Toyota tackles youth market

Despite selling more passenger cars than any other maker in the U.S. market last year, Toyota Motor Corp. knows that if it doesn't find a way to appeal to young buyers, its future is bleak. One of Toyota's little secrets is that the average age of its buyers is disturbingly Buick-like.

To address that problem, Toyota is looking to lure Generation Xers, as well as those coming up behind them, with a new direction from its product lineup that it hopes will appeal to young needs and slim cash flow. The best example is the '00 entry-level Echo sedan, expected to be priced around $12,000, which is considerably less than Toyota's segment-leading Corolla.

High-tech Echo arrives with a completely new platform and a new direction in passenger compartment packaging. Nearly every component is new and shared with no other vehicle. What Echo does share is Toyota's initiative to develop a highly efficient "world" car for youth markets.

The project has resulted in the Vitz hatchback for Japan, the Yaris for Europe (both with 1L engines) and the new 1.5L twin cam 4-cyl. engine, with Toyota's VVTL-i technology for Echo in the U.S. market. Toyota says each car is new from the ground up, representing clean-sheet designs for subcompact cars.

Echo offers impressive interior roominess by combining a tall profile and a cab-forward design, providing for upright seating position similar to that of a minivan, with the instrument cluster center-mounted high on the dash. Toyota says Echo will be one of its highest-mileage 1.5L vehicles ever offered in the U.S., with preliminary tests showing 43 mpg (5.5L/100 km) combined.

For those craving more performance and pizzazz, the sporty seventh-generation '00 Celica coupe is edgy, leaner and meaner, with its curvy and radically lowered front fascia and interior racecar design, as well as a screaming 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. optional engine. Tadashi Nagakawa, Celica's chief engineer, says the car's handling is more balanced and more stable and its ride more comfortable. Toyota expects to sell 40,000 Celicas in the car's first year, starting Oct. 1.

For buyers with an environmental conscience, Toyota next year will offer the Prius, an electric motor/gasoline engine hybrid that looks and drives like most other compact cars. A bit more pricey, at around $20,000, Prius offers a glimpse into the future of the industry.

Proving the continuing strength of its product portfolio, as Toyota woos future generations of buyers, it still is winning accolades from the well-heeled baby boomer set with its new full-size Tundra pickup and its Lexus luxury division's RX300 sport/utility vehicle - which has helped push Lexus U.S. sales to the forefront of all luxury carmakers. Still to come is a new SUV off the Tundra platform and the sporty entry-level Lexus IS sedan.