The first thing that surprised me about the Scion was its ability to spin the tires when launching from a dead stop. The next thing to surprise me was the fact that it had traction control -- considering the price. The third thing that surprised me was learning the traction control was ON even as the car spun its tires. I'd like to say traction control is a real value-add at this price point, but that opinion is contingent on the traction control actually working. By the third acceleration run I turned the traction control off to see if the tires would spin even more and found that, indeed, they squealed more vigorously and the car's acceleration times improved by over two-tenths of a second. So the traction control was cutting power on the first runs, but it still seemed pretty lackadaisical to me (a weird sensation for an automotive journalist...thinking a car's traction control is not intrusive enough...). The engine feels stronger than 108 horsepower, through our model had the optional "intake" that is supposed to add power. It's not overly peaky, and the shifter even works well (throws are a bit long, but fully acceptable on a car in this price range). Part of the car's pep likely came from the short gearing ratios -- it was welll into fourth gear before crossing the quarter-mile line. Redline is at 6,300 and the engine remains refined all the way up there.
Toyota has the brake thing down, and the Scion is yet further proof of this. All cars' brakes should work this well. A very progressive pedal, with minimal ABS noise and vibration, made panic stops very confident. And because the car stayed straight and had minimal nose dive, it felt almost sports carlike. Throw in less than one foot of braking distance variation over three runs (with the third run better than the second) and you have all the crucial ingredients: great pedal feel, short distances, no fade. In terms of stopping ability, this "econobox" feels like a premium performance car.
The slalom is all about weight, and the Scion doesn't weigh much. Between the light curb weight, sticky rubber and controlled body roll, this box-on-wheels handled better than I expected. There was also plenty of torque for powering out of the final cones, and the small size made it easy to place. Steering feel was better than average (almost as good as a Civic or Focus, but still not up to Protege5 standards). This vehicle isn't marketed as a sports car, but it is more sporting than the price (and exterior shape) would suggest. Karl Brauer