2004 Scion xA Road Test

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2004 Scion xA Hatchback

(1.5L 4-cyl. 4-speed Automatic)

Prequel to the Matrix

For the film industry, the prequel provides a lucrative answer to questions like, "How can we make money off people who were too young to enjoy the original release of the Star Wars trilogy films?" However you might feel about the quality of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it's hard to argue with their box office returns or the limitless potential for movie-related consumer products, like video games. Such questions and answers occur to auto manufacturers, too. Dismayed by the large number of 40- and 50-year-olds seen walking around its dealerships, Toyota has created the Scion brand to go after buyers under 25 (or thereabouts) who are evidently too young to know that it can be cool to own a Toyota-branded vehicle. Scions are still Toyotas, but both the vehicles and the buying experience have been repackaged for a younger audience.

Much will be made of the Scion xB, which looks like nothing else on the market, save for a passing resemblance to Honda's Element. In addition, it has tremendous passenger- and cargo-carrying capability for its size, making it an inexpensive way to lug about the friends and gear associated with an outdoorsy lifestyle.

The smaller xA five-door hatchback, meanwhile, could almost pass for a regular Toyota. From some angles, it struck us as a big-headed toddler version of the Toyota Matrix. Inside, both cars emphasize space efficiency through their tall seating positions and easy-folding rear seats. True, the Scion can't hold anywhere near as much stuff, nor does it have a wipe-clean plastic load floor with cargo tracks. But if you think of the xA as a prequel to the Matrix — Anakin Skywalker's ride as opposed to Darth Vader's — you won't be too far from sanity.

And based on our week of testing, the xA makes a very good prequel — it's well-equipped, roomy, reasonably fun to drive as economy cars go and, as far as we can tell, should be enjoyable to own. And when we say this, it's not just an out-of-touch lecture for young people, but a bulletin for anyone who could use a high-quality, low-priced car.

First off, consider that our xA test car had a base price (including a $485 destination charge) of $13,765. This kind of money gets you a four-speed automatic transmission; antilock brakes; air conditioning; power windows, locks, mirrors and steering; a six-speaker Pioneer stereo with a single CD player; a rear wiper; rear defroster; a tachometer; a clock; a 60/40-split folding rear seat; and a first aid kit — an impressive list for the lower end of the economy car segment. Compared to the xB, which costs $1,200 more, the xA lacks stability control, keyless entry and a ground effects kit.

Now you might counter, "But the Toyota Echo's got a lower base price. Am I paying extra for the Scion hype?" Our answer is, "Not really." When we priced out a four-door Echo with this level of equipment — remember, it's a real stripper until you add options — we came up with an MSRP of $15,520 (subtract about $500 for the two-door Echo). Of course, one could argue that an Echo's price leaves room to bargain, while Scion's "Pure Price Solution" means that the advertised price (MSRP) of any given xA is supposed to be the actual transaction price as well (similar to Saturn's approach). But keep in mind that there isn't a whole lot you can add to an Echo beyond the basics. Not so with the xA.

The only factory option on the Scion is a set of regular side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags (an unusual feature in this price range) priced at $650, but there are several dozen a la carte options that will be installed by dealers. On our test car, this included an in-dash CD changer, multicolor backlighting for the stereo head unit display, a red-and-black leather wrap on the steering wheel, multicolor illumination for the cupholders and red illumination in the footwells. The illumination does look sweet, by the way, but the novelty might wear off quickly when you realize you've spent $250 just to look at your shoes while you drive. However you choose to equip your Scion, Toyota claims that dealers will be able to get it the way you want it within a week's time.

Fortunately, the xA's reasonable pricing and oddball options don't come at the expense of the driving experience, which is actually rather pleasant. Under the car's cutely sloped hood is a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder assisted by variable valve timing. It's the same engine used in the Echo and xB, and it makes 108 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. This isn't a lot of power by modern-day standards, and as the xA weighs almost 300 pounds more than the Echo, acceleration isn't as spirited. Still, the xA has enough get-up-and-go for city driving, and it cruises along nicely on the highway. Merging and passing maneuvers require some effort, though, and one editor reported that they took "an eternity." Another driver found the xA perfectly adequate in these situations but noted that our test car's automatic transmission did spend a lot of time in second gear.

During instrumented testing, our ace driver was able to get the xA to 60 mph in 10.7 seconds, which isn't bad at all for this vehicle class. Nevertheless, going with the manual transmission, and possibly the optional cold air intake (at $395, it's a bit pricey compared to aftermarket intakes), will certainly improve acceleration. Fuel economy estimates are 31 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway with either transmission. In terms of emissions, Scions aren't extraordinarily clean-burning, by Toyota standards anyway, earning an LEV rating as opposed to ULEV or SULEV.

Although the xA is built on the same platform as the Echo (a car we've never considered a good handler), it's amazing what a set of 15-inch wheels and tires and the addition of a rear stabilizer bar can do. Around town and on the highway, the xA felt nicely connected to the road and well within our control even on windy passes. The ride was generally smooth — choppiness set in only when the tires encountered expansion joints or grooved pavement. During our week of testing, one editor happily used the xA for her hour-long commutes to and from work.

As we circled freeway on-ramps and high-speed turns, the suspension felt surprisingly tight and did a commendable job of containing body roll. When we pushed the xA harder around tight turns (and through the slalom at our test track), its economy origins were more obvious: The body leaned noticeably and the steering, which had seemed alert and well-weighted in less intense driving, felt unresponsive. Scion will offer a front strut tower brace as a $225 accessory — thusly equipped, our test car likely would have shown sharper reflexes when driven near its limits.

Braking performance was acceptable. The pedal was a little touchy, but performance in everyday traffic was fine and the car stopped from 60 mph in under 124 feet at the track. Unfortunately, fade set in quickly once the brakes got hot, again reminding us that our test car was no pocket rocket. The xA's modest handling limits shouldn't be a problem for most buyers, but young enthusiasts should investigate the cost of additional performance upgrades before abandoning their Civics and ZX3s.

Inside, the xA is perfectly agreeable for an economy car. Various surfaces have been trimmed in faux aluminum that's actually more attractive than the stuff you'll find in the Toyota Celica or Matrix. The black textured seat upholstery feels a bit like a polyester blend, but looks nice and seems likely to stay that way over several years of use. Lots of hard plastic is inevitable in this price range, but most of the stuff in our test car was low in gloss and had been properly cut during the manufacturing process. Adding to the impression of quality was the fact that our preproduction beater was devoid of rattles and squeaks.

As in the xB and the Echo, a tall cabin design yields a spacious feel and an elevated seating position. The seats themselves are a bit flat, but overall, cushioning and occupant comfort are above average for this price range. The driver seat would benefit from the addition of a center armrest and seat-height adjustment.

If you've got to have the most head- and legroom possible in the front and rear seats, the xB is definitely the way to go. If you can spare a few inches here and there, the xA is still quite serviceable as a four- to five-passenger vehicle, offering accommodations on par with those of the Echo, Honda Civic and Matrix. Moreover, the xA actually offers more hiproom than any of these cars, including the xB.

Once seated, the driver must cock her head to the right to view the center-mounted gauge pod. It's a different design from the one in the xB, such that the gauges are closer to the exact center of the dash. Although we easily adjusted to this arrangement, we're still not convinced that putting the gauges in the center provides an ergonomic advantage, especially when the speedometer digits are as small as they are in the xA (the Mini Cooper's pie-plate-sized speedo gets much closer to the ideal). On the plus side, the xA has a bigger tachometer than the xB.

The Pioneer-branded stereo head unit is also questionable in terms of ease of use. Rather than the large knobs and buttons typical of Toyota head units, its controls are made up entirely of small flat buttons. The result is a genuinely aftermarket look and feel, but whenever you want your favorite band to thrash a little louder, you've got to tap, tap, tap the "volume +" button. Thankfully, the unit's designers saw fit to include a mute button so that drivers wouldn't get too flustered when their cell phones ring. For a full analysis of the xA's sound system, check out our stereo evaluation.

The rest of the controls gave us little to complain about. The climate controls employ a simple three-dial setup and allow the driver to switch between fresh and recirculated air. The window buttons and control stalks were pulled from the Toyota parts bin, and that means that they're simple to use. The only thing missing is cruise control, which Scion has chosen not to offer even as an option for the time being. This seems silly to us, given that the xA is suitable in every other way for long-distance travel.

Storage space and cupholders are somewhat hard to come by in the xA. The door bins are tiny — so much so that it was difficult to stick a hand in to retrieve stowed items — and aren't much use. This leaves you to divide up your personal effects among a medium-size storage cubby in the center stack (it holds four to five CD cases and even lights up when you shut off the car at night), a small glovebox and two small cupholders under the dash. If you travel with larger beverages, you'll have to make do with a single felt-lined well on the back of the center console. Besides this cup-size well, rear-seaters get no storage areas of their own, unless you count the grocery hook on the driver seat back.

With its rear seats in use, the xA doesn't offer much in the way of cargo capacity for a five-door hatchback — its 11.7 cubic feet is on par with the trunk capacity of an economy sedan. The seats fold down easily, though, creating a flat load floor that's level with the bottom edge of the hatch opening — allowing you to slide in heavier items. Maximum capacity is measured at 32.8 cubic feet, which is about on par with the Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback's total capacity. Other five-door hatchbacks, including the xB, can hold considerably more loot.

California buyers will get first crack at the Scions in June 2003, while the rest of the U.S. will get their chance in the 2004 calendar year. Although we find the xB to be the more compelling choice based on its miniature van styling and expansive interior, not everyone will be drawn to its weirdo aesthetics or its higher price over the smaller xA. Already the xA appears to be one of the best five-door hatchbacks in its price range — Kia's Rio Cinco is cheaper but is apt to be much less satisfying to drive and own; everything else is more expensive when comparably equipped. Among all economy cars, the xA has much to recommend it: It's a better deal than the Echo and costs less than any other similarly equipped Japanese sedan.

Of course, if you're willing to go through the traditional bargaining process, you could very well find yourself behind the wheel of a more powerful Focus ZX5 or Elantra GT for about the same price as an xA. And that's fine. But the xA is certainly worth a test-drive — if you value passenger space (lots of it), a real-world standard equipment list that doesn't leave you without basics like A/C and ABS and, as far as we can tell, a lower-pressure dealer experience. And obviously, you don't have to be under 25 to like a car with these attributes.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Taken by itself, the xA is spunky, space-efficient and priced low enough so that it could be almost anybody's first new car. Furthermore, it comes with a generous list of standard equipment — no need to check off a number of option packages to make the car palatable. In spite of its modest power output, the xA never felt flat-footed, even though it had an automatic tranny. Likewise for the handling, as this Mini-Me Matrix had a tossable nature that made it fun to drive when flung through the curves. Ah yes, the beauty of low mass. And best of all, it's a Toyota! This means that whoever buys the xA should enjoy years (decades?) of stone reliable service along with a user-friendly cabin that should wear well as the years and miles pile up.

Were it not for xA's funky and similarly priced xB brother, I'd give the "A" my whole-hearted endorsement. But the "B" is the one I'd get, because it offers even more room and the boxy body design that I previously decried as silly (when I saw pictures of it) has grown on me fast and in a big way. Either way, econocar shoppers can't go wrong.

Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
When I first saw the xA, I was admittedly skeptical. Catering to younger generations with the promise of a low price is one thing, but doing it with a car that looks like pretty much every other econobox on the road is another. After a short test-drive, however, I came away thinking that the xA might just have enough personality to make good on its promise.

Short gears gave the xA more pep around town than I expected, but passing on the freeway took an eternity. The car's suspension was a real eye-opener as it's unexpectedly tight, giving the car a nimble feel that's absent from the typically flaccid setups of most economy sedans and hatchbacks.

What really impressed me in the end, however, was the quality and design of the interior. Whereas most cars in this price range use only the most basic colors and materials, the xA's multihued cabin not only looks good, it feels more expensive as well. Maybe it was the Toyota build quality shining through, but whatever it was, it looked pretty good for a $16K car. I had a mixed reaction to the optional mood lighting. Yeah, it looks cool, but having to pay extra for it is lame, and the fact that they called it out so blatantly with a very visible on-off switch makes it look like the designers are trying to get brownie points for it. They should have just included the lights for free and never said a word about it — now that would have been cool.

Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed says:
I drove the two new Scions in reverse alphabetical order and wound up in the xA after driving the more radically styled, boxy xB. The xA was more to my liking with a faint resemblance to the Mini Cooper (except the Scion's hood is sloping rather than sporting a jutting jaw, like the Mini). The price, too, was more to my liking with the MSRP set at $12,480 for a manual and $13,280 for an automatic.

My test-drive in the little Scion was all too brief but it left the impression of it being a very capable little runabout vehicle with easy entry and exit through all four doors. This means you could pack four adults into it and putt around town for just pennies. The engine was game, though not overwhelming, doing the best it could with the horsepower it was given. The steering feel was above average and the ride was firm but not abusive.

And then there is the disco lighting for the cupholders. I had the opportunity to take one of our company officers into the dark garage and show him that he now had his choice of colors to guide his coffee mug into the holder. He raised his normally serious eyebrows in a sign of approval and pleasure. "My prediction is that this car will be a big hit," he intoned. I agree. But I still think the Mini has the edge for cuteness and content.

Stereo Evaluation:

System Score: 8.0

Components: Mirroring that of its xB sibling, the AM/FM single-CD Pioneer unit churns out 160 watts through four speakers (split between the front doors and rear cargo panels) and two A-pillar-mounted tweeters. Upgrading to the in-dash six-disc CD changer (as in our test car) adds a multicolored LCD readout, backlighting track data in eight psychedelic hues.

Simple faceplate controls are spaced adequately to prevent inadvertent selections. Standard satellite radio hardware and MP3 file-reading capability contribute to the Gen-Y demographic target, and old-schoolers will have to get accustomed to all-push-button controls versus traditional rotary knobs. Disc loading is made easier through a direct feed rather than a cumbersome magazine loader.

Performance: Though system hardware is identical to that of its bigger brother, the xB, the xA's stereo behaves like a completely different animal. If the xB's bass output were an Entenmann's Danish Ring, then the xA's is a Costco sheet cake — there's simply too much of it, and the surplus largely contributes to the amplified distortion. Treble levels need to be pushed to the ceiling while bass needs to be cut at least in half in order to balance the mildest pop and rock tracks; hip-hop and techno beats will have to take the bass even lower to avoid speaker overload.

Most of this excess can be attributed to an absence of distortion limiters within the head unit, a bragging point if you read up on Scion's Web pages. Best results are achieved through "Hear" mode, the middle choice between "Neutral" and "Feel" equalization settings offered by the standard Scion Sound Processing (SSP) feature. When tuned appropriately, the system produces clear midrange and highs carefully balanced with a welcome bass thump that feels entirely aftermarket. Expect some head scratching while loading CDs as the head unit adheres to an arbitrary disc selection process.

Best Feature: Aftermarket performance in a stock system.

Worst Feature: Having to make multiple tuning adjustments to accommodate different music genres.

Conclusion: Extra bass is a good problem to have with this well-endowed system in a bargain-buster ride. — Hud Giles

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