Sciontologists are scary people. Who else would re-package a Toyota Echo and sell it to American twenty-somethings? We're talking about a Japanese sub-compact with all the edgy excitement of a five-year-old Readers' Digest (large print edition). You couldn't imagine a more cynical marketing ploy. Still, props to Toyota for having the stones to foist the "new money for old rope" routine on the world's most style critical audience.
Thanks to its exterior, the xA almost gets away it. Sure, it looks a bit like a grouper fish, but the xA is big and bold, in its tiny little way. The xA's minivan shape and clever window tinting give it a level of design intergrity that's rare for its class. Whether Gen Y would choose the Scionfish over something with more Cribs cred from the used car lot is another matter. Suffice it to say, the xA is as far removed from the Vicodin-on-wheels Echo as Adidas Ozweegos are from nursing shoes.
Once inside, the centrally mounted instrument pod continues the aesthetic rebellion. This unsafe alternative to traditional ergonomics makes the helmspot as blank as a bumper car, and reflects the brand's skewed priorities: function follows market research. The xA's audio system, complete with 10-color display and built-in distortion (I kid you not), also tries to convince Sciontists that they're rebels without a platinum AMEX, rather than sensible car buyers.
Now THAT's funny. What could be more sensible than a small Toyota? The xA has room for five [slim] adults, gets over thirty mpg, comes with a three-year, 36k mile warranty; pollutes the planet less than a herd of polled Herefords and costs no more than a decent home entertainment system ($13k). Although no sub-compact makes sense from a safety point-of-view, the xA offers surprising survivability for one so small. Scion brand managers will hate me for saying so, but the xA is xActly the kind of car an elderly person on a fixed income would enjoy.
Maybe "enjoy" isn't the right word. The xA is powered by the Echo's 1.5-liter in-line 4-cylinder engine. As you'd expect, Toyota's engineers have done everything they can to give the Echo/xA passable (if not passing) power: double-overhead cams, 16 valves, variable valve timing and multi-port electronic fuel injection. As you'd expect, the result is still Slow and Serious. Zero to 60 takes 10.7 seconds, with the quarter mile appearing in 17.4 seconds. Spirited it ain't.
Adequate it is. There's even a tasty chunk of powerband between 2500 and 4000rpm where the xA will do a reasonable imitation of a car with in-gear acceleration. Although peak power (108hp) arrives at 6000rpm, the engine's "Wall of Boom" soundtrack makes an assault on the redline an aural stress test. Thrill seeking xA drivers are advised to buy the 5-speed, shift like mad, plan ahead and plan early.
And avoid potholes. The xA's ride is surprising civilized– until it isn't. The moment you encounter a surface imperfection, it's as if someone hit the car with a large mallet. Clearly, someone at Toyota figured that the youth of America can't tell the difference between the acceptable harshness of a sports-tuned suspension and the rough-riding character of a comfort-biased chassis with the comfort removed.
At relatively slow (sensible?) speeds, the xA's low curb weight and stiffened suspension deliver admirable poise through the turns. Combined with a user-friendly power-assisted rack and pinion steering system, the set-up is responsive enough to embolden a young driver's reckless nature. Uh-oh. Spank the xA and you're headed straight to Hell in a hand basket. The steering loses all precision, the drum brakes fade and the torsion beam suspension gives up. Push it that little bit too far and terminal understeer will slide you across the road like a fallen figure skater heading for the boards.
All of which begs the question: is the Scion xA really a young person's car? Given the large number of elderly xA buyers– given ANY elderly buyers– the answer is an unequivocal no. The only thing separating the xA from any other generic Japanese econobox is the car's shape and the 46 factory-made tuning bits– which aren't half as cool as Scion thinks they are.
In fact, Scion's youth orientation is fatally flawed. When it comes to selling to hipsters, the moment you win, you lose. Brands like Nike and Adidas circumvent the exclusivity vs. mass market problem by inventing new shoes and sports apparel on an hourly basis. Car manufacturers can't use the same template, no matter how many after-market parts they devise. But they CAN create a fundamentally desirable car that attracts a wide range of buyers. Strangely enough, that's a perfect description of the dull but worthy Scion xA.