Mazda is an automaker that thrives in building light cars with modestly sized engines, a combination that has yielded the tempting combination of enjoyable driving dynamics with outstanding fuel economy. Nowhere is that more evident than in the company’s MX-5 Miata, a delightful two-seat roadster that returned 39 miles per gallon during a weeklong test.
But the company doesn’t slack off even with its basic cars, as is evidenced by the all-new 2016 Scion iA. The iA is a subcompact sedan built by Mazda for Toyota’s Scion brand, changed minimally from the Mazda2 model that’s sold in much of the world but no longer in the United States. (To further confuse matters, the iA will be badged as a Toyota in a few months, the company just announced that it will discontinue the Scion brand for the 2017 model year.)
With horsepower barely into the triple digits but a weight below 2,400 pounds, the iA has impressive handling composure along with – with the optional automatic transmission – the best fuel economy of any gas-only car in the country, an EPA-rated 37 miles per gallon overall. Crash test ratings also beat other subcompacts.
However, unlike every competitor, there’s no versatile five-door hatchback iA available. Mazda makes a five-door version of this car, but neither Mazda nor Toyota offer it in the U.S. Additionally, there’s limited rear-seat space, even by the low standards of subcompact cars. And because the iA has so many standard features, you can’t get a stripped-down bargain model to bring down your price – you’re paying for those features whether you want them or not. Nor can you add options such as sunroof or leather seats.
If you like how it drives and want the features it comes with, the iA is a pleasant and extremely fuel-efficient commuter car for someone who doesn’t value the flexibility to frequently transport rear passengers or a lot of cargo. But depending on your other requirements and preferences, you may find an abundance of alternatives that cost less or don’t demand as many sacrifices.
The 2016 Scion iA starts at a sticker price of $16,470, including the destination charge, a price that includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; Bluetooth connectivity; push-button start; a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with a six-speaker stereo; 16-inch alloy wheels; and even a low-speed automatic braking system. The only pricey options available are a $419 navigation system and an $1,100 automatic transmission. Scions are sold no-haggle, without a discount from the sticker price.
The tested iA with a manual transmission has EPA fuel economy ratings of 31 mpg in the city, 41 mpg on the highway, and 35 mpg overall; this reviewer observed significantly better mileage: 43.3 miles per gallon in mixed driving that skewed toward more highway miles.
Why to buy it
Some cheap subcompact cars are inexpensive because there wasn’t much effort put into their engineering, a cost-saving decision that manifests itself in sloppy driving dynamics. Models like the Nissan Versa and Toyota’s own Yaris in particular are basic vehicles that feel basic.
The iA, meanwhile, has clear sophistication to its ride, handling, and steering, setting it apart from the rest of the subcompact class. The suspension is firm without being stiff, meaning that it’s not going to conceal bumps in the road so much as ensure that they don’t unduly jostle and slam the car around. The composure extends to the handling, which is hardly sports-car agile but which gives the iA some spunk. A driving enthusiast wouldn’t gravitate toward the iA necessarily, but someone who appreciates fun handling wouldn’t be turned off like they would be by most subcompact cars. The iA is further aided by a tight 32.2-foot turning circle, which is impressive even for a subcompact car.
More important for many buyers than the ride and handling, though, will likely be the iA’s fuel economy. The car is built using Mazda’s “SkyACTIV” suite of fuel-saving tricks, which include everything from refinements to the engine to matters like improved aerodynamics and weight savings. As noted, iAs with the six-speed automatic beat anything in the U.S. market but a hybrid or electric car, with an EPA rating of 37 miles per gallon overall. Even the tiny two-seat Smart can’t match that mileage. And the standard six-speed manual isn’t far behind, with ratings of 35 mpg overall that this reviewer handily beat in real-world driving.
Part of the iA’s fuel savings come from its modestly sized 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which has just 106 horsepower. However, the car’s lightness means that acceleration is competitive with other subcompact cars that have more horsepower – that is to say, not great but not wretched. The tested six-speed manual transmission isn’t quite joyful to use, but the shifter is suitably precise. And unlike some competitors, automatic iAs have a conventional automatic transmission, rather than a less smooth dual-clutch automatic (Ford Fiesta) or a continuously variable automatic that can produce a droning engine note (Honda Fit, Nissan Versa).
The iA is also smartly designed inside, with a similar style and layout to larger Mazda models. A touchscreen infotainment system sticks up from the low dashboard, and audio controls sit between the front seats. It’s an acceptably intuitive layout that keeps the dash itself clean and uncluttered. The cabin looks upscale of other cars in its class, and materials quality is generally appropriate. The front seats are comfortable and well-shaped, but narrow; heavier drivers may wish for more lateral space than the iA allows. The well-shaped 13.5-cubic-foot trunk is competitive with a number of sedans one size larger – including Mazda’s entry in that class, the Mazda3.
Also, as noted earlier, the iA trumps other subcompact cars’ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-test ratings. One matches its crash performance – the Chevrolet Sonic – but the IIHS gives the Scion an edge for its automatic braking system that can stop the car to avoid a collision altogether from 12 mph. Both the automatic braking and the strong crash-test scores, along with its maneuverability and agility, make the iA a potentially appealing choice for a new driver.
Lastly, some buyers will appreciate the Scion brand’s no-haggle pricing, which reduces the time and stress of the buying experience. (Buyers should expect, though, to haggle over any trade-ins if possible, and the no-haggle policy will disappear when the iA joins the Toyota brand for the 2017 model year.)
Why to skip it
The iA is a pleasant car to drive, but its utility is lacking even by the standards of subcompact cars.
Tall but narrow, the iA has decent headroom for the front and rear passengers but limited hip space in the front if you’re on the heavier side. Rear legroom is among the worst in the class; the seat cushion isn’t uncomfortable, but most adults’ knees are jammed into the front seatbacks if the front seats aren’t moved well forward. And don’t count on using the center-rear position except for small children.
Also, as noted earlier, every other subcompact sold in the U.S. can be ordered as a five-door hatchback, a body style that lets you fold down the rear seat to open up a spacious cargo hold. The sedan-only iA has a reasonably sized trunk – with more space than some hatchbacks behind the rear seat, because sedans are longer than their hatchback equivalents – but no flexibility to hold bulky items. Sedans’ extra length also cost them some utility as city cars, needing a potentially precious extra foot or so of curbside while parallel parking.
The iA isn’t a leader on the value front, either. Sticker prices are comparable to most similarly equipped competitors – some, notably the best-selling Nissan Versa, are less – and because Scion doesn’t let you haggle, you’ll likely pay less out the door for the competition. And as noted earlier, you can’t get either a bare-bones or a luxuriously optioned iA. Superior fuel efficiency will help cover the slightly higher cost, especially if fuel prices rise, but a number of competitors aren’t far behind the iA’s class-leading mileage.
This isn’t a voluminous list of weaknesses, of course, but utility and price are two highly significant points in considering an economy car.
There are also a couple of niggles worth raising:
The iA includes push-button start, with the car sensing the proximity of a key rather than needing it to be inserted. But Scion left out keyless entry – you can’t unlock the car with a tap of the door handle, meaning you have to take the keyfob out anyway to get into the car. Unless you keep your iA unlocked, there’s no advantage to push-button start here.
Also, although the interior is mostly well-finished for the price, the tested iA had sharp edges where the hard rubber door armrest curved downward into the door pull. That’s one of the worst places to cheap out on interior build quality, given that it’s a touch point every time you close your door.
If you just love it
If something about the iA really resonates with you personally – the way it looks, the design of its cupholder, a particular rare feature, or anything else – just make sure that you’re aware of roomier and more affordable competitors. It’s easier to see a low price and assume it’s the lowest, and to see cramped small car and assume it’s just because small cars have to be cramped.
Another note is that because Toyota is discontinuing the Scion brand for 2017, the iA will have existed for just one year before putting on a Toyota badge. The mere one-year lifespan of the “Scion iA” nameplate could affect resale values, making it potentially worthwhile to wait a few months for the new name if you love this model.
If you just hate it
If something about the iA simply rubs you the wrong way but you do want a car much like this one, the closest alternative is the Ford Fiesta. It too has a composed driving experience that’s more sophisticated than the class norm, and it too has a cramped rear seat. The Ford also costs less and can be had with a much wider array of options. The Scion is much more fuel-efficient, though, has superior transmissions, did better in crash tests, has more user-friendly controls, has better interior build quality, and has more comfortable front seats.
For a more well-rounded option without upscale pretensions but still without a cheap feel, consider the Hyundai Accent. It’s roomier than the Fiesta and iA (though still not a class leader there), and has agreeable driving dynamics and a peppy engine even if it’s a little less fun than the iA. The Accent’s cabin is well-finished and the controls are sensible, there’s a long warranty, and prices are quite competitive after you haggle. You can’t get a spiffy infotainment system, though, and crash test results and fuel economy significantly trail the iA. A mechanical cousin to the Accent is the Kia Rio, which is less fun to drive than the Hyundai but which has most of the same strengths and virtues along with a posher interior and more available luxury features.
If you love the iA but want it as a five-door, the closest option for now in the United States is the Mazda CX-3, which is a slightly taller and significantly more expensive model that fashions itself as a crossover. It also has a larger, less fuel-efficient engine and not much more rear seat space. For a similar price to the CX-3, the Mazda3 – a compact sedan or hatchback, one size larger than the Mazda2-based iA – offers lively driving dynamics and excellent fuel economy, though it’s of course more expensive than the iA and still not especially roomy for its size.
Lastly, note that if you hate the iA due to how it looks in pictures, you might find it less objectionable in person. The front-end styling was evidently intended to be as different as possible from the Mazda2 without needing to change anything but the plastic front clip, and the result – a large, low grille opening – has received some harsh feedback. However, because the car is especially narrow, the grille is less prominent when seen in person. (The rest of the iA’s body wasn’t changed, so it closely resembles the slightly larger Mazda3 sedan.)
Other subcompact choices
These models are different sorts of vehicles from the iA, but as the winner and runner-up of this reviewer’s most recent comparison of subcompact hatchbacks, they’re worth noting: the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa, respectively.
Both are incredibly roomy for their size and quite fuel-efficient. Between the two of them, the Fit, sold only as a hatchback, has a more solid feel, a more upscale interior, superior driving dynamics, more power, and better safety ratings, but costs more. It’s a well-designed all-around subcompact with utility that rivals some small crossovers, and it even costs a bit less than the iA. But it’s less fun to drive and a little less fuel-efficient, and also trails slightly for its crash-test performance.
The Versa, sold either as a sedan or a hatch, is slightly roomier, rides slightly more smoothly, and costs quite a bit less money, but it feels comparatively cheap and basic. There’s no zest to its engine or handling, and the interior feels chintzy. It’s quite inexpensive, but built to feel that way. If that doesn’t turn you off, the Versa provides functional and economical basic transportation.
The 2016 Scion iA is an endearing car from the driver’s seat, at least if that seat isn’t too narrow for you. There isn’t obvious cheapness to be found in its design, standard features list, or driving dynamics, and it leads the class for its gas mileage, safety ratings, and handling agility.
But functional compromises and a lack of a price advantage mean that you’d have to really love the iA’s advantages over the competition. The advantages do exist, and especially if you value driving enjoyment or at least composed driving dynamics, they can be quite compelling advantages at that.
For a lower price, or for more space for the money, though, the competition isn’t so bad either. Shop carefully.
Comparison review: Subcompact hatchbacks
Comparison review: Compact sedans
Review: 2016 Mazda CX-3 Touring
Review: 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata
All Cars Examiner reviews
More about the 2016 Scion iA:
Gallery of exterior and interior photos
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $16,470
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $16,470
Estimated transaction price as tested:* $16,470
Test vehicle provided by: Toyota Motor Sales USA
Length: 171.7 inches
Width: 66.7 inches
Height: 58.5 inches
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Weight: 2,385 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.5 cubic feet
Turning circle: 32.2 feet
Engine: 1.5-liter I4
– Horsepower: 106
– Torque: 103 pound-feet
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed manual
EPA city mileage: 31 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 41 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 35 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 43.3 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 11.6 gallons
Assembly location: Mexico
For more information: Scion website
* Scions are sold no-haggle at their sticker prices, aside from occasional rebates.