Does it matter what the wrapper says if it’s the exact same Snickers bar inside? That, as the saying goes, is the question.
Toyota’s small car spin-off needed a new model; Mazda had one to spare.
A deal was struck and — voila — the (ahem) Scion iA.
Mechanically, it’s a Mazda2 — which is sold as the Deimos in Japan — and also as the Toyota Yaris in Mexico, where it’s assembled.
Different front clips, different badges … same car.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
WHAT IT IS
The 2016 Scion iA is a rebadged Mazda2 (which used to be related to the Ford Fiesta, which it still competes with).
I know, it’s a little confusing.
But is it bad?
Not if you like the Mazda2, which is a perky, extremely fuel-efficient, very space-efficient, features-laden (standard 7-inch LCD screen with apps, push-button ignition, collision-avoidance system) and very affordable small sedan that — for whatever reason — Mazda has decided not to sell here under its own label.
Base price is $15,700 for an iA with a six-speed manual transmission. With the optional six-speed automatic (which features rev-matching downshifts) the price tag is $16,800.
The primary cross-shop is Ford’s Fiesta — which costs a bit less ($14,580 to start) and like the iA isn’t a Blue Light Special (as most of the others in this class — especially the Nissan Versa sedan — are). But the Ford only comes with a five-speed manual transmission, doesn’t come with standard pushbutton ignition, doesn’t offer collision-avoidance technology and gives you about 5 MPG less on the highway. It also has much less back seat legroom (just 31.2 inches of legroom vs. the Mazda/Scion’s 34.4 inches) which makes it less viable as a primary car for people who regularly need to carry passengers.
The Ford is, however, available in both sedan and hatchback sedan bodystyles while the iA is sedan-only (in the U.S., at least).
The iA is a new model for Scion and the first small sedan sold under this label. Along with the also-new iM (which is based on the Toyota Corolla) it broadens the marque’s product portfolio to give prospective buyers more in-house options to choose from.
A lot of car for the coin — physically and functionally. More standard features than the competition — and some features it comes standard with aren’t even available as options in the competition.
Good-sized trunk (13.5 cubic feet) for a small car.
Mazda zoom-zoom (lighter, quicker and better-handling than Fiesta)… .
Toyota/Scion price tag (and — probably — favorable depreciation rate).
Class-best mileage (42 on the highway) with standard engine — which delivers as good or even better mileage than several rivals’ optional engines.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Just the one bodystyle. If you prefer a hatchback, you’ll prefer something else.
No 50 mpg-capable Sky-D diesel for us. Thanks to Uncle.
Mazda-designed LCD interface looks slick but isn’t the easiest to use.
UNDER THE HOOD
The iA’s Mazda-built 1.5 liter engine makes 106 hp, a bit less than the Fiesta’s slightly larger 1.6 liter, 120 hp standard engine — but the iA weighs about 152 pounds less (2,385 lbs. for the six-speed manual version vs. 2,537 lbs. for the five-speed manual/2.0-equipped Fiesta) and so is quicker.
It takes the Scionized Mazda about 8.9 seconds to get to 60 with the six-speed manual vs. about 9.5 for the Ford. The iA is the quickest car in this class with its standard engine. And it’s about as quick as rivals like the Fiesta equipped with their optional engines. A Fiesta equipped with the 1 liter, three-cylinder turbo EcoBoost engine gets to 60 in about the same 8.9 seconds — and that performance costs extra at the Ford store. To get the better-performing Ecoboost engine, you have to spend an additional $995 — on top of the $16,110 you have to spend to go from the base S trim to the SE trim, which you have to do before Ford will even allow you to order the Ecoboost engine. That brings the MSRP for the iA-equivalent Ford up to $17,105 vs. $15,700 — a difference of $1,405.
That’s no small change in this segment.
Interestingly — impressively (but not for the Ford) — the iA’s gas mileage is still nearly as good as the turbo-Ecboosted Ford’s: 33 city and 42 highway (with the automatic 31 city, 41 highway for the manual) vs. 31 city, 43 for the Ecoboosted Ford (this version of the Fiesta comes only with a manual transmission).
These numbers are so close that, in real-world driving, the Scion may actually do better than the Ford — because the Ford’s engine is turbocharged and typically, if you use the turbo, the real-world mileage of the turbo engine tends to be less-than-advertised.
So, what accounts for the Mazda’s superb mileage (I averaged a phenomenal 38.2 MPG during my weeklong test drive) despite its larger engine (1.5 liters and four cylinders vs. 1.0 liters and three cylinders)?
Mazda relies on very high (for a gas engine) compression ratios (12.0:1 in this case) to literally squeeze more power out of every drop of fuel.
Turbochargers also increase cylinder pressure, but they do so only part-time and are primarily designed to make power on-demand rather than reduce fuel consumption. High compression engines always make the most of the incoming air/fuel charge, but the trick (historically) has been avoiding engine knock — and doing that without having to feed the engine high-octane premium fuel.
Aluminum cylinder heads (and blocks) help by dissipating heat and Scion (er, Mazda) also uses proprietary valve/cam timing to make feasible high-compression engines that happily burn regular, lower-octane gas. In Mazda-badged vehicles, these engines are marketed as having “SkyActiv” technology.
Scion does not tout this, but the engine’s the same regardless of the name.
Worth a mention also is the iA’s optional six-speed automatic, which — unlike the Ford’s — is conventional (hydraulic, with a torque converter) rather than an automated or dual-clutch automatic. Why is this worth mentioning? The Ford’s dual-clutch/automated manual box will cost you maybe more than the car itself is worth if it ever craps out on you, post warranty. And the nature of the thing (extremely complex) makes it more prone to crapping out and more expensive to service regardless. Ford uses these transmissions chiefly because they are extremely efficient but note (again) that the Fiesta’s mileage isn’t appreciably better than the Scion’s.
I’d rather have the simpler, conventional automatic — which is less likely to crap out and even if it does, replacing or rebuilding it won’t cost more than the iA is worth.
Seriously: Avoid any car with a dual-clutch/automated manual transmission… unless you plan to lease it.
Or trade it in/sell it before the warranty runs out.
ON THE ROAD
Mazda excels at building fun-to-drive small cars (and bigger cars, too). And a car’s personality isn’t affected by where you buy the car — or the badge on the trunk lid. A Toyota Camry re-sold as a Mazda6 (no, they’re not actually doing that… yet) would not feel like a Mazda. And the iA does not feel like a Toyota because it’s sold at Scion stores.
So, what’s that mean, exactly?
It’s the difference between kissing your sister — and kissing your new girlfriend.
Toyotas — the ones built by Toyota, not just badged by Toyota — excel at being dependable long-term companions. Cars that take you from A to B in comfort and quiet for 200,000 miles and are usually still going strong at the end of that and probably still worth more than the tankful of gas you just put in the thing. Long-haul reliability and blue chip value. These are the main reasons people buy Toyotas — and so that’s what Toyota focuses on.
Mazda, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the driving vivacity of its cars. How they make you feel when you’re behind the wheel …when the wheel is cranked hard left and your right foot is hard on the gas coming out of your favorite back road apex.
An engine that seems happy when you’re running it hard.
A transmission to match.
You will find all these things in the iA — because, after all, it is a Mazda.
Those reading this who may be dubious about the iA’s small-sounding 106 hp should bear in mind the Miata’s not very muscular, either — but it’s still one of the most fun to drive cars in the world … if you’re someone who likes to drive. Both the Miata and the Mazad2 — oops, the iA — are cars that respond when you make advances. When you ask, they answer. Enthusiastically. They kiss back, so to speak.
They are not cars for people who enjoy sitting on the sofa watching Price is Right reruns.
Peak power isn’t made until 6,000 RPM, so don’t be afraid to rev the thing. The sounds it makes when you do will let you know it’s ok — that it’s at home in the upper reaches of the tach. Eighty-ish is this car’s sweet spot, with the tach running around 4,000 RPM. Which just happens to be exactly the torque peak (103 ft.-lbs.) of the 1.5 liter engine.
Handling is comparably willing.
Notwithstanding its fairly long (for a subcompact) wheelbase (101.2 inches vs. 98 for the Fiesta) the iA’s turning circle is more than two feet less than the Ford’s (32.2 feet vs. 34.4 feet). It also comes standard with 16 inch alloy wheels (vs. the Ford’s 15 inch steel wheels) and weighs a lot less, too.
The result is an eager little rabbit puncher that may be economical to drive but manages also to be exceptionally fun to drive, too. Even with the automatic, by the way. Which comes with a driver-selectable Sport mode and manual gear change control.
It’s a Mazda, remember.
AT THE CURB
Another thing Mazda does well and so now Scion does, too, is space efficiency.
The iA is small, certainly — but it’s not cramped. The car’s 34.4 inches of backseat legroom (vs. 31.2 inches in the Fiesta) is bested only by the roomy but extremely spartan Nissan Versa (37 inches), a car that is solid as basic transportation but doesn’t offer much more than that.
The iA, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much, either. It just comes standard with everything. Or at least, more things than you’d expect to find in a car in this price range — like a 7-inch LCD monitor very similar in look (and position, it’s mounted “floating” style on top of the dashed) to what you’d find in something like a Benz CLA, pushbutton/keyless ignition (with remote engine start), a back-up camera and a collision-avoidance system with automatic braking (if you fail to). These are extremely high-end features to find in a just-over-$15k-car.
To find them as part of the standard equipment suite is even more impressive.
You also get cruise control, intermittent wipers, power windows and locks, AC, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker HD audio system with Bluetooth (and Pandora/Stitcher/iHeart apps) as well as voice-free phone connectivity. No extra charge for any of it.
The cabin is finished with handsome piano black and real chrome/polished metal accents and some of the dash panels are wrapped in a convincing-looking leather-like material with contrast color stitching. Vents are ball-type and similar (again) to what you’d find in a much higher-zoot car, like a Mercedes.
There is only one option — other than the automatic transmission: A GPS upgrade for the LCD infotainment system.
A word about this — not so fulsomely complimentary.
The “Multi-Function Commander Control” input — which consists of a knob that you rotate/push and secondary buttons mounted on the center console — isn’t as well-conceived as the rest of the car. Things that should only require one action — changing radio stations, for example — require multiple actions. To change stations, you first have to select the audio function, at which point a bar of options appears on the LCD screen. Next, use the mouse to scroll right to reach the << or >> to go up or down. Now, select.
There ought to be just one knob for this — and other such functions, too.
Don’t blame Toyota/Scion… blame Mazda. It’s their system. The same one you’ll find in other new Mazdas, incidentally.
The good news is certain often-used functions (such as volume control) can be controlled by secondary controls mounted on the steering wheel.
These steering wheel controls are also standard, by the way.
It sucks that Mazda’s line of Sky-D diesel engines are not coming to America, either in Mazdas or Mazdas rebadged as Scions. These engines — which are available in Japanese/European market Mazdas — are capable of 50-plus MPG, as good or better than hybrids, without the hybrid downsides of high up-front costs, weight and multiple powertrains (combustion engine, electric motor, battery pack). But Mazda — and other car companies that have diesels ready-to-go — are not ready to go here because of our EPA’s almost-impossible-to-comply-with diesel exhaust emissions regs. See what happened to VW. Mazda — and the others — don’t want that to happen to them.
Hence we get no diesels, in Mazdas. Or Scionized Mazdas.
Speaking of which: Since Mazda no longer sells a subcompact sedan under its own label — here, anyhow — the only way to get one is to buy this one. And here’s an interesting thought for you:
The iA as an alternative to the Mazda3 (which is the smallest car Mazda sells under its own label… here).
It’s bigger outside — but only slightly more on the inside. It has about an inch more legroom for the backseaters and less than half an inch more such room up front. It actually has less cargo room (12.4 cubic feet) behind its back seats (it’s a hatchback rather than a sedan) and though it has more engine (155 hp) it also carries more curb weight (2,930 lbs.) and so it’s only marginally quicker — and its fuel economy, though good (28 city, 36 highway) isn’t quite as good as the Mazda2’s (oops, the iA’s).
The Mazda3’s base price — $17,845 — is also $2,145 higher than the iA’s.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Mazda’s decision to sell the Mazda2 to Scion may result in more people buying Mazdas… from Toyota/Scion dealers.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos