CALGARY – Scion is all grown up.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being cheap-and-cheerful, which was originally the point behind Toyota’s entry-level brand. Scion cars featured offbeat styling and were inexpensive, but they could also feel like what you paid for them, with hard seats and tinny doors.
Now, there’s the iM, a new hatchback that feels less like a Scion and more like a Toyota. It is a Toyota, of course, as are almost all Scion models, which are repackaged versions of the company’s global-market cars, save for the Subaru-sourced FR-S. In this case, the iM is the Toyota Auris hatchback, which morphs into a Scion that’s quiet, substantial, and feels far more upscale than its price.
Pricing starts at $21,165 for a six-speed manual, or $21,990 with a CVT. Scion’s strategy is to offer a single trim line with dealer add-on accessories, which in this case means such things as navigation, premium sound system and block heater, and later on, TRD lowering springs and exhaust.
(Disclosure: Travel, accommodation, meals, and a pre-set driving route were provided to the author by the manufacturer.)
Breaking new ground
The iM also marks a new direction for Scion, a brand that hasn’t enjoyed the sales success Toyota expected when it was brought to Canada five years ago. Part of that is distribution, and to that end, Scion is adding 50 new dealers this year, for a total of 146 that will better cover the country’s major small-car markets. The line will also trim its slower-selling models when the tiny iQ and boxy xD are discontinued. And for those who might not realize the connection to its better-known parent, it will also now be branded as “Scion by Toyota.”
This new hatchback could potentially pick up a lot of buyers who have finally wrung the last few kilometres out of their old Toyota Matrixes and want something similar. The company expects that, by next year, the new iM will make up 56 per cent of all Scion sales.
I can see it, because overall, this car’s a winner. Throughout my day’s drive, in both stick- and CVT-equipped models, what came through loudest is how much car you get for $20,000. The iM is based on the Corolla platform, and while it isn’t anywhere as sporty as Scion would like you to think, it delivers a smooth, stable and quiet ride that could easily have earned it a Toyota badge as a new Matrix (which was, essentially, a Corolla hatchback), if it didn’t have a job to do in pulling Scion up.
The powerplant is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder with dual variable valve timing, cranking out 137 horsepower and 126 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s not a lot these days, and the iM can be a bit slow to respond when you stomp the pedal for more power on the highway. But if you’re smooth off the line, the iM builds its speed without any fuss. The car feels substantial without being heavy, and it’s quiet and stable enough that the odd foray up to 130 km/h didn’t feel anywhere near that fast.
The base transmission is a six-speed manual, while the automatic is a CVT that’s well-matched to this engine and with no rubber-band feel. It has seven pre-set “shift” points, but you have to use the shift lever, since there are no paddle shifters. The auto-equipped model also has a button-activated Sport mode that holds those points a little longer, but as with most CVTs, it mostly gives you a lot of sound and no fury.
Fuel economy numbers for the stick shift are 8.6 L/100 km in the city and 6.6 on the highway, while the CVT rates slightly better at 8.3 and 6.3 respectively.
What you see is what you get
While the production iM’s design isn’t quite as cool as the concept version that made the rounds of the auto shows last year, which featured a Lexus-style spindle grille and straked hood, it’s still handsome overall. The standard aero body kit won’t be to all tastes: I like the front fascia, but the side skirts look tacked-on instead of integrated.
What you see is what you get: standard LED daytime running lights and taillights, automatic projector-beam headlights, and 17-inch wheels, with a choice of six paint colours.
There’s a fairly long list of standard features inside as well, including dual-zone automatic climate control, backup camera, 7-inch touchscreen stereo, leather-wrapped tilt and telescopic steering wheel, eight airbags, 60/40 flat-folding rear seats, variable intermittent wipers, cruise control, and Scion’s first programmable TFT screen in the instrument cluster. The cabin is handsomely designed and full of soft-touch surfaces, and it’s a really nice place to be.
But leaving off heated seats for Canada is a major omission, and I would gladly trade the car’s stock power-folding mirrors for them (especially since the mirrors can’t be programmed to tuck in when you lock the car). Scion says it will eventually offer them as a dealer-installed option, fitting the pads into the existing seats rather than swapping them out for new chairs.
As mentioned, the iM is solid rather than sporty. It’s spacious inside, and the front seats are more supportive and comfortable than I expected. The electric power steering is tuned fairly well, and although it’s a bit vague on-centre, there’s more feedback than you usually get in Toyota’s mainstream offerings. With a lack of twisty roads on our test drive, I didn’t get much chance to toss it into the switchbacks, but the iM was stable and showed minimal body roll on a couple of hard curves.
The big difference between this and most of Scion’s other models is how quiet the cabin is, thanks in part to an acoustic windshield.
Right on target?
Opting for the six-speed brings down the price, but doesn’t really add that much to the experience, especially with the shifter’s long throws. But it will easily forgive less-than-experienced drivers, especially since hill start assist is also standard equipment.
Scion is targeting those younger buyers in the iM’s sales campaign, the largest it’s ever mounted for any of its cars, but I don’t really think that’s the audience it’s going to hit. Instead, I expect this is going to be another Toyota Matrix, a car also aimed at a younger crowd, but which found its greatest success with their parents.
And that’s not a bad thing. The Matrix was a well-priced, well-outfitted and stout little performer that easily earned the loyalty its owners showed it. While it’ll come with a different badge, the iM is poised to fill the hole the Matrix left on its departure, which could finally give Scion the sales-success model it has always needed.
The cabin’s appearance and materials, the overall performance, and the big-car feel are not only far better and more mature than most of Scion’s models to date, but they also feel much better than the price. For those who haven’t considered Scion before, this is the car that’s going to do it.