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1996 Toyota Paseo

Poor old Toyota. They've been building good cars for more than 20 years – and really good cars for at least the past 10.

Yet the universal response – I mean, universal – to the Paseo sports coupe I tested was: ' 'How much? Twenty thousand dollars? For a little 1.5 litre Toyota?!"

Nobody seems to question that a 1.8 litre, four-cylinder BMW or 2.2 litre, four-cylinder Mercedes-Benz can cost double that. And if most consumer surveys are accurate, chances are the Toyota will be more reliable.

The market's unwillingness to accept Toyota as an expensive brand name is, of course, the rationale behind the entire Lexus ploy, which has been for the most part successful.

But Lexus prices are even more stratospheric.

Toyota has no choice but to keep trying to convince people that a small twoplustwo sporty coupe based on the Tercel, the cheapest line they sell here, is worth this kind of cash.

For 1996, the Paseo gets a complete revamp, with virtually all-new sheet metal. Like so many Japanese re-skins, you wonder why they bothered.

Even my allegedly trained eye could barely tell this year's from last year's.

One day on Yonge St., south of Davisville, I was waiting in the tester for my lunch date when an old-style Paseo pulled in behind me. Its owner and I agreed there wasn't much to choose between them, visually.

Hers was four years old, looked brand-new and had cost her virtually nothing in repairs.

She would gladly pay this kind of money again, for a car that wouldn't cost her a dime to run.

Her only beef was visibility to the right rear corner, due to the wide rear roof pillar.

I didn't have time to explain the mirror adjustment trick to her.

The new Paseo is a pretty little car. My tester had a rich-looking satin black metallic paint, with little flakes of mica dancing in the sunlight.

Certainly, this was a paint job a Bimmer or a Benz would be proud to bear.

Inside, the limited headroom, which was a serious problem with the old Paseo, has been partially addressed. With careful adjustment of seatback angle, I was able to fit in, even with the (optional) pop-up-or-out sunroof.

I had to be careful getting in and out, however; I wasn't, once, and paid dearly with a mighty whack on the side of my head.

The back seat is definitely of the occasional variety. The front passenger seat tilts and slides to ease access to the back.

But, as usual with Japanese cars, when you pivot the front seat forward, you lose the backrest angle setting.

This doesn't have to happen; Toyota just has to ask Volkswagen.

The opening for the smallish trunk is cut down to bumper level for easier loading, and a security lock keeps the trunk contents away from the prying eyes of valet parking lot staff.

The comfortable and supportive high-back front bucket seats on the car I drove were covered in a good-quality cloth, whose gray color was nicely set off by random purple, teal and red accents.

Trust me, it looks better than that sounds and is a welcome relief from the drabness of most modern interiors.

We have come to expect big, legible instruments, soundly designed and executed minor controls and impeccable finish from Toyota.

Sadly, we've also come to expect a vague, ill-defined gearshift. It works okay and is light enough to the hand, but there's no tactile pleasure in it.

A driver's-side-only air bag and manually adjusted side-view mirrors are evidence of Toyota's attempts to keep the price down.

The well where the passenger bag would be (and is, in some markets) provides an additional dash-top storage bin.

In the same vein, the solitary vanity mirror on the passenger's sunvisor is uncovered. Toyota must figure if this is acceptable in a $400,000 Bentley, they can get away with it on a $20,000 Paseo.

A 1.5 litre four is never going to be blindingly fast, outside of motorsport.

This one, with twin cams and 16 valves, gives a decent account of itself; it revs eagerly and smoothly and exhibits acceptable bottom-end torque.

The chassis, essentially firmed-up Tercel gear, handles very well. The steering is light yet communicative, cornering is flat and stable, the ride firm but very comfortable.

The front disc/rear drum brakes work well in normal driving. (I don't know how well they would stand up to hard use because I don't drive that hard! That's my story.)

No ABS at this price, sadly.

Sporty coupe sales have taken a dive over the past couple of years.

Perhaps it's the toughness of the economy.

People aren't prepared to pay the extra money a sporty car invariably costs, compared to its more prosaic sedan counterpart, when all they're getting is better styling at the expense of practicality.

If you are shopping for a small sporty coupe, you will quickly learn that you can certainly buy more car than the Paseo represents at this price.

The Chev Cavalier coupe comes to mind, as Cavalier always does in discussions of high-value cars.

Toyota – and the woman with the four-year-old Paseo – can truthfully counter that if you want what is probably the best-built small sporty coupe on the market, and want to save money in repairs and depreciation over the long run, then the Paseo might just turn out to be a bargain.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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