Remember the Toyota Matrix? Or, for you badge engineering fetishists, the Pontiac Vibe? That’s what the 2016 Scion iM reminds me of. That’s not a bad thing at all, but if Scion thinks this is a replacement for the first-gen xB, they’re deluded.
There’s nothing actually wrong with the iM. In fact, it’s pretty good, for what it is. But there’s nothing all that remarkable about it, either, and aside from a slightly aggressive body kit and a few mild bolt-on performance enhancers, there’s no real reason it should be a Scion as opposed to a Toyota.
My biggest issues with the Scion iM aren’t really about the car itself, but more about the badge, and the lost potential that badge represents. Scion was supposed to be Toyota’s youth-oriented brand, or maybe their experimental, risk-taking brand, depending on who you asked. They certainly started out that way, and their first real success, the still quite JDM-ish xB, was a perfect example of why the brand may have a real niche here in America.
But the problem was Scion got scared of their own success. They started to overthink everything, and as a result, filtered away everything that made them interesting. The xB was redesigned into an unappealing shadow of its former self, losing the qualities that made it a winner early on. Sure, they managed to snag the GT86 under their own name, but that they had to share with Subaru’s BRZ twin, and the iQ, while a novel design, was always doomed to be a niche player.
As Scion stands right now, the best you can say about them is that they’re Toyota’s cheap brand, with some half-assed attempts to make things edgy. The cars aren’t bad, but, considering all the interesting things Toyota could be doing with the brand, in the same translate-from-Japanese way that they did turning the Toyota bB into the Scion xB, the brand is a limp reminder of lost potential.
Still, this isn’t a bad car, so I’ll try to just think of it on its own terms here and not let the name on its nose color my opinion too much.
What is it?
The iM is, basically, a little five-door wagon. That’s a very good thing to be. You can even get one with a manual six-speed, which is great, though for testing I just had the CVT. Like I said earlier, if you can imagine a more modernized Toyota Matrix, that’s what it is.
More specifically, almost everywhere else on Earth the iM is a Toyota Auris, a hatchback version of the Corolla. This is the second generation of that car, and the first time we’ve seen it stateside, though it’s made of pretty familiar parts.
How’s it look?
Not bad! It’s got a sleek, wedgy profile not all that different from a Honda Fit or one of those little shuttles on Star Trek. The body kit actually does enhance the look a good bit here, making the car feel lower and somewhat more futuristic, at the expense of a little ground clearance.
The wheels are interesting, directional blender-blades and the front end, with its high-contrast, wide-V grille that flows into the angled headlights, looks distinctive and fits the character of the car.
The one I had to test was silver, which is too boring a color for this car, but I’m pleased to see that there’s at least three real, vivid colors available beyond the ubiquitous black, silver, and white.
How’s it drive?
Fundamentally, fine. For the jobs that this car is designed to do, it works. That said, it’s not an especially engaging car to drive, really. It’s powered by the 2ZR-FAE 1.8-liter four cylinder engine that’s also used in the Corolla.
This engine uses Toyota’s Valvematic system, which sounds like something you could have optioned on a DeSoto in 1955. Toyota must be pretty proud of the system, which continuously adjusts valve lift and timing, because they cast VALVE MATIC in big letters on the plastic engine cozy. It’s a technology more geared to fuel economy, which you can tell, because for all that advanced valve-dancing, it only puts out 137 HP and 90 Nrp (126 lb-ft) of torque.
Those 137 udon-fed horses do produce adequate power, but it’s significantly less than, say, a 155 HP Mazda3. It’ll get to 60 in 8.6 seconds, which is fine, but driving this just wasn’t all that much fun.
Now, a lot of the blame probably goes to the CVT. I suspect with the standard 6-speed manual, you could get a lot more out of the car, and the driving experience would likely be much more engaging.
The CVT used here is a little strange, as Toyota has sought to avoid some of that laggy, clutch-slipping feeling of regular CVTs by having their CVTi-S fake seven shift points. I didn’t find this to help at all with that slippy CVT feel, and, beyond that, I find the fake-shift-point thing unappealing conceptually.
Look, a CVT offers infinite gear ratios — that’s a good thing. Yes, they feel like crap to drive (except in a Daf I drove once, very briefly — that was sublime) but at least you have, at the back of your head, that little image of cones and belts and you can rationalize the weird feeling with the knowledge that, deep down, it’s based on sound engineering principles.
Once you start faking shift points, you lose all that. Look, if it’s not going to be an infinite ramp between gear ratios, and you’re breaking down into seven stair-steps, what’s the point? Just stick a real gearshift in my sticky hand and let’s quit fucking around.
What about turning and stopping?
It does both! The handling’s not bad – it has McPhearsons up front, and a surprisingly decent multilink suspension at the rear, which is more of a rarity in this segment. I’m sure you could have some fun with this at an autocross, if you really wanted to, but I wouldn’t expect to come home with a trophy.
It’s got disc brakes all around which is, again, a bit of a step up in this segment that often still sticks cheap but functional drums at the rear. Stopping was quick and confident, though I admit I didn’t try anything really nuts.
What about the inside?
The inside of the iM is like an overpriced trendy restaurant, in that the quality is surprisingly good, but the portions are too small. What I mean by that is that, for the price of this car, the interior looks and feels better than you’d expect, but it’s oddly cramped.
I know the iM is not a big car to begin with, but even with that in mind, I found the interior just a little claustrophobic, mostly in height. This was most pronounced in the luggage area, which isn’t too bad a size, but the floor seems a bit high and the roof seems a bit low.
I think this is the result of styling goals that dictated a slightly chopped greenhouse, and I know that’s fashionable, but if I actually had to live with this car, I think I’d want those extra inches.
The real value of a low-priced, five-door wagon is in how useful it is. Making it look good and fun to drive and fuel efficient are, of course, extremely important, but when it comes down to it, your feelings about living with the car will be colored most by how much can you get in it when you need to, how difficult is it to get your kid in the back, and how you feel inside it.
The car from Scion’s original lineup that this car is meant to replace, the xB, was a champion at this. The iM, not so much. Yes, I got my kid’s bike in there, but it wasn’t as easy as getting it in my 1st-gen xB, and it doesn’t have nearly the room or flexibility of that original Scion box I can’t stop comparing it to.
Space complaints aside, there are some nice design details in the interior, like the contrasting-white padded lower-dash section, the well-designed round air vents, the contrasting white stitching, and the glossy black plastic used for the center stack bezel.
How about gadgets and screens and blinky lights and all that crap?
The iM is pretty well-featured for a car that starts under $20,000. There’s a small color LCD in the instrument cluster, and a large one in the center stack, though there’s no nav and the interface, like all of these, looks and feels like a knockoff iPhone called the Apeel iTelephone or something.
The biggest surprise in a car of this class is that there’s dual-zone climate controls, which I’m not sure I’ve seen on a car this cheap. That’s a nice touch. As you’d expect, you’ve got Bluetooth and a USB port, automatic lights, a rear-view camera, and all of the other bits ripped out of a laptop that almost everything has today.
Does it make sense, money-wise?
The Scion iM is a reasonable value for the money, but not an amazing value. It starts at $19,255 for the 6-speed, which you should get, and save the extra $740 for stick-shift driving lessons, if you have to. For what you get, the price isn’t bad, at least until you see that a Mazda3 5-door hatch starts at $18,545, and a Honda Fit is as cheap as $15,890. I’m not really sure the iM is a better choice than those two cars.
The iM comes better featured than the Mazda or Honda standard, so the price difference probably isn’t as vast when you go through and really compare everything at as close to the same specs as you can, but I’m still not sold that the iM is a better deal.
The iM gets a decent 28 MPG city, 37 highway, and in my driving I saw numbers that fit pretty well in that range. Toyota has a pretty great reliability record, so I wouldn’t guess this car, pulling as heavily as it does from established Toyota bits, would prove to be anything other than reliable.
There’s nothing actually wrong with the iM, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed. Less so in the car (which really could have been badged a Toyota) and more the Scion brand. What do they want to be? If they want to stand out from Toyota, cars like this are not going to cut it.
If they want to be a dumping ground for cheaper cars so Toyota can be pushed upmarket, that seems silly. If they want to be experimental or edgy or youth-oriented or whatever, great, but if you’re going to do it, do it.
I’ll have some suggestions for that coming next week. That should give you time to gather up all your Scion people, Toyota, and get them some fresh notebooks and snacks.
Oh, right, the car — should you buy it? Eh, if you really like the look, or your sister manages a Scion dealership, sure, why not. If you’re not married to the look and are free of sibling obligations, maybe shop around.
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