2016 Scion iA: Small car making big waves [First Look]

2016 Scion iA front

What if inexpensive didn't have to be cheap?

According to Scion, it doesn't.

In fact, with the launch of the new iA, I think Scion might have just set a new bar for entry-level sedans.

As Doug Murtha, group vice president of Scion, pointed out during the press preview, the person who will buy this car wants something that's affordable but aspirational. So they want a bold design, cool features and something that won't break the bank.

Not a problem.

The iA comes standard with a rear back-up camera, 2 USB ports, push-button start, slow-speed pre-collision safety system and Bluetooth phone pairing.

Standard. For under $17K.

Plus, if you want navigation, it's only a $395 add.

Bold design? iA has it in spades. In fact, Murtha went so far as to call it polarizing.

Product expert David Lee explained that the goal was to make it stand out.

"You may not like the front end," he said. "But you will notice it."

Me? I actually kind of liked it. The wide-mouthed grille is definitely different, and the more I looked at it, the more it grew on me.

The iA is a joint effort with Mazda and based on the Mazda2 platform. You may remember the goofy-faced little hatchback that had some crazy bright colors. It stopped production in the U.S. in 2014 and has now been reincarnated in the sedan form from Scion.

Mazda produces both the sedan and hatchback in other markets and will continue to do so, and the automaker says that if it ever does bring the Mazda2 back to the U.S. it will only be in hatchback form so as to not compete with the iA.

But, I have to say that even if Mazda did bring a 2 sedan to market, I'm not sure it could compete with the iA. The iA was that good.

Though the iA has a slew of current competitors, including the Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta and Nissan Versa, not one has the up-level feel or comparable amenities.

I thought the interior of the iA was really well done. The leather on the dash and the 7-inch infographic screen perched on top of the center stack give the appearance of a much more high-end vehicle. The buttons and dials all felt solid, and overall the interior fit and finish was well-done for such a low-cost vehicle.

I will admit I do have mixed feelings about the mono-spec blue-and-black seating surfaces. It's more because of the color than because of the quality. I just have to wonder if the blue will become dated in a couple years. Then again, I'm also matchy matchy, and I'd either have to get a blue or a black paint job just because of the seat color.

Oh, and the headrests were awful. They punched me in the back of the head, forcing me to either tilt my head forward or lean the seat back so that they would stop touching me. This ended up giving me a crick in my neck, and if I had a ponytail, the situation would have been worse.

The engine in the iA is a 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder that delivers 106 horsepower and 103 pound-feet of torque. While this might not seem like a lot of power, I thought it was just right for the size and class of vehicle.

I had the opportunity to drive both the standard 6-speed manual transmission as well as the 6-speed automatic. In my book, the hands-down winner was the manual - and that's not just because I'm a #savethemanual fan. It truly was the better transmission in terms of power and throttle control. The automatic had lackluster throttle response in normal mode, and though it does improve in sport mode, it also gets louder because the RPMs idle higher.

The other problem I had with this transmission: I felt engine vibration coming through the brake pedal in sport mode. It was really odd, and when I told the engineers, they thought I was crazy - until I told them to drive the car in their socks. I was wearing thin-soled sandals, and they were wearing work boots. Turns out I wasn't completely crazy.

To be fair, I did not feel the same vibration in normal mode. But normal mode was bo-ring.

The iA may have an econobox price, but it doesn't have econobox ride and handling. It was comfortable on the highway and fairly competent on curvy roads.

The even better story is the best-in-class fuel economy. The manual transmission gets 31 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway. The available automatic transmission ups the MPGs to 33 in the city and 42 on the highway.

Base price for the iA is $15,700 with the manual transmission, excluding the destination fee. If you want the automatic transmission, it's a $1,100 price hike.

While the Fiesta, Accent and Versa are all priced lower than the iA, some of the features that come standard on the iA - such as the rear back-up camera and 16-inch wheels - are either not available or only available as options. Then there's the pre-collision safety system and push-button start, which aren't available at all.

My time with the iA was brief, but I got enough of a sense of the vehicle to know it's a pretty solid new entry for the brand. The up-level features combined with the bold and, yes, polarizing design make it something different for the new Millennial customer who's finally in the market to buy a car.

Backed by a 2-year/25K no-cost maintenance program, the iA becomes an even better buy.

The 2016 Scion iA will be available in dealers starting Sept. 1.


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