Scion isn't even old enough to qualify as a teenager yet, but like any good adolescent, it's already gotten itself into quite a lot of trouble over its brief life.
Launched in 2003 to much fanfare, Toyota's youngest marque reached its sales zenith in 2006, and today, demand for its models is less than half of what it was at its peak. Once hailed as an incubator for risky designs and as a model for attracting younger, hipper customers, Scion has languished in recent years, in part due to a dearth of new products.
That changes starting right now, with the Scion iM hatchback shown here, along with an even less expensive new sedan sourced from Mazda dubbed. Both models hit showrooms this month, and they're the first tangible sign in years that Toyota hasn't given up on its experimental small-car brand. These cars are worth paying attention to, because they're well constructed and offer good value.
The iM seen here isn't technically isn't a new model, it's just new to North America. The five-door hatchback is a lightly reworked version of Toyota's second-generation Auris, a Europeanderivative that's been sold elsewhere since 2012. Despite already being a few years old, the iM looks and feels fresh, with a surprisingly aggressive visage, high content levels and smart packaging.
If you're eyeing the iM's rakish two-box form, aero kit and showy directional alloy wheels and thinking this is a hot hatch, what's under the hood should quickly disabuse you of that notion. Toyota's well-known 1.8-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder is the only engine offering. As a powerplant that's already seen millions of miles of road under the hood of the humdrum Corolla, it's a perfectly adequate method of motivation that's both smooth and reasonably quiet. But with just 137 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, it's not exactly a recipe for excitement (unless you're the sort of person that gets breathless about reliability surveys).
Still reading? Good. Even if the iM isn't an enthusiast's budget-priced dream, the iM still has a lot to recommend. For one thing, it's inexpensive. Priced out-the-door at $19,255 with a manual transmission or $19,995 for the two-pedal model I drove, it's borderline cheap. It comes with lots of standard trimmings, including rearview camera, a decent-sounding Pioneer six-speaker touchscreen audio system, 17-inch alloy wheels and dual-zone climate control.
Scion is not marketed in Australia or the UK.
Scion has decided to go with a "mono-spec" approach, meaning there are essentially no options beyond an available navigation system, so if you want items like HID headlamps, a moonroof or leather, you're out of luck. The aforementioned optional navigation unit comes across like an aftermarket system from a few years ago. Its controls are occasionally confusing (why push "MEDIA" in order to get to the navigation function?), its graphics aren't terribly crisp and it doesn't offer Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. However it will stream Pandora through your smartphone and it does have decent voice recognition software.
Get past those potential disappointments, and you'll find a nicely laid out interior with a pleasing amount of soft-touch plastics. There are also upscale design touches like contrast stitching and piano-black trim, with thoughtfully organized switchgear (the climate controls are particularly well done). The seats are supportive while not overly bolstered, and the steering wheel falls readily to hand for my 5-foot, 9-inch frame. The inside is nicely hushed, with even the second row surprisingly accommodating thanks to the lack of a floor hump and a formal roofline, the latter of which helps eke out 20.8 cubic feet of cargo room. Overall, the iM's cabin feels well conceived and, well...sporty.
Unfortunately, this front-wheel-drive Scion's driving dynamics are rather less so. Yes, the iM corners flatly enough and grips well thanks to its large-for-the-class 17-inch Toyo Proxes 4 Plus tires, but the electric power assist steering, while precise, delivers little road feel. Ride quality is generally good, but on rougher tarmac or twisty roads, the iM lags rivals like the, Mazda3 and in both the refinement and driver engagement stakes.
When paired with the CVTi-S continuously variable transmission, there's just not enough power or even revvy exuberance to help get the driver involved. This, despite the CVT's seven-step logic designed to mimic a traditional torque-converter gearbox's shift points, as well as a sport mode that keeps revs up for better engine response at the expense of efficiency. CVTs have always been better facilitators of fuel economy than they are of driving enjoyment, and that's true here, as well. While this unit is quite well behaved, it's definitely possible to get some of that dreaded 'rubber band' engine rpm elasticity when you stomp on the throttle.
Even if you tread lightly, this Scion's fuel economy metrics are merely mid-pack, with EPA estimates calling for 28 mpg city, 37 highway and 32 combined (I managed to slightly best the latter in mixed driving). The six-speed manual saves a bit of money at purchase time, but gives back a little each time at the pump, losing one mpg in each test versus its two-pedal counterpart. I wasn't able to test a stick-shift iM, but CNET's own Antuan Goodwin reports that it isn't as engaging as one might hope. In any case, most rivals offer more power and better acceleration, if not better efficiency.
The iM may not lead the compact hatch segment with its performance or fuel economy, but with its low price, good looks, long list of standard features, (presumptive) Toyota durability and two-year/25,000-mile free maintenance package, it's a very solid value. Whether not some funky paint options, a standard body kit and a range of available in-house performance parts from TRD are enough to live up to Scion's reputation for being youthful and offbeat is up for discussion, but there's no debating that the brand needs fresh product badly. The iM would almost certainly have sold better as the Matrix successor that it looks and feels like, but if Toyota really wants to keep its Scion division alive, it had to start somewhere.
|Model||2016 Scion iM|
|Powertrain||1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/37 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||32.1 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Pioneer 6-speaker system|
|Driver assistance||Low-speed pre-collision assist|
|Price as tested||$19,995 (est)|