When the Toyota Echo arrived in the late 1990s-early 2000s, consumers thought that the hatchback (and its mini all purpose vehicle Echo Verso brethren) was too revolutionary for a market heavily immersed in sedans and saloons. But since the Honda Jazz was introduced in 2003, a bevy of car companies have jumped on the subcompact hatchback bandwagon - Hyundai (with the Getz), Kia (with the Rio), Chevrolet (with the Aveo), and Suzuki (with the Swift) - showing that the four door hatchback can provide as much storage as compact sedans and can shoot into tight urban spots better than cars with "proper" trunks.

But when the new Echo was introduced this year (now billed as the Yaris), the status quo was that the primarily Euro-market hatchback's arrival was too late, as the urban roads are currently dominated by Honda's Jazz. Or is the Yaris' arrival timely enough?

Inside, one feels that the Yaris' amenities and layout are geared towards a youthful setting, with comfy seating (and soothing cloth seating fabric, great for people who need more than normal lumbar support), impressive iPod-ready audio entertainment, storage areas galore (including a two-section glove compartment) and fold-flat rear seating that handles two to three balikbayan boxes. There are a few minuses though - the aircon vents are small, the design of the aircon controls look too much like washing machine knobs, the rear bench backrest doesn't fold flush parallel to the trunk area, the instrument gauge cluster readouts are too small, there's no temperature gauge, and the said gauges tend to lose brightness when the headlights are turned on during daytime (say, during heavy rains).

Outside, the P748,000 Yaris (1.5L A/T) evokes a more visceral attraction overall, than say, the Kia Rio or the Chevrolet Aveo, or even its Echo forebears of a decade ago. The perky yet somewhat offbeat styling common to Toyotas of late is also reflected in the Yaris, and the test unit's Cosmo Red color reminded this writer of the red color of the Autobot Sideswipe (himself another car, albeit a Lamborghini Countach) of the 1980s Transformers cartoons.

Hit the road and the 16-valve DOHC 1.5L engine is all too willing to hang with compact sedans (or even executive sedans) on straightaways and turns that require just a flick of the steering wheel. Sadly the restrictive four-speed a/t tends to linger in any gear before taking action. It would be better if the a/t had an extra gear (to bridge the wide gap between second and third), or had a sequential manual mode (with electronic override) similar to its bigger Camry sibling.

Throw the Yaris on sharp turns and the subcompact stays composed on turn-in and exit, with the Bridgestone Potenza 185/60R15s breaking grip at 80kph onwards. Steering is light in feel but blunt in overall feedback, but not as numbing as that of the Mercedes Benz B-Class compact sports tourers. The brakes have decent grip; its only knocks are that: 1) the ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution wake up in increments instead of waking up in one big push, even at three-fourths effort; 2) The nrake setup is discs (for the front) and drums (for the rear); and 3) the handbrake on the test unit had little grip.

The headlights and foglights are bright enough that one need not turn to the "bright" setting during heavy rains and total darkness; the bad news is that the beams of the bright setting on the test unit need to be adjusted for better vision. Shooting into tight parking spaces is easy, given the car's size and the presence of backup sensors, but the beeper that turns on whenever the a/t is in reverse tends to drown out the backup sensors' alarm.

Given all that it has, the Yaris can be considered a serious threat to the subcompact hatchback arena. All it needs is a better a/t, bigger dashboard gauges and an all disc brake setup in order to make Toyota stay atop the competition.