Our First Drive in the New 2016 Scions, Part I: The iA Sedan

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Back in early April, we reported on the upcoming release of the Scion iA sedan, the European-inspired iM hatchback, and how the Toyota-offshoot desperately needs something fresh in the market in order to keep it from fading into non-existence. There is zero continuity across the board with this brand, and what was once deemed a hip entry-level option for first-time car buyers has now been shelved as just another subcompact carmaker. Sure, we absolutely love the tail-happy FRS and all it has to offer, but it’s had a hard time finding a larger audience, especially as most millennials opt for automatics over the joy of driving a manual.

So in a both guns blazing approach, Scion has opted to release these vehicles simultaneously this September in an aggressive, dual product marketing campaign in what Group VP Doug Murtha tells the Cheat Sheet is designed to be “offbeat and a little weird” in order to better bring “distinctive vehicles to market.” Murtha also said that these cars are a “platform for experimentation,” and that ordering a tailor-made Scion online and having it delivered to your doorstep is the direction the company would like to go, as it slowly shaves the buying process down to a 1-2 hour time investment, instead of an all day dealership ordeal. By zeroing in on the Millennial demographic and Generation Z, Murtha tells us that their research points to the fact that potential Scion buyers want a “Swiss Army Knife Car,” and that finding unprecedented value in a vehicle makes these customers all that more inclined to trade-up to a Toyota one day.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Before the big launch on September 1st, Scion invited members of the press up to Grand Rapids, Michigan  to spend a day behind the wheel in both the iA and the iM, so that we could get the scoop on both cars, and better form an opinion prior to them going to market. The routes that were pre-chosen for us were gorgeous back-roads, filled with twists, turns, and real-life in town tests, where the urban versatility of the vehicles could truly be put to the pavement, and over the course of the day we began to come to terms with the vehicle’s limitations and inherent strengths.

Surprisingly, there is a lot more to these entry-level cars than meets the eye. While neither one is mind-blowingly fantastic, we respect the fact that both cars are a completely different platform than anything we have seen from Scion to date. Obviously there is no such thing as a “perfect car,” and there were indeed some avoidable oversights on each vehicle that turned up. But overall, these two fresh offerings are pretty rock-solid contenders in their respective corners of the ring, and with a few adjustments on Scion’s behalf, both the iA and the iM could one day have true knock-out power.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

We begin with the iA, a product of a cooperative venture between Scion and Mazda to bring an “entry sub-compact sedan” into its line-up for the first time, to battle the Sonic, Fiesta, and Versa. During the product seminar, we were told that the primary reason this vehicle came to fruition was in response to a “lack of really compelling products in the segment,” and that Scion’s target audience with this car are “individualists looking to stand out from the crowd.” With a nose that reminds people of a yawning catfish, the iA certainly stands out, and Scion execs say it doesn’t matter if you love or hate the front of the car, the important thing is that you’ll notice it.

Built in Mazda’s Salamanca, Mexico plant, the iA started life as a clean sheet of paper, and while it may have the guts of a Mazda2, all the external styling is fresh off the presses over at Scion. Starting at $15,700, the iA offers an insane number of amenities to make-up for its controversial front end and itty-bitty 1.5-liter engine. Standard features include remote keyless entry and remote start, a slow speed infrared automatic stopping system (a first for this segment), all manner of connectivity for Apples and Androids, the”Connect” infotainment system (from Mazda), a manually adjustable Sport Mode in automatic versions, gradient-sensing hill-start assist, and a well laid-out gauge pod to go with all of the car’s quality Mazda knobs and switches.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

On the open road, the car didn’t bob around like you’d expect a 2,400-pound vehicle to, staying firmly planted and offering a far quieter cabin than one found in most entry-level sub-compacts. The ride was better than expected too, with a surprisingly sporty rear torsion suspension setup that kept body roll to a minimum. Visibility and headroom were pretty damn good too, with a clear line of sight in every direction dissuading us from our previous doubts regarding the rake of the rear windows. At one point a deer stepped in front of the car while going well over 45 miles per hour, causing us to exercise the brakes in a real world driving manner that earned the car a fair amount of respect for the remainder of the day, as it stopped surprisingly short of the animal, and all without a heavy pitch forward that one comes to expect when slamming on the brakes.

However, there were a few issues with the car that could not be ignored. No, we’re still not talking about the thing’s nose; loaded down with passengers and luggage, the under-powered iA will struggle, and we were dismayed to find that it had to be floored just to stay up to speed on some inclines, negating any chance we had at hitting the car’s 37 miles per gallon average. Switching over to “Sport Mode” while driving caused the RPMs to jump about 1,200 revolutions, did very little for the performance of the vehicle outside of adding some unwanted engine noise. It also had rear seat headrests that felt like they were made out of granite, and even fully extended they still nabbed us in the neck without remorse.

But grievances aside, the iA presented itself in a far more favorable light than previously expected, and with all of that safety for so little, you better bet your bottom biscuit this car is going to be a great option for kids who are first learning how to drive. The ride is good, the seats are comfortable enough, the trunk is larger than expected, and it will automatically lock the brakes prior to a collision to keep you from rolling forward into another car. It also has a lot of awesome amenities for Generation Z buyers too, what with all of its tech, reliability, low operating costs, and ease of use around town at the forefront.

So if Scion/Mazda finds a way to bump the power up to the 130 horsepower mark to match the Honda Fit (which also has a 1.5-liter motor and amazing fuel economy), and can ditch those neck-snapping rear head rests, the iA will become a solid sub-compact in our book. That front end on the other hand… well, only time will tell if buyers will be able to see past it.

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