Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: What is it like driving an Echo in the snow?

I live in the Midwest and drive a 2000 Toyota Echo sedan with automatic transmission. While you’re probably aware that it snows a lot in the Midwest, you might be curious how a economy-class, front-wheel drive, 2000-lb car drives and handles in the snow and in other Midwestern winter conditions.

In a word, driving in snow with the Echo is tense. I tend to get nervous driving in snow anyway, and I hope the majority of other drivers do too, but honestly the Echo is just so small that it’s hard to ignore even a little snow when you’re driving. The relatively narrow tires do cut through fresh snow on a rural road pretty well, if you’re traveling along at a high enough speed (around 35 usually is good enough). And the light weight of the car means it’s pretty easy to bring it to a stop when you have time to plan your braking in advance.

But the short wheelbase and weight distribution over said wheelbase means that if you do have to stop quickly, the rear tires are quick to lock up and the back end easily starts traveling sideways. Overdo one of these stops and you’ll probably find your rear bumper leading the way into the ditch. Luckily I’ve never experienced that, and this is a problem with all front wheel drive vehicles to some extent, but it seems especially bad in the Echo. The narrower tires also mean less rubber is in contact with the ground, which works out fine because of the light weight of the Echo, but it just doesn’t feel as secure on icy roads or slush.

Also, if you do happen to slow down when you’re cutting through the snow, and you lose your momentum, you’ll get stuck. The relatively low ground clearance makes it easy to get hung up just pulling out of your driveway. But if you’re the kind of person who shovels a path just big enough for your car, you will have a slight advantage. My Toyota Echo does not have ABS or any kind of traction control, so if the model you are considering does you’ll need to think about how that might affect your experience.

After the snow is cleaned up, you have the rest of the winter wonderland to deal with – freezing temps, frosty windows and cold starts. My Echo has always started up, even at about minus 20 degrees F. Once when it was around that temperature, the transmission began slipping when I gave it too much gas leaving the parking lot at work, but that cleared up once it warmed up. The rear window defroster is pitiful. I’m not sure if there just isn’t enough electrical power between the blower, AC, headlights, wipers and all that stuff for the defroster to get warm, but it really takes a long time to melt snow or ice off the rear windshield. It can handle a little moisture or a light frost fine, but a heavy frost or snow means you must use your scraper!

One odd thing about the Echo is that when you start it cold (after having left it sit and cool down for a period of time) there is a blue temperature light that comes on in the instrument cluster. This blue gauge light is normal and means that the Echo’s engine has not reached the optimal operating temperature yet. It also means that the engine and exhaust system is running in open loop mode, which is less efficient than the mode used by a hot engine. The Echo also will not shift into the final gear until the engine warms up and the blue light goes out. This can be very scary if you’re just getting on the highway with the blue light still on, since you’ll be buzzing along at 70 mph in third gear at what feels like about 6000 rpm for half a mile and it will seem like something is wrong. But once the light goes out, the car usually is quick to shift into fourth. Sometimes on my Echo you have to let off the gas for it to upshift into the final gear.

If it’s very cold out (say less than 0 degrees F) it can take a long time for the blue light to go out. Like most modern vehicles, the Echo doesn’t warm up much when it’s started cold and left outside to idle in cold weather, so it makes no sense to start it and let it sit for 10 minutes. In my experience it will not generate much heat for the defrost or cause the blue light to go out by just idling at below-freezing temps.

The Toyota Echo is not as versatile in the snow and cold as most vehicles. But it will still get you reliably from A to B, even if you can’t see out the back window and are gripping the steering wheel tightly and worrying about sliding off the road. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to be scared to drive too fast in the snow anyway. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely must get to work under any conditions, you’re looking at the wrong vehicle – try a 4x4 instead. If you’re the kind of person who goes back to bed when the snow is blowing or stays home on snowdays, the Echo will work fine.

More In The Toyota Echo Ownership Series:
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes for Tall Drivers (or Why I Chose the Echo)
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Notes on MPG
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: Highway Cruising & Cabin Comfort: Not Bad, Not A Lexus
Toyota Echo Ownership Experience: True Cost to Own a Toyota Echo

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