Timing may not be everything, but it remains very important when running for president (think George W. Bush and/or John McCain) or, as an OEM, attempting to keep a struggling franchise alive. Of course, it worked out for George, failed to ignite for John and – after some 13 years of trying – will have not worked for Toyota’s youth brand, Scion. Beginning with original reporting by CarBuzzard.com’s BJ Killeen on February 2nd, Toyota has confirmed that, with the end of its current model year in August, the alt rock music that was Scion (Toyota’s youth division) will play no more.
With the perspective of ‘years’ in the business, I can clearly remember the buzz that had built around the Scion debut in 2003. I was working – if you could call it that – at the Dallas Observer, where I combined coverage of the auto industry with a very real attempt to build an auto section supported by automotive and motorcycle advertising. Scion’s target demographic was essentially the Observer’s target demographic, while it quickly became evident that Scion’s marketing team would take their message to the streets – and street events – in the same way the Observer’s marketing team often did. The overlay seemed perfect.
And there, of course, was the product. The diminutive xB looked like nothing else on the American market, offering a relatively original mashup of Japanese market kei car and Chevy’s Astro van. Offering light weight, a relatively responsive chassis and functionality well in excess of its exterior footprint the xB seemed the perfect antidote to the onset of conformity and/or middle age. It was all about Gen Y, even though the xB’s upright seating and generous greenhouse attracted its share of the Gen Y’s parents.
There was also, regrettably, the xA, a 4-door hatch that was the onset of conformity. If the xB was the fun Bush twin (Jenna), the xA was Barbara. And no, not Jenna’s sister…George’s mother. In much the same way as Lexus punted when it came time to add a second Lexus – the ES 250 – to the original lineup, and Infiniti paired the excellent Q45 with the marginal M30, so did Scion launch with one for the ages and a companion model for the aged. While the xA didn’t invent automotive boredom, it did absolutely nothing to reduce it.
Sadly, the excitement at Scion essentially ended with the 1st-gen xB. Its successor, also dubbed xB, had grown; we’ll guess that growth was due to Toyota’s penchant for listening to clinic participants asking for bigger this and wider that. The xA became the xD, without really changing anything within its automotive menu or reach. The only other bright spot in Scion’s dozen years of gestation was the debut of the FR-S, a tightly drawn 2+2 created in partnership with Subaru. As you’d guess, tightly drawn (and fun to drive) 2+2’s have a relatively short shelf life…and even its palpable excitement at launch has passed.
And since we’ve mentioned timing, know we received – over the last two weeks – the latest examples of Scion’s small output. First up was the all-new iM, introduced as a 2016 and originating as a Toyota-sourced 4-door hatch. Competing against the Ford Focus, Mazda3 5-door, Volkswagen’s Golf and Hyundai’s Elantra GT, the new Scion is attractive on the outside, well-appointed on the inside and competently engineered. It is, after all, a Toyota…
I have at least one friend owning a Camry and wishing it had a hatch. He’d probably opt for an automatic/CVT rather than our test car’s 6-speed manual once he had sampled the manual’s entirely-too-vague linkage, but he’d like the well-appointed interior – especially in light of the iM’s under-$20K price point – along with the generous rear seat and accommodating luggage area.
The iM’s chassis checks all of the boxes, with 4-wheel disc brakes and all-independent suspension, but this isn’t your younger brother’s hot hatch; all of the above is tuned for an aspiring Camry owner who simply can’t bring him-or-herself to actually buy a Camry. But comfy shouldn’t be confused with sloppy. While lacking the tautness of a Golf or Mazda3, neither will the iM’s suspension or steering do anything to confuse you. And should you wish to tighten up the iM’s underpinnings, know that Toyota’s performance arm, TRD, would be happy to oblige. Although the Scion’s 137 horsepower – from a 1.8 liter four – doesn’t inspire, neither is it absent when merging or passing; we only wish the 6-speed manual delivered more joy in the manual process. Manually stimulating it ain’t.
Since its inception, value has been one of the benchmarks of the Scion brand, and the iM certainly delivers on both the premise and promise. Its well-equipped base is but $18,460, while floor mats, cargo tray and rear bumper protector add another $354. With $795 in destination you’re out-the-door at just over $19,600, striking us as an outstanding buy in the category, well south of a comparatively equipped Mazda and roughly equal to the Hyundai or Kia equivalent.
Scion V2/Week 2 was the equally new iA, which comes with a decidedly different history. While the iM is engineered and assembled by Toyota, the iA is sourced from a Mazda-owned assembly plant in Mexico. This is the Mazda2 hatch, but instead of the hatch it comes with a trunk, making it the first sedan with a Scion nameplate. From a personal perspective we wish Toyota/Scion had kept the hatch, as the Mazda2 – when still available in the U.S. – made for one of the more attractive subcompact 5-doors. But they didn’t, and despite looking more than a little like your mother’s Corolla, the new iA is, to channel Mr. Obama in 2008, likable enough.
Inside, we were moderately impressed by Toyota’s moderate attempt to bring some semblance of quality to a $16K interior. It is, of course, plastic, but it’s not coarse plastic; the interior reflects little of the cheapness you’ll typically see on cars aimed at an entry-level buyer. The 7-inch touch-screen display is front and center. And with that, of course, is the necessary two-step procedure to change a radio station. If buyers for millennial-specific cars are drying up, perhaps we could get back to conventional dashboard arrangements.
If the exterior lacks the visual zoom we’ve come to expect from Mazda, know that at least a semblance of same remains underneath. Obviously, there’s only so much you can do with 1.6 liters and 106 horsepower, but a manual 6-speed that’s as precise as the iM’s stick is poorly connected does quite a bit in warming you to the idea. Add nicely weighted steering and a suspension which controls body lean (to a degree you wouldn’t expect from the iA’s upright proportions), and you have a small economy sedan that actually impresses as a small sport sedan. But be prepared to rev the bejesus out of it.
Again, like the iM the spec is simple: Pick a trans (manual or automatic), pick your color and pick your dealer. With no options our iA came in at $16,500 with destination, and while that number is compelling a Mazda3 sedan starts at just $2K more, and offers more interior room, more horsepower and a discernible boost in refinement. Or buy the iM!
In sum, I wish I didn’t feel as if I was writing an obituary. I think the Scion brand offered both young people and young thinkers a viable alternative to what was typically found on a Japanese showroom, and did so at a time when the other Japanese imports – Honda and Nissan, specifically – had seemed to have forgotten how attractive affordable ‘fun’ could be. The xB was amusingly different, the later tC coupe was at least competent, and the FR-S – with some aftermarket development – was as visceral as anything this side of $30K. The iA, iM and FR-S will remain in the Toyota lineup later this year, while Scion’s innovative marketing approach probably won’t.
RIP (Rest in Plymouth)