Santa Monica, California – Really, you’d never guess that you were driving a sedan instead of some kind of hot hatchback.
You dive deep into the corner here on Mulholland Highway and then lift the throttle, and the 2016 Scion iA tucks its nose toward the apex even as the tires carve the corner in a way you’d never expect from their modest 16-inch dimensions. Of course, then you come to a straightaway, and it seems as interminably long as only 106 horsepower can make it.
But, really, all this is still a miracle of performance from a car that starts at an MSRP of $15,700. The Scion iA that we have so long disdained as little more than an instrument of soulless mobility now makes moves like a sport sedan.
The Island of Lost Toys
From the moment it came to life in 2002, Scion set itself up as a leader of innovation within Toyota, but maybe all of us thought of this as just a strategy to explain away the appearance of the boxy, unconventional Scion xB and the social phenomenon that followed. Sometimes Scion’s innovation didn’t work out, just as the Scion iQ — a stubby little metro car — never found the audience it deserved. But then there’s the Scion FR-S, which has become the sport coupe of a new generation.
Like the Subaru-engineered Scion FR-S, the 2016 Scion iA is an example of badge engineering done the right way. Scion has collaborated with Mazda to bring the sedan version of the all-new Mazda2 to the U.S. from Mazda’s new assembly plant in Mexico. Scion will have exclusive rights to the sedan configuration in America, as Mazda has elected to bring only the Mazda2-based Mazda CX-3 crossover to its own showrooms.
So what we get is a car that drives like a Mazda (a good thing, in our experience), which is priced, sold, and serviced like a Scion (all very good things, in our experience). The Scion showroom might seem a little bit like Toyota’s Island of Lost Toys because all the cars are so different in appearance, but we like the way in which each vehicle aspires to be specialized, which is very different from the generalized mission statement that seems to fall to every conventional Toyota.
The look of angry marine life
The Scion iA certainly looks unconventional, as if the swoopiness of Mazda’s styling vocabulary had been combined with a Ford grille to create an angry form of undersea life, kind of like the Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicle. In profile, the car looks great, but the tall, narrow package with its big trunk certainly has visually challenging proportions when you step around to the front or rear. Fortunately your objections disappear once you’re behind the wheel, partly because you can’t see the sheetmetal anymore but also partly because the proportions create a very nice people package within the cabin.
The iA is a Fiesta-class car, yet it doesn’t seem small, as it measures 170.7 inches from front to back on a wheelbase of 101.2 inches. You have 38.2 inches of headroom in the front seat, and who cares what people think of the 36.8 inches in the rear seat, since they’re getting a free ride? There’s some 85.9 cubic feet of overall passenger volume. More important, the front seat has 10 inches of fore-and-aft adjustment, and it incorporates a height adjuster, plus a tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps get you find a comfortable driving position.
Every Scion comes in a single trim level — nicely equipped, as they say. This keeps production costs down, yet you won’t feel as if you’re missing much when it comes to electronics. The 7-inch touchscreen on the dash is large enough and crisp enough to produce a useful display (a rearview camera is standard), and the audio system is easy to control with the command knob on the console between the front seats. Voice recognition is part of the system as well. Two USB ports and an AUX outlet are ready for you, while Aha, Pandora, and Stitcher are the standard apps.
A penalty box no more
The auto-troglodytes that once populated this portion of the car market were once so useless on the road that it’s no wonder that they tried to impress us with electronics. But the Chevy Sonic and Ford Fiesta have proven that it’s possible to deliver a good driving experience at this price point, and the Scion iA joins the club.
The Scion’s specifications won’t get your attention, as you have just struts for the front suspension and a torsion beam in the back, vented discs in front and drums in the rear, and 60-series tires. But as if by magic, all this works incredibly well. The new, structurally rigid platform with its reinforcement of high-strength steel lets the suspension work with optimum effectiveness and calms the interior environment as well. The electric-assist steering operates with rewarding directness, while the combination of discs and drums doesn’t produce the wooden pedal response we’ve experienced in the Toyota Corolla.
It might challenge your prejudices, but the 185/60R-16 Toyo Proxes A27 tires also contribute a lot of goodness here. The relatively tall sidewalls are compliant enough to absorb the small, high-frequency bumps that can make a car’s cabin shake uncomfortably. At the same time, a 60-series tire is quite capable of producing crisp steering response and stable cornering performance, especially if you’re dealing with a brand like Toyo, which has extensive experience in street-stock road racing.
Of course, an unfortunate byproduct of such sporting performance is a fair amount of road noise, something that is characteristic of Mazda vehicles because of the stiffer bushings required to deliver good handling.
Well, it gets 42 mpg, at least
It’s hard to get too worked up over a 106-hp engine in a car that weighs about 2,400 pounds, and it takes a quick right hand with the shift lever to keep the engine twisting hard enough to make things exciting, whether you have the six-speed manual transmission or the six-speed automatic. Direct fuel injection helps the 1.5-liter Mazda inline-four respond with some liveliness, though.
Of course, if you relax and just pace the traffic, the 2016 Scion iA can give you terrific gas mileage. If you’ve got the six-speed manual gearbox (about 10 percent of you, Scion anticipates), then you can expect EPA fuel economy of 31/41 mpg city/highway. The six-speed automatic improves fuel economy to 33/42 mpg city/highway. Was it just five years ago when 40 mpg seemed like a miraculous achievement?
Premium features, premium values
It might also surprise you that the Scion also incorporates low-speed pre-collision safety system like a premium sedan. And also like a premium sedan, the Scion iA is included in Scion’s free maintenance program, which extends for two years/25,000 miles. Scion even has a new purchase program called Pure Process Plus, which helps you complete all the paperwork for buying a car in just two hours (four hours is the national average), so the only time you visit the dealership is to pick up your car.
No one really pays attention to the part of the car market in which the 2016 Scion iA lives, but the closer you look, the more you appreciate that this small car and its equally impressive rivals are leading the way in the things that are worth caring about, like quality, durability and reliability. Scion might not exactly express the best things about Toyota, but surely its traditional values express the best things about Toyota.
2016 Scion iA Specifications
- On Sale: September 2015
- Price: $17,595/$17,595 base/as tested
- Engine: 1.5L DOHC 16-valve I-4/106 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 103 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 33/42 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/torsion beam, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs/drums
- Tires F/R: 185/60R-16 Toyo Proxes A27
- L x W x H: 171.7 x 66.7 x 58.5 in
- Wheelbase: 101.2 in
- Headroom F/R: 38.2/36.8 in
- Legroom F/R: 41.9/34.4 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 53.1/50.0 in
- Cargo Room: N/A
- Towing: N/A
- Weight: 2,416 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: N/A