2000 Toyota Echo
Article and photos by Greg Wilson, additional photos by Autos.ca staff
They say you can’t tell a book by its cover, but let’s be honest – if you’re in the bookstore browsing and you haven’t read the book before, it helps if the cover looks good, especially if it’s a particularly stylish cover.
When it comes to cars attractive styling is the most important thing for some buyers. For others, exterior styling has to be at the very least inoffensive.
Which makes it difficult to explain the existence of many stylistically-challenged vehicles on the road: what is their appeal? As an automobile reviewer who’s been obligated to review the good, the bad and the ugly over the years, I’ve been privy to the unexpected virtues of some very unattractive cars. To my surprise, I ended up giving many of these ugly ducklings the “thumbs up”. The reasons vary, but in most cases the positive benefits of the driving experience and their practicality outweighed my dislike of the styling.
Before you laugh at these choices, try getting behind the wheel: you may be in for a surprise too!
One of the first tall subcompact sedans, the 2000 Toyota Echo sedan was a complete departure from the low slung economy cars of the day. Its tall, narrow body and relatively tiny wheels looked almost cartoonish. The Echo sedan was ridiculed by critics and some people (like me) felt embarrassed to be seen in one. On top of that, the unusual position of the Echo’s speedometer in the middle of the dashboard was generally disliked. However, it wasn’t long after getting in to the Echo’s driver seat that I realized what a sensible, likeable car this was. Its tall roof and big door openings made it easy to get in and out, there was plenty of headroom for adults in the front and rear, the upright seating positions created generous legroom front and rear, and the tall trunk lid provided a surprisingly large trunk. And as a small, narrow car, the Echo was easy to manoeuvre and park in the city; the handling was nimble and surprisingly stable on the freeway; and its 1.5-litre 4-cylinder engine got great fuel economy. It was a car I reluctantly grew to like, although I still have reservations about being seen in one.
2004 Pontiac Aztek & 2002 Pontiac Aztek. Click image to enlarge
The butt of countless jokes, the slab-sided Pontiac Aztek didn’t fall into any particular vehicle category when it was introduced in 2000. Based on a minivan platform but resembling an SUV, the Aztek was supposed to appeal to young, active buyers even though its starting price was over $30,000. Its brick-like proportions, ugly nose, chopped-off rear-end, and overuse of black bodyside cladding were universally condemned. But though the sight of it repelled me, I actually enjoyed driving it. Why? It offered a torquey V6 engine and a smooth GM automatic transmission, stable if uninspired handling, and a nice highway ride due its minivan platform. Big doors allowed easy entry and exit, the cabin was roomy, and driver visibility was aided by a split rear window that featured a separate lower window to improve sight lines when reversing into parking spaces. The Aztek also had a huge rear liftgate that opened up to reveal a roomy cargo area with folding rear seats. Though never a sales success, the Aztek was actually a forerunner of today’s crossover vehicles. If it wasn’t for its uninspired and awkward styling, it might have been much more successful.
2003 Subaru Baja
Subaru’s version of the car-based pickup, the Baja didn’t appeal as a car or a pickup when it arrived in 2003…the box was too small for serious hauling needs, and the four-cylinder engine wasn’t exactly a powerhouse for towing or hauling. But mostly, the Baja just looked very odd, especially with its short box and overdone bodyside cladding. Still, after driving it, I found the Baja filled an important niche: here was a four-door, five-passenger mid-sized vehicle with the fuel economy of a 4-cylinder engine, the traction of full-time all-wheel drive, and an open box for stuff you wouldn’t want to throw into the back of a Legacy or Outback wagon – such as diving equipment, building supplies or garden tools. If the rear seat wasn’t needed, the Baja had a fold-down panel that could lengthen the cargo bed by another couple of feet. The Baja’s driving experience was similar to an Outback wagon with a torquey boxer 4-cylinder engine, stable handling, and a comfortable ride. Few Bajas were sold so they’re hard to find today, but if you need a light duty hauler with room for five, a used Subaru Baja would be an ideal choice.