Plenty of reports have circulated about the death of Scion, which has been portrayed as a victim of crumminess, goofiness, and inattention following a brilliant debut in 2002. But after driving the 2016 Scion iM and 2016 Scion iA in the mountains above Malibu, we’re unexpectedly persuaded that Scion still has a future as the bright spark of personality in Toyota’s consumer-obsessed empire.
Not that you should expect conventional standards of appearance or performance from these all-new 2016 models. The 2016 Scion iM isn’t going to make the Mazda3 hatchback look stupid when you compare the two. With the Scion, what you get is a welcome throwback to the values that made Toyota what it is today: quality, reliability and durability. For the uninitiated, this is called “value.”
And in this respect, the 2016 Scion iM is like the 2002 Scion xB, the car that crystalized the whole Scion idea all those years ago.
Beloved box gives way to practical hatchback
Sadly the 2016 iM is not visually a throwback to the small, first-generation xB, yet it does resemble the beloved box (remember those giant gatherings of customized xBs?) because it’s meant to be smart, not dumb.
The iM is a four-door hatchback, so it’s just perfect as a lifestyle tool for the young, adventurous, and occasionally homeless. Thanks to a 60/40-split folding rear seat, durable cloth upholstery, and thoughtful details such as a skidplate for the sill of the cargo floor, the Scion iM can be a great big knapsack. Whether you pack it with your worthless friends, a big-screen TV, snowboards or wakeboards, or even canines of disreputable heritage, this front-wheel-drive carryall will get the job done. It measures 170.5 inches overall from nose to tail and offers 90.4 cubic feet of interior passenger volume.
Unfortunately the iM’s styling seems inspired by the electronic gadgets that you find in the Akihabara district in Tokyo, not the Apple product catalog. The iM is simply unapologetically Japanese, although a snappy front fascia and striking wheels help bring goodness to the result. Bright colors also give a sense of presence to the car, as does a wide-body silhouette.
More than just electronics
Scion has tried to be a leader in the integration of connectivity-style electronics into the automobile, but too often the interiors of its cars have been as cheap and charmless as a video-game console. With the interior of the iM hatchback, Scion has rediscovered the goodness of traditional automotive architecture. You’re surrounded by the door cubbies, cupholders (eight of them), and the center stack of electronics, yet you’re also aware that you’re in an automobile. The angular style of the dash is attractive, and the soft two-tone leatherette of the dash upholstery rewards the senses. Dual-zone air-conditioning rewards not only your senses but also those of your front-seat passenger, too.
More important, the driving position is good. The low cowl offers an expansive field of view, while the leather-covered rim of the compact steering wheel (plenty of electronic controls here) feels good to hold. The seat is soft yet not squishy, and the seating space is narrow but not cramped. The only flaw is the slightly short-coupled pedal placement (probably scaled for Japanese drivers), which might make things difficult for really tall drivers, even with the tilt—and-telescopic steering wheel adjustment.
When it comes to the electronics (all standard equipment, by the way), the graphics of the 7-inch touchscreen interface aren’t very inviting, while the electronic clock looks like something from a VCR of the 1980s. But the portfolio of electronic applications includes voice recognition, AUX/USB ports, and streaming audio, and the all-singing, all-dancing Aha app gives you that Facebook/Twitter thing plus access to a jillion audio sources on the Internet. A rearview camera and a suite of active safety electronics are standard, too.
Scooting, not speeding
Let’s not get your shorts in a twist about the iM’s performance, since you’ll have to make do with this 1798cc inline-four’s 137 hp @ 6,100 rpm and 126 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. You can make this 3,000-pound front-wheel-drive package really go, but you’ll need the six-speed manual transmission to help, and even then you’ll be chasing the taillights of a Mazda3. About 90 percent of you will choose the CVT automatic instead, and this transmission works well with the engine’s broad powerband, which is enhanced by variable valve timing (no direct fuel injection, though). The seven perceptible ratio steps in the transmission’s programming also deliver a pretty satisfying feel to full-throttle acceleration.
But it’s scooting that you’ll be doing here, not speeding. (Well, you can get special springs, a stiffer rear anti-roll bar and an engine air intake from TRD, if you think it’ll make a difference.) Even so, we drove up Topanga Canyon and across Mulholland Highway in the mountains above Malibu, and we had a fine time. The 102.7-inch wheelbase is long enough to deliver good straightline stability, while the suspension is compliant, even though some ride frequencies will make the body shake. In the corners, we enjoyed the car’s relatively direct feel through the controls and the reassuring cornering grip from the 225/45R-17 tires. The iM is alert and eager, if not fast. This Scion isn’t a Mazda, but as we reminded ourselves several times, neither is it a Honda Fit.
Cheap, and built to stay that way
It can be difficult to make a virtue out of cheapness in any segment of the car market these days, yet the 2016 Scion iM makes its case convincingly at a base price of $19,255 for the manual transmission model and $19,995 for the automatic. When measured against its competition, the Scion iM with its long list of standard equipment invites you spend less to get more, which is the kind of calculus that everyone can understand. The Scion iM is kind of like discovering a brand-new, never-driven, first-generation Mazda3 hatchback. (You remember, the great-looking one.) If you had one now, you’d be pretty happy, wouldn't you?
Delivering value has always been in the Scion DNA, and the 2016 Scion iM makes a bigger impact with this sort of thing, since you get something nice instead of something crummy. Even better, select Scion stores are introducing a special Internet-based purchasing strategy that cuts down the amount of time required to purchase a car to two hours from the national average of four hours.
With the addition of the 2016 Scion iM and the 2016 Scion iA to sit beside the Scion FR-S, the Scion showroom seems like a far more compelling place for 2016. This is especially so with the simultaneous disappearance of the clever but weird Scion iQ and the big, boring, boxy xB. After so much promise at Scion’s birth in 2002, the little division’s early adolescence has been rough. But now Scion looks like it’s growing up at last.
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