FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Scion iA

Fun-sized sensibility, emphasis on fun.

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August 10, 2015

FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Scion iA

It's a solid bargain, and if there's one thing we love in our Groupon-curated culture, it's a good deal.

Introduction
Toyota and Mazda are getting cozy. The two automakers have entered into a partnership, wherein both sides will share different technologies with each other, building upon earlier sharing ventures. One of those earlier ventures is now known as the 2016 Scion iA - at its essence, it's a new Mazda2 subcompact sedan with a Toyota-branded candy shell. It's rocking an interior that's nearly entirely Mazda-based, the engine is a Mazda-sourced Skyactiv-G four-pot, and there are definitely plenty of Kodo (Mazda's current design language) influences on the body.

But we're not here to talk about it as a Mazda. This is a Scion here in the States, and it's aimed squarely at the heart of Scion's target demographic - young Millennials with the desire to drive a reliable (and, perhaps more importantly, new) car that's short on neither equipment nor fun.

Looking at the car through that lens, it's already a success. For a starting MSRP of $15,700 (sans $795 destination), you get a hyper-efficient sedan that likes to be tossed around and is pretty well-equipped using Scion's 'monospec' system. It's not perfect - I mean, what sub-$16,000 car could be? - but it should strike the right chords with the under-40 crowd.

2016 Scion iA Interior Being a car on the lower end of the price spectrum, the 2016 Scion iA is replete with hard plastic - atop the dashboard, all over the door panels, the usual suspects in the usual places. That said, just because it's cheap doesn't mean it needs to feel cheap, too, and the iA does a good job of feeling like a more expensive car. Faux carbon-fiber trim adorns the wheel and center console, and there's a nice soft-touch leatherette strip that splits the dashboard from side to side. The seats have a nice texture to them, as well.

Given that this is a Mazda underneath, you're not going to find too much in common with other Scion models inside the iA. The switchgear utilizes Mazda imagery and fonts, and the Mazda-supplied infotainment system accepts both touch and control-knob inputs (Toyota infotainment systems are touch-only). This is not a bad thing - I've always enjoyed Mazda's control layouts, and the infotainment system is snappy and easy to learn.

That said, Scion touts the iA as an aspirational vehicle that will help introduce buyers to a brand that they'll want to settle in with for the long-term. I think it might get a bit confusing when they move to another vehicle in the same brand and have to contend with a radically different interior design language with different button placement and infotainment menus. Thus is the conundrum that comes with partnerships of this type.
2016 Scion iA Exterior Okay, maybe it's harder than I thought to not talk about the 2016 iA without mentioning Mazda. If you're familiar with other Mazda vehicles, everything from the front fenders back should look familiar. The side character lines follow Mazda's Kodo design language, creating strong, flowing fenders that end at a flat rear-end sporting thin taillights. Scion's true influence on the iA comes by way of the front end, which is ... an acquired taste, much like the fish it resembles.

Scion was quick to note that its polarizing design tested well with focus groups, and I'm not here to argue the subjective nature of exterior design. It's a striking look that does draw attention, no matter which side of the fence your opinion sits on. It has some elements of Lexus's 'gaping maw' front grille, and I like to think that it helps bring the Scion brand back towards the 'quirky little nephew' status that it used to have, back when it first arrived in the U.S.

If the car appeals to you in every way but looks, don't forget: You don't have to look at it while you're driving it.
2016 Scion iA On the Road This is where it goes from a good car to a great car. The Scion iA is an absolute delight to hustle around. The spirited-driving sort among us will treat this car like it's an alley cat going after your dog - you'll want to grab it by the scruff and drop-kick it over the county line. But whether you're driving it for those all-important emm-pee-gees or that all-important redline, you won't be let down.

The iA is powered by (damn it, here we go again) Mazda's 1.5-liter Skyactiv-G inline-4, which puts out an unimpressive-on-paper 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft. But, with a curb weight of 2,385 pounds, it's not lacking for power in the urban environs in which its target demographic resides.

Out in the sticks, which is where I tested the vehicle, it could use between 10 and 15 additional horsepower. Getting up to speed on a 55-mph road from a stop sign can be a hassle; if you don't let the iA run through most of its short first gear, you're going to be stuck under 2,000 RPM in second gear, at which point the iA becomes a gutless wonder. Keep the revs up if you need to get anywhere in a hurry.

Despite needing to spend a good deal of time in the top half of the revs, the iA returned some excellent gas-mileage numbers. It's rated at 41-42 mpg highway, but stretching that out to 45 or higher is relatively easy. In mixed city-highway driving with a heavy right foot, I still saw about 40 mpg. Not too shabby.

In terms of ride quality, the Mazda surprised me. With its torsion-bar rear suspension and a pair of what-decade-is-it-again drum brakes out back, I expected cheap-car handling that felt less 'car' and more 'cheap.' Yet that wasn't the case at all. At normal speeds, handling was as neutral as it could be, with flat cornering and tight, precise steering earning some of my gold stars. In a few contrived panic-brake situations, the pedal feel was strong, and the drums did a fine job of bringing this lightweight down to zero. When the turns get real tight, prodigious body roll creeps in, but that's my biggest complaint.

NVH is staggeringly good for the price. The Skyactiv-G goes whisper-quiet at a stop, and it doesn't shake like so many other inexpensive cars do. At highway speeds, there is a bit of road noise, but to my delight, wind buffeting was damn near nonexistent. It's surprisingly solid at double nickels.

Other cars in this segment have similar driving characteristics, but I prefer the iA. The Ford Fiesta is too tall, the Chevrolet Sonic feels like its suspension was set up by a person who's never put the words 'fun' and 'car' in the same sentence.

Trunk space is prodigious, too. I don't really know where else to put this tidbit.
2016 Scion iA Final Thoughts When you think of $16,000 subcompact cars, you probably imagine some bare-bones crapbox with plastic hubcaps and crank windows. Well, thanks to Scion's 'monoprice' strategy, where you only get one choice of trim level, your preconceived notions might require some adjustment. For the base price mentioned in the section below, you get the following doodads, among others:

- Alloy wheels
- Keyless entry with push-button start
- Backup camera
- Seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system
- Low-speed automatic braking

Yes, that's right; for $16,000, you get a car that will brake when you forget to. You can barely find that option in some higher-end models, and it makes this one of a tiny number of tiny vehicles theoretically capable of earning the IIHS's Top Safety Pick+ designation (crash-test results are still on the way, as of this writing). Many of these systems are things that younger drivers want - they want to be safe, but they don't want to be left behind without their touchscreens and fancy wireless keys.

Should this car be a hit with the younger demographic? I definitely think so. It's inexpensive, but it's packing a healthy blend of what I love about Mazda and Toyota vehicles - everything from driving dynamics to interior appointments are on par with more expensive cars. It's a solid bargain, and if there's one thing we love in our Groupon-curated culture, it's a good deal.
2016 Scion iA Specs & Price Engine: 1.5-liter naturally-aspirated direct-injection inline-4

Transmissions: Six-speed manual, six-speed automatic

Drivetrain Layout: Front-engine, front-wheel drive

Power Output: 106 horsepower / 103 lb-ft

Fuel Economy (MPG, Manual): 31 city / 41 highway

Fuel Economy (MPG, Automatic): 33 city / 42 highway

Base Price (Manual): $15,700

Base Price (Automatic): $16,800

Available Features: Navigation

On-Sale Date: September 1, 2015

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