Payne: iDrive the Scion iM and iA

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I’m a 25-year-old hiding out in a 53-year-old body. Which is why I just got a knee replacement so I can keep playing tournament tennis. Which is why “Minions” is my favorite movie of 2015 (OK, maybe I’m a 12-year old).

Which explains why I’ve been a fan of Toyota’s youth brand, Scion.

I like their bookshelf-style auto show display. Their Apple-like, lower-case-upper-case alphanumeric badges like tC and xB. Saturn-like, mono-spec, no-haggle pricing. And don’t even get me started on the sensational, tossable, pure-sports car FR-S.

So am I a fan of the new iM and iA? iThink. iShouldbe. iDunno.

Scion is in transition. Gone for 2016 is the square xB (boxy is soooo 15 minutes ago). Gone is the iQ (another mini-car ignored by Americans). Replaced by the more mainstream iM and iA sedans with a third player to be named later (I’ll get to that). I understand. Because not only did Toyota create the brand to bring new customers to its doors, it’s also an incubator. A test tube for ideas, misfits, mutants.

Call it Frankenscion.

The sporty, Toyota-conceived FR-S is a rebadged Subaru BRZ. And now the iM and iA twins are Scion’s first entry in the small sedan and hatch market. Except, in typical Scion fashion, they aren’t a pair at all — but two very different bots assembled from different parts bins.

Start with the five-door iM. The hatch. Readers of these columns know I’m hip to hatches. To the point of irrationality. As a juror I voted the Volkswagen GTI the 2015 North American Car of the Year over the all-new, all-cool Mustang GT. Even though the V-dub hasn’t changed much in three generations. Oh, yes, some of you gave it to me good and loud. No matter, hatches are the best combination of utility and fun and the GTI is the standard.

But I’m preaching into a prairie wind. What most Americans want are hatches on stilts. Crossovers. So iM puzzles: Why a Scion hatch and not a crossover to compete in the hot-as-Hades subcompact ute segment against the Jeep Renegade, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, et al?

Trendy, youthful. Heck, another struggling youth brand, Fiat, has figured it out with its massively cute Fiat 500X — a 500 on stilts that is finally connecting the brand to what Yanks want. No doubt, the Scion crossover is on the way (that player to come) along with Toyota’s own late-to-the-party offering. But driving the iM I can’t help but think Scion missed its moment.

Enough. As they say back home in Appalachia: Ya’ dance with who brung ya’.

The Frankenscion iM is a U.S. variant of the Japanese Auris which is built on the Corolla chassis. The front and rear ends sport jaunty angles, aggressive intake gills, topped off with a boomerang grille (side-skirt cladding optional). Sure, the Toyota Yaris and Corolla S have received recent upgrades after Akio Toyoda’s demand that his cars get more stylish or there were gonna be some whoopin’s. But the iM is even sleeker, more European.

When I ask patient Toyota reps why the brand doesn’t make a pocket rocket like the Ford Focus ST or VW GTI, the answer is: “We have Scions.”

But despite its come-hither wardrobe, the iM is hardly a hot hatch. Reach for the leather-webbed gear knob (nice), stomp on the accelerator pedal and ... a little 1.8 liter 4-banger howls with all the conviction of 137 rodents in a gerbil wheel. Sigh.

In “Young Frankenstein” Marty Feldman’s Igor (iGor?) mistakenly fetches an “Abby Normal” brain to power the good doctor’s creation. The iM is like that. The drivetrain doesn’t fit the iM’s ambitions. The underpowered 4-holer will buzz like a bee’s nest under power, but once up to highway speeds it’s easy on the ears and gas. Despite my lead foot, gas mileage was excellent at 31 mpg around town.

Inside, Scion is a Toyota. For better or worse. The interior is nicely appointed with soft touch materials and intuitive, matte-black console buttons. And the voice recognition system on my tester was superb — and had no problem with my hillbilly drawl. Other details annoy. The hard console edges that cut into my knees. The cruise control stalk that takes me two days to figure out.

For anyone who wishes for a Corolla hatch, the iM is it. For those who wished Mazda would bring its ZOOM ZOOM to the U.S subcompact market, say hello to the iA.

Scion went to Mazda’s Mexico plant, skinned a Mazda 2 and brought it across the border disguised as a Scion. Same pop-up infotainment screen. Same console-mounted rotary dial. Same horizontal dash vents. The drivetrain is all Mazda too — a 1.5-liter Skyactiv engine that is both peppy and a sippy 42 mpg.

So why does the iA look so grumpy? Ditching the Mazda’s pleasant facade, the iA gets a polarizing, Lexus-like maw. Frankenscion with Frankenstein’s face. The gaping mouth doesn’t fit the shapely Mazda behind it. If only Scion offered a Mazda-like smiley grille with its healthy list of standard features. Features like backup camera, push-button start, and 7-inch touch screen.

Those features — and Scion’s unique mono-spec pricing strategy — are Scion’s biggest strength. In a brand with a complicated quilt of body styles, Scion’s defining trait is its simple “Pure Process” sales experience.

It’s like putting together a Dell computer online. I went to Scion.com late on a Sunday night to simulate buying an iM. “Possibly the Easiest Car Buying Process in Three Simple Steps” boasts the website — and iWas impressed. I watched a quick video then picked the color, tranny, and a la carte accessories I wanted. Just like adding a printer, monitor, warranty, etc. to your Dell order. When I had questions about anything, I just asked for an online expert (Adrian was mine) who helpfully guided me around. When done, I picked the dealer closest to me — and a salesman called me Monday morning. No kidding. Like the Saturn experience of yore, Scion buyers might actually enjoy the buying process.

What a concept.

Still ... to feed my inner 25-year-old, I FR-Sure want the Scion sports car. Would I pick a Scion hatch over a 170-horsepower VW Golf? iM not sold. Can Scion compete with a 37-mpg, turbo 3-banger Focus? iAin’t convinced.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com.

2016 Scion iM

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback

Price: $19,255 base price ($20,603 manual as tested)

Power plant: 1.8-liter, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder

Power: 137 horsepower, 126 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.8-9.5 seconds (Car and Driver)

Weight: 2,943 pounds (manual); 3,031 (CVT)

Fuel economy: EPA 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/32 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: No-haggle buying experience; standard options

Lows: iMeh styling; iMeh performance


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★

2016 Scion iA

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $16,495 base price ($17,258 manual as tested)

Power plant: 1.5-liter, dual overhead cam 4-cylinder

Power: 106 horsepower, 103 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual; Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.0 seconds (Car and Driver)

Weight: 2,385 pounds (manual); 2,416 (auto)

Fuel economy: EPA 31 mpg city/41 mpg highway/35 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: No-haggle buying experience; standard options

Lows: Oh, that face; makes you wish Mazda imported their 2