2016 Scion iA and iM Models Hug the Canyon Roads Like Much Pricier European Sportscars

One in an occasional series reviewing consumer vehicles that are powered by water, natural gas, electricity, hybrid motors, high-efficiency gasoline engines or some other alternative source.

The Scion iM (left) and iA are the first newly designed models from the Toyota brand in 3 years.
The Scion iM (left) and iA are the first newly designed models from the Toyota brand in 3 years.

It was total coincidence that had me at Dave Wilson's South Coast Toyota in Costa Mesa Sunday afternoon, when I sat a few feet from rows of 2015 Scions. That's when it struck me how much different those cars look compared to the 2016 Scion models that I test drove three days before even though they won't hit American showrooms until September.

Though not as radically boxy as the original Scion models that seemed to rise high enough to hold two turntables, a microphone and a standup DJ in the back of the cabin, the 2015 xB certainly evolved from those. Meanwhile, some of the recent Scion sedans seemed to be morphing into the shapes of Saturns (remember those?).

At a day of media test drives through Malibu Canyon on Thursday, Scion introduced its first new model designs in three years: the iM, which is a hatchback, and the iA, a sports sedan. The thing that surprised me the most about the event was not the test fleet--six automatics and six manuals in each model--but that of the 40 or so automobile writers present, only eight of us knew how to drive sticks. Denise McCluggage must be turning in her grave.

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Despite my aptitude with a clutch, my first test vehicle was the six-speed automatic iA that I drove on mostly twisting roads and past such disparate attractions as the Topanga Reiki Center and Pepperdine University, whose rolling green grass is these days explained with a sign that explains it was sprayed with recycled water lest you summon the drought police.

The iA, which Scion bills as its first-ever sporty sedan, handled the turns as well as a European sportscar. I mentioned to my riding partner how it seemed as if something under my feet was forcing the car to stay on the fall line. The MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension no doubt played a role in this feeling. However, I must confess it was gutless on one little stretch of freeway I encountered. (If that's enough to turn you off, stay tuned to end of this write-up for a redeeming caveat.)

Otherwise, there is much to recommend. A ton of features you'd pay extra for on other cars come standard on the iA, which will have a MSRP of $15,700 for the manual transmission and $16,800 for the automatic. These include: cruise control; keyless entry; push-button start; power windows, locks and exterior mirrors; a standard 60/40 split rear seat (which, along with being able to open the back trunk wall, allows on to stow a surfboard or long IKEA box); control switches for the audio and standard Bluetooth on the steering wheel; and a 7-inch Display Audio system with a touch screen that flips up like a laptop screen, six speakers, remote interface, voice recognition and rear-view camera. (Pandora, Aha and Stitcher also come standard, as do two USB ports and an auxiliary input, but dealers offer the navigation system).

My 2016 Scion iA sports sedan took canyon curves like a European sportscar.
My 2016 Scion iA sports sedan took canyon curves like a European sportscar.

Of course, the most important standard features for a parent putting their child in an iA as a first car are the ones that ensure safety. Besides the aforementioned back-up camera, standard are: a brake override system, front side airbags and curtain airbags to help protect front and rear seat occupants as well as a low-speed pre-collision system that uses a laser sensor to help the driver avoid collisions and to help minimize damage in the event of an accident.

Doug Murtha, the group vice president of the Scion Division, explained at a presentation in Santa Monica the night before the test drives that the iAs were built at a Mazda plant in Mexico--the first time a Scion model has been manufactured anywhere other than Japan. For this reason only, the iA will not carry the Toyota Star Safety certification, although Murtha claimed the sports sedans meet all the same criteria.

Besides saving your butt, the iA saves in the wallet, with its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine getting an estimated miles per gallon of 33 city/42 highway/37 combined for the automatic and 31 city/41 highway/35 combined for the manual.

It's sporty looking with the familiar Scion hexagon lower grille, piano black bumper treatment, chrome grille surround and chrome tailpipe. Other than ruling out Stealth Black, I can't tell you which of these announced color choices corresponds with the model I drove: Abyss, Graphite, Pulse, Sapphire, Sterling and Frost. It would be whichever of those describes dark blue.

I found the trunk quite small, which might explain why the cabin seemed roomier than I expected. My driving partner, who is much taller than me, was able to find comfortable perches in both the front seats after fiddling with the adjusters.

At that Scion presentation, the reps played up the "Pure Process Plus" that allows customers to identify the cars they want through Scion.com, find it at dealerships, apply for credit and secure a price without leaving the couch. Those who take the plunge on any Scion models get a three-year/36,000-mile limited warranty and five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. It also comes with Scion Service Boost, a complimentary plan covering normal factory-scheduled maintenance for two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first, and two years of 24-hour roadside assistance.

On to the iM ...

The choice for a new generation of Scion drivers: the iM five-door hatchback
The choice for a new generation of Scion drivers: the iM five-door hatchback

That lack of power on the highway I mentioned about the iA? Turns out to get it you have to pay about $2,500 more for it. That's because it's packed into the 2016 Scion iM, which has an MSRP of $18,460 for the 6-speed manual transmission and $19,200 for the automatic (a.k.a. CVTi-S model with 7-step shifting).

If I had a choice, I'd start pulling out the couch cushions in search of that extra scratch for the five-door iM hatchback. It feels much roomier inside and its cargo area definitely exceeds the iA's. You're also going to eat it on comparable fuel economy, which is 28 city/37 hwy/32 combined for the CVTi-S and 27 city/36 hwy/31 combined for the manual.

Those are apparently the higher prices on pays for a much more pleasurable driving experience. The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder, 137-horsepower engine, Valvematic continuously variable valve timing (lift and phasing) technology, Continuously Variable Transmission that's been sport-tuned, four-wheel independent suspension, double-wishbone rear suspension, standard 17-inch alloy wheels with fat 225/45R17 tires and Electronic Power Steering system combined to supply outstanding performance on the canyon roads. It handled even more like a sportscar than the sporty sedan--and that was without my having engaged the Sport Mode that alters the CVTi-S shift points and also provides a livelier feel through the electric power steering programming and accelerator responsiveness.

Like the iA, the iM comes with a ton of impressive standard features: cargo cover; auto on/off headlamps; rear back-up camera; 60/40 fold-down rear seats; dual-zone automatic air conditioning control; color-keyed heated power-folding exterior mirrors; noise-muffling acoustic layer windshield, foam-type insulation and floor silencer sheets; real leather wrap on the steering wheel that also has fingertip switches for audio, multi-info display and hands-free phone calls via Bluetooth; a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display that instead of being on a flip-up screen is embedded within the instrument cluster displaying the gear position and other vehicle information; and a six-speaker Pioneer sound system that plays from a variety of sources, including iPods, and is controlled through a 7-inch Pioneer Display Audio unit that also includes standard HD Radio and Aha.

It's also a looker with its hexagon lower grille, sharp-eyed headlights, side bezels with a honeycomb mesh pattern (seen also on the FR-S sports car), piano black grille treatment, sporty body aero kit and LED daytime running lights and taillights The iM color selection: Blizzard Pearl, Classic Silver Metallic, Black Sand Pearl, Spring Green Metallic, Electric Storm Blue and the hue of the one I drove, Barcelona Red Metallic.

The ride comes with eight standard airbags, including a driver's knee airbag and a front passenger seat cushion airbag, and a Whiplash Injury Lessening structure for occupant protection. Because the iM is built in Japan, it does come with the Toyota Star Safety certification.

Available extras include an air intake system, sway bar, lowering springs and pet-friendly accessories such as a dog harness with tether, door guards, seat pet barrier and even a grass pad, which discourages dogs from standing on the center console.

The same Pure Process Plus purchasing process and warranties with the iA come with the iM.

I never got the chance to get my hands on an iM stick shift, but if I had I would have been comforted knowing it comes standard with Hill Start Assist, which helps prevent roll-back when pulling away from a stop sign or traffic light on an incline. Ever been driving a stick in San Francisco and found yourself pointed uphill at a stop sign with a row of cars behind you? Wish I'd had Hill Start Assist then.

Which brings me to that caveat about the iA. After the rest rides were over, those who could drive sticks were needed to ferry cars from roughly the area of the Malibu Pier to the area of the Santa Monica Pier. I jumped at the chance and was amazed, despite not having used a stick shift for years, how smooth a ride it was. Must've been a reflection of my driving prowess and like never forgetting how to ride a bike and all that. Actually, what I learned digging into the press materials was the standard 6-speed manual is compact, lightweight and super low on friction with a short stroke, making it, according to Scion, "one of the sweetest-shifting manuals around."

Until proven otherwise, I don't disagree. But even more, I'd say the stick version gave me that feeling of power I found lacking in the automatic. My drove was mostly from traffic light to traffic light along the coast, but I did get a few chances to open it up a bit, so much so that I had to quickly downshift (oh so smooth) and bark out, "Down boy."

So there you have it: Pay more for the iM if you want the best of these new Scions. If you must get an iA, don't become an auto writer, learn to drive a stick and get the manual.

A $795 delivery, processing and handling fee is not included in the MSRPs cited in this article.

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