinary, though there was something reminiscent of the 1980s Mercury Cougars in the cat-eyed shape of the windows in the front doors.

The interior was a work of inexpensive dignity, straightforward, uncluttered, absent any hint of gimcrackery. The seats were of durable fabric woven from polymer, stain-resistant threads, which also provided reasonable comfort for butts and backs.

The dashboard was both clever and disconcerting--clever, because its gauges and controls were fixed smack dab in the middle of the panel, instead of on the left, in the vicinity of the steering wheel. That arrangement allows Toyota to put the Echo's steering wheel on the right or left, depending on the intended sales market, with minimum hassle and at minimum cost. During vehicle assembly, there's no need to switch instruments and gauges from one side to the other to match steering-wheel location.

But the disconcerting aspect of the centered gauges appeared during a nocturnal drive. Like most U.S. motorists, I'm accustomed to seeing gauge backlights behind the steering after dark. But only black space appeared there in the Echo, creating a visual void that seemed to swallow the steering wheel. It was unnerving.

But shock yielded to delight as the Echo moved into the night. What a spirited little car! I thought its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine would be a buzzy, underpowered affair, constantly downshifting and gasping for air. I could not have been more wrong.

That little engine had zip, even when mated to an optional four-speed automatic transmission, as it was in the test car. Acceleration came free of any discernible downshifting. I was amazed.

But that performance came via science and engineering, not magic. Toyota employed its variable valve-timing technology in the Echo's engine design--the same technology used in the company's luxury Lexus models. The results are all positive: excellent power, good fuel economy and diminished tailpipe pollutants.

Toyota put all of this in a car that replaces the little Tercel, which rode at the bottom of the company's passenger-car line. What gives?

Think seedlings.

There are young buyers who view Toyota with the same suspicion with which their baby-boomer parents once viewed Detroit. Toyota is old hat to many of them. They'd rather have Volkswagen or Audi, but they can't afford those makes.

Many seedlings can't afford Toyota Camry or Celica models, either, and some have a hard time getting enough money together to pick up a new Toyota Corolla.

To woo that ambitious, buckless group, Toyota is offering a little car with big-car feel, performance, utility--and a hint of funk. The company is giving them a choice. It's an Echo.

Nuts & Bolts; 2000 Toyota Echo

Complaints: The Echo sedan is lightweight, at 2,030 pounds. With its 108-horsepower engine, it has an almost ideal power-to-weight ratio. But low weight also means the car gets blown about on windy days.

Praise: The Echo moves to first place on my list of bargain-basement cars, and it could wind up getting my vote as car of the year. Here's why: No other subcompact economy car offers as much quality, performance, seating and cargo space for as little money. This car gives economy cars a good name.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Greatly exceeds economy-car expectations in all three areas. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is designed to produce 108 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm.

Capacities: Seats five people, carries 13.6 cubic feet of cargo and holds 11.9 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: With its automatic transmission, the test car delivered about 32 miles per gallon in mostly city driving, with an estimated range of 379 miles.

Head-turning quotient: Cute. Drew lots of attention, especially from its target audience.

Options: Anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard).

Price: Base price is $10,295. Dealer's invoice on base model is $9,543. Price as tested is $12,364.85, including $1,465 in options, a $485 destination charge and average taxes and fees of $600.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Chevrolet Metro, base-model Honda Civic, Kia Sephia, Mitsubishi Mirage, Saturn S-series and Suzuki Esteem. Watch options carefully. Adding too many could defeat the purpose of buying this car.