Originally created 04/16/04

Affordable Toyota hatchback comes with notable features



The subcompact 2004 Scion xA hatchback has a short hood and virtually no butt - an odd shape that's vaguely reminiscent of a baby's high-top shoe.

There's something odd about the xA's list of options, too. It includes an unusual number of customizing extras not normally found in low-priced, small cars at dealerships.

Among them: Cupholder lighting, a Bazooka Mobile Audio subwoofer, Superior Dash taillamp garnish, Grenada license plate frames, Yakima roof rack and front strut tower brace by Hotchkis.

Welcome to the youthful world of Scion (pronounced Sigh-on), Toyota's new brand where affordable small cars aren't meant to be boring.

Indeed, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $12,965, the five-passenger, five-door xA comes with some notable standard features, too.

These include cargo area cover, a Pioneer, 160-watt sound system with AM/FM radio as well as CD player that's MP3-capable, four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brake Distribution, air conditioning and three complimentary oil changes.

Toyota brought the Scion's current two models - the xA and xB - from Japan to California last summer in launching the Scion brand. Scions now are sold in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia, with full nationwide sales set for this summer.

Available at Toyota dealerships, the Scions don't wear a Toyota badge and are required to be in a dedicated show floor area, not mixed in with the Toyota-badged vehicles.

With distinctive - some might call it "unusual" - styling, the Scions are intended to attract the youngest car buyers - a far cry from the average Toyota buyer whose age is in the high 40s.

So far, Scion buyers have a median age of 36, according to spokeswoman Ming-Jou Chen.

Some 75 percent of Scion buyers have been new to Toyota, and median income is about $63,000, Chen said. Fewer than half are college graduates, and 49 percent are married.

Sales have been modest, but are building as new states begin Scion sales.

In the world of little cars sold in the United States, the 12.8-foot-long xA ranks third in overall length, after BMW's 11.9-foot-long, four-passenger, three-door Mini Cooper hatchback and Chevrolet's 12.7-foot-long, five-passenger, five-door Aveo hatchback.

The Aveo is the lowest-priced small car in America, with a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $9,995 without air conditioning, while the Mini is sold as a premium, retro vehicle starting at $16,999 with air conditioning.

The front-drive xA, especially with front tower brace that was on the test car, can feel like a zippy transporter, though body rigidity and ride stiffness is not as noticeable as it is in the sporty Mini.

There's the typical buzzy, four-cylinder sound, and the xA's 108-horsepower, 1.5-liter, double overhead cam powerplant is also used in the lighter-weight Toyota Echo sedan.

This engine can sound and feel taxed at times, such as when I was passing other cars on a hilly highway ascent. The xA, with just me as the only passenger, worked well for a good bit. But then I did a good amount of downshifting to keep my momentum.

Torque is 105 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm, and the engine, with Toyota's variable valve timing system, revs high.

By comparison the Aveo's 103-horsepower, 1.6-liter four cylinder produces up to 107 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. The base Mini's 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter, naturally aspirated four cylinder generates a peak 110 foot-pounds of torque.

But note the base xA's 2,340-pound weight is 19 pounds less than the Aveo hatchback and nearly 200 pounds less than a Mini. The Echo, meantime, weighs just over 2,000 pounds.

The gearshifter for the five-speed manual in the xA tester was a straight stalk whose top reminded me of the handle of a folded, compact umbrella. It's not the most attractive look, but it's different.

I just wish the shifter in the test car hadn't made such a cheap-sounding racket as I shifted. Every shift throw was accompanied by a loud notchy and rattle sound.

Fuel economy is noteworthy, with both manual-transmission and optional, $800 four-speed automatic models rated at 32 miles a gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway.

This compares with 27/36 mpg, respectively, for a manual transmission Aveo and 28/37 mpg, respectively, for a base Mini with manual transmission.

While I may not have had all the "oomph" to edge into every open space in traffic when I wanted, the nimble xA sure could nail the parallel parking spots easily. U-turns also were easy.

The ride isn't cushioned, but most road bumps are managed beneath the vehicle and don't bother passengers.

The xA's dashboard, with tachometer and speedometer centered in the car just below the windshield, has a rather plain, plastic look.

Eyes naturally fall to the eye-catching, silver-colored ventilation controls and the silver-colored, oval, dial-like control area for the audio system.

But it took some getting used to these audio controls, and I wished for an old-style knob for volume and tuning, which would have been more efficient.

Still, sounds came through strongly and with good depth.

The only problem: I found myself increasing the volume to overcome road and engine noise on every drive.

The front fabric bucket seats in the xA have good support and don't look or feel cheap.

The xA is tall - 60.2 inches in height - so all riders, even those in the back seat, sit mostly upright and have good outside views.

The height also accounts for the generous 41.3 inches of front legroom and the 37.6 inches of rear legroom in the xA.

Note that xA's rear legroom is more than the Aveo's and the Mini's respective legrooms, and even more than some larger cars', such as the Dodge Neon (34.8 inches) and the Honda Civic sedan (36 inches).

Not surprisingly, headroom also is good in this kind of vehicle. The 39.6 inches in front and 38.8 inches in back tops the headroom in the Aveo and Mini as well as the headroom in the larger Civic.

I liked that the floor in the xA's back seat had just a minor hump, but three adults would sit real close.

Thanks to rear windows in the small, 11.7-cubic-foot cargo area, the view out to the rear and side of the xA is commendable. And the cargo space can expand to 32.8 cubic feet when the split rear seats are folded down flat. If more room is needed, the xA has an optional roof rack available.

I just wish the ceiling covering in the xA didn't remind me so much of the coarse material that often lines car trunks.

Map pockets on the xA's front doors are narrow, unable to hold much.

The federal government has yet to report crash test ratings for the xA, but standard safety equipment includes frontal airbags and three-point belts and adjustable and lockable head restraints for all five passengers.

Because the xA is a new model, Consumer Reports does not have a reliability rating.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports no safety recalls of the xA.

Toyota Scion xA by the numbers

With BC-Behind the Wheel--Toyota Scion xA

2004 Scion xA

BASE PRICE: $12,480 with manual transmission.

AS TESTED: $15,296.

TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, subcompact hatchback.

ENGINE: 1.5-liter, double overhead cam, inline four cylinder with VVT-i.

MILEAGE: 32 mpg (city), 38 mpg (highway).

TOP SPEED: 109 mph.

LENGTH: 154.1 inches.

WHEELBASE: 93.3 inches.

CURB WT.: 2,340 pounds.

BUILT AT: Japan.

OPTIONS: Alloy wheels $665; security system $499; upgraded audio system with 6-CD player $395; illuminated cupholders $299; strut tie bar $225; carpeted floor mats $120; OBX sport pedals $79; OBX shift knob $49.

DESTINATION CHARGE: $485.

On the Net:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

http://www.highwaysafety.org/