As you might already know, the Cheat Sheet recently got the chance to hop behind the wheel of both the Scion iA and the iM for a few hours to test and review the vehicles prior to them going on sale September 1st. Alongside a crew of automotive journalists from all corners of the media, we hit a series of country roads for about four to five hours that day, and in the process got a pretty good feel for the cars during that extended period of windshield time.
Unlike the iA, which we reviewed in our first installment, the iM comes to us without any connection to Mazda, offers a hatchback profile that reminds us of the defunct Toyota Matrix, and rolls in at a very reasonable $18,460 for a manual version and $19,200 for the CVT automatic. It comes standard with disc brakes all around, 17-inch alloy wheels, a back-up camera, and all manner of electronic amenity imaginable, as Scion strives to offer as much value for the money as possible. Being that it is a thoroughbred Toyota, it’s also pretty safe to say that the iM is going to be one reliable ride for anyone who buys one – as long as there aren’t any recalls.
When we spoke with the execs over at Scion prior to hopping in the driver seat, they told us that this car was designed to be an “enabler of fun” for a “practical and pragmatic” generation of young car buyers. They also told us that the goal is to win over both sedan buyers, who may be looking for more versatility, and SUV owners by convincing them that downsizing to the iM would give them more than just a bump at the pump. The Toyota-owned brand also predicts that half of these cars will be sold to first-time car buyers, hopefully bringing an end to the sales slump Scion has weathered over the past few years.
But this might prove to be more difficult than expected. The iM continues to receive reviews that are a resounding “meh;” and while they’re by no means unfavorable, most mention how unmemorable the car is on a multitude of levels. That amazing iM concept car is long gone, and in its wake lies this shell of what many think should have been. Still, this youthful, Euro-inspired incarnation holds its own in its corner of the ring, and as you’ll soon discover, there’s a lot going for this moderately priced hatchback. Hopefully, when it’s time for a refresh, the critics and enthusiasts will finally get what they wanted since day one: an iM worthy of the “hot hatch” title.
After climbing out of the iA (and thanking the gods that we did not clobber that deer), we hopped behind the wheel of the iM, which thankfully was a stick. Originally based on a European model called the Auris, this Japanese-made five-door is all Toyota, and it shows as soon as you get behind the wheel. But before we get to into the mechanical side of the drive, let’s touch upon the interior of the iM, because it genuinely is a bit of a mixed bag.
On the bright side, the iM has headroom galore, the backseat is spacious enough in the knee department for six-foot fellas like myself, and its predictable Toyota interior layout guarantees that everything is where it should be. The bolstering on the front seats are snug and yet satisfyingly supple, there are cubbies and pockets everywhere, the navi and infotainment system is responsive and easy to use, and the car is pretty quiet thanks to the acoustic layered windshield and all that luxury-level Lexus sound deadening. Other fantastic finds were controls that didn’t feel cheap (for the most part), a standard marriage-saving dual climate control system, and stellar forward facing visibility courtesy of that massive raked dash and angled bonnet. To top it all off, the stock audio hits on a whole new level of awesome, and toggle switch-style controls for the AC — because buttons are so 1997.
Unique for its segment, the iM also comes standard with LED daytime running lights, European heated power-folding mirrors, a seven-inch Pioneer touchscreen display, voice recognition, back-up camera, hill-start assist, eight airbags, and eight cup-holders. Automatic models get a yaw race sensor that monitors “Sport Mode” in order to hold gears at higher RPMs in corners, and all versions come with a pre-installed Aha app, a 4.2-inch Multi Information Display (MID), and enough USB ports and charging points to keep even the most tech-savvy hipster happy.
On the downside, outside of the leather strip that slashes the dash in two, some of the “soft touch materials” weren’t all that soft, with the fabric on the arm rest and the door panels being a smidge rough and under-padded. The gauge pods are pretty deep, and while well illuminated, without a digital speed read-out in the MID somewhere, the under-sized numbers are a hair hard to read at a glance, causing quite a few second stares to make sure we were reading them right. It also could use a few stylistic upgrades, like going with black plastic on the overhead console instead of giving it the same color as the headliner, and like the iA, the iM does not utilize interior LEDs, which would be the first thing you would expect in cars like these. Also, cruise control is stuck on its own stalk, which is an inconvenient annoyance for any sane driver, and really, Scion needs to realize that there’s a reason why cars like the all-new GTI now come with button controls for cruising.
Mechanically, the vehicle is what you would expect it to be in a lot of ways, with predictable steering, sufficient disc brakes all around, and a relatively firm double wishbone suspension/MacPherson strut set-up that was adopted from the tC. Since it has both the 1.8-liter engine and transmission from a Corolla, the iM only packs 137 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, which isn’t a whole lot considering that a lot of cars with similar engine displacements put down anywhere between 150-180 horsepower and a lot more torque. Charging along those Michigan country roads required us to floor it at times, which caused our gas mileage to plummet as the engine struggled to get uphill, and shifting did not help acceleration much anywhere over 45 miles per hour, so forget overtaking anything larger than a sluggish SUV in this one.
Speaking of shifting, therein lies our biggest issue with the iM that we drove: its clutch. Not to say that the shift points were bad per se, but the clutch was certainly a weak point. It wasn’t super spongy, as it does have some force behind it, but the bite point/engagement level on the pedal is nowhere near the floor, so you basically have to wait until the pedal is just a couple inches from being fully extended before it connects with the engine, and by that point you will likely over-rev the throttle and peel-out or stall. The hill start assist is a nice idea, as it’s designed to keep you from clobbering that Lambo behind you on a hill, but hit the accelerator at any point and it will disengage this feature and cause you to roll backwards, thus making us feel like pulling the e-brake might still be the safest bet when on an incline.
On the bright side, the iM can be equipped with all manner of TRD-spec aftermarket goodness, with spoilers, stiffer springs, bigger roll bars, diffusers, air intakes, and oil caps leading the way. Owners would be well-to-do to opt for the suspension package, which only costs about $1,000 and includes sway bars, springs, installation, and a warranty. Bumper covers, cargo nets, and various dress-up touches are available for those who prize utility over sportiness instead.
So here’s what we think Scion needs to do if they want to make this car truly good: Put a better clutch in the car with a heavier shift knob first. Give it a bit more power — it bests the Prius’ 134 horses, but only just. Fixing those minor interior amenity issues we listed might also be a good idea, as it would be inexpensive to do and would boost the overall quality of the car.
But perhaps our biggest issue with this car is that it’s just a faded shadow of the captivating concept car we fell in love with at last year’s LA Auto Show. That car looked fantastic in every way, had a real rally-inspired look to it, and made us instantly excited to drive an iM. Instead, we got a somewhat disappointing watered-down version – one that undoubtedly offers quite a lot for its meager starting price, but still leaves us wondering what happened to all the excitement and sex appeal we saw in the full-bodied model we pinned up in our gym locker.