We drove here from Northern Virginia on 10 gallons of gasoline.

From our home in Arlington to our youngest daughter's new residence in this village of factories and business parks, the trip was 400.2 miles.

That works out to 40 miles per gallon, mostly for highway travel -- which is close to what the Environmental Protection Agency said we should get in the kid's new 2003 Toyota Echo subcompact sedan.

But we didn't co-sign the loan because of fuel economy. We did it because the Echo is well-built, reliable, affordable and, most important, likable. I cannot overemphasize the value of likability. Without it, nothing much gets bought or sold, regardless of its functional or societal virtues.

We spent a long, rainy weekend visiting dealerships in pursuit of a new car our daughter could take without taking her -- and, by default, the parental "us" -- to the poorhouse.

Our youngest daughter, Kafi, is 26, fresh out of graduate school, hip, flip, aggressive and ready to change the world. She's a TV journalist starting out in her first reporting job, and she was in need of a car that would allow her to eat, pay rent and get to her assignments.

We considered the Honda Civic Hybrid, which I liked. She vetoed it as "boring." The Toyota Prius, another gasoline-electric hybrid? She was unwilling to accept even a co-signed note of $20,000 on top of now-due student loans. The Saturn Ion? I loved it; she didn't.

Chevrolet dealers were willing to give us a sweet contract on a fully loaded 2003 Malibu compact sedan, but the reigning Black American Princess "BAPtized" that one as being "more suitable for someone who is 46, not 26."

By happenstance -- really, truthfully -- we took a wrong turn into the lot of a Northern Virginia Toyota dealership. I went to the restroom and returned to find her BAPness standing next to a gunmetal-gray Toyota Echo and wearing a smile as wide as that on the face of a lottery winner. She was pointing at the Echo and shouting: "This one! This one! This is me!"


Well, the 2003 Echo is short, with a wheelbase of 93.3 inches. Its overall length is 164.8 inches, which is 1.6 inches longer than last year's model. Kafi says the car "fits" her barely five-foot body. "I can see over the end of the hood," she said on the pre-purchase test drive. No wonder. It's a short car with a sloped hood, a high seating position and a tall roof -- a sedan with some attributes of a little SUV.

The Echo has a center-mounted instrument cluster, similar to the one in the Ion. But in the Echo, according to Kafi, "it looks like it belongs there." The car is loaded with storage nooks and crannies, such as the winged bins on each side of the center console. She likes tha t stuff.

We drove off with the Echo an hour after Kafi selected it. But the kid had little driving experience. Children in our house were not allowed to drive until they completed the equivalent of one semester of college, and by that time Kafi had disappeared into the subways of New York City, where she attended college and worked in assistant-to-assistants positions at broadcast companies. She's been "driving" for about six months.

So we drove up here together, taking the little car on the big highway with lots of big trucks. The front-wheel-drive Echo, even with its 108-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and itty-bitty 14-inch-diameter wheels, held its own.

The Echo changed lanes competently, remained reasonably stable in crosswinds, and tracked nicely on roads pelted by a mix of frozen rain and snow.

I left her highness and the car here and took an Amtrak train back ome. Frankly, I would have preferred a round-trip drive in the Echo.