By Derek Price
In more than 15 years of writing about cars, I’ve never had a twist as strange as this week’s test drive.
Here I am, evaluating a car that doesn’t exist from a brand that’s about to disappear.
The car that doesn’t exist is the Mazda2 sedan, which isn’t available in America despite being a spectacularly fun and solid vehicle for a bargain price in other parts of the globe.
How am I driving one, legally, on the streets of Texas? Well, Scion did us Americans a favor and started selling the Mazda2 under its own name, basically slapping their logo onto the Mazda and putting it in their showrooms.
There are some minor differences, like the front fascia, taillights and headlights, but my first impression upon sitting in the driver’s seat was, “Whoa, this is a Mazda.” They didn’t even try to hide it.
That’s not such a bad thing, either. Mazda is making some of my favorite sedans lately — mysteriously combining a fast-feeling chassis with great fuel economy in a way that other brands just aren’t able to match — and the Scionized Mazda falls right into that category.
Called the iA, it has all the best parts of the Mazda brand, including its digital entertainment system that’s one of the fastest and most intuitive on the market. And, of course, there’s the 1.5-liter engine that gives it a zippy feeling at stoplights but still returns EPA fuel economy ratings of 33 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway — eye-popping numbers that will help it sell like crazy whenever gas prices rise back to historical norms.
Then there’s the weirdest thing about this car: the fact that the Scion brand is disappearing entirely next year.
Scion launched in 2003 as a way for Toyota to sell more cars to young people. They made several noteworthy vehicles through the years, my favorites being the funky, practical and extremely boxy xB and the super-fun FR-S sports car, but they never caught on with young people in the way that Toyota had hoped.
Toyota announced that the Scion brand would be shuttering for good after this year, meaning the Scion iA is only going to exist as a one-off model and will be sold under the Toyota brand in 2017.
Could that make it a collector’s item? I can imagine a world, decades from now, when the geekiest car collectors would clamor to own this odd Mazda-but-not-a-Mazda that was only built for one year. It’ll make a nice trivia piece for the Barrett-Jackson auction broadcasters in 2066.
Today, though, it’s just a good car with a very unusual backstory.
Pricing starts under $16,000 with a manual transmission, something that’s a perfect fit for a sporty, compact car like the iA. You can get it with a six-speed automatic for an extra $1,100.
Even at that low price, it doesn’t feel like a stripped-down economy car. The iA tester I drove was one of the most affordable cars I’ve driven within the past year, ringing up at $16,495 including the destination charge, but it still had a seven-inch digital display, push-button start, keyless entry and a cabin with nicer materials than I expected at that price.
The chrome accents and some soft-touch trim in the cabin give it a slightly premium feel, and there are a lot of free amenities that some of its competitors charge for: power windows, mirrors and locks, cruise control, Bluetooth wireless connectivity and a steering wheel that tilts and telescopes.
Interestingly, you can’t luxe up this car like you can some of its competitors. I’ve driven a few “economy cars” with prices that get jacked up close to $30,000 once you add Lexus-like options — air-conditioned seats, radar cruise control and high-end sound systems, for example.
The iA seems more targeted at value shoppers. Even choosing all the options on Scion’s online configurator, I was barely able to get the price past $18 grand because it’s only sold in this one reasonably well-equipped trim level.
At a Glance
What was tested?
2016 Scion iA ($15,700). Options: None. Price as tested (including $795 destination charge): $16,495
Wheelbase: 101.2 in.
Length: 171.7 in.
Width: 66.7 in.
Height: 58.5 in.
Powertrain: 1.5-liter I-4 (106 hp, 103 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
EPA Mileage: 33 city, 42 highway
2016 Scion iA
Why buy it?
It has a sporty look and feel, letting you get your hands on a car that previously was unavailable in the United States: the Mazda2 sedan. It offers a lot of standard features and a nice cabin for a low price.