Long, long ago (2003), in a land far, far away (Torrance, California), Toyota’s American division woke from a fever dream of beige sedans, took a long, hard look at its life, and promptly embarked on a midlife crisis.
While the flow of staid and sensible Corollas and Camrys never ebbed, a funky new alter ego with a polar opposite personality emerged on the automotive scene. Scion was the Mr. Hyde to Toyota’s Dr. Jekyll. Youthful, offbeat, unapologetically boxy â€” anything but beige.
Poochy Scion made a splash, but even crises have a shelf life. Eventually, the free-thinking, free-wheeling designs that temped college graduates a decade prior morphed into warmed-over second-generation models with watered-down attitudes. The brand’s original clientele, having abandoned their amateur photography websites and once-a-week DJ gigs for babies and 401(k)s, fell away.
After 13 years, it was time to ditch the gold medallions, torch the little black book, and go home to the wife. But Toyota didn’t pull up in the driveway empty-handed.
Scion’s summertime death at the hands of its parent may have brought an end to the faded xB and tC, but the last progeny born of the flingÂ â€” the Scion iM introduced for the 2016 model yearÂ â€” lives on, minus the defunct badging. The mildly edgy compact hatch now bears a decidedly unfunky Toyota Corolla prefix. Its mission, however, is unchanged: dazzle young buyers with sporty looks, a low starting price and decent amounts of cargo space, then have them fall into Toyota’s arms â€” ideally for years, if not decades.
If those three criteria are your only concerns, then the Corolla iM stacks up well. The low nose, sharply raked windshield and look over here body kit sets it apart, for better or worse, from its five-door rivals, and its interior avoids the button-heavy clutter or acres of gray plastic born of automakers trying too hard or too little to impress. “Nice, an actual flat-topped dash,” one friend (admittedly, a Scion xB owner) remarked.
He’d obviously never been in a Corolla before, as the iM copies its interior layout down to the letter. Some Scion, huh?
As I like to pretend I’m a scientist, the climate control system’s toggle switches stirred inner fantasies of owning a World War 2 laboratory. It’s the little things that always delight. Still, while taking in the whole packageÂ â€” clean profile, dignified yet somewhat spartan interior, attractive 17-inch wheels and incandescent Electric Storm Blue paint â€” I found myself immediately wanting to like the iM.
The More We Get Together
You know the friend’s friend or coworker you admired from afar? The one who seemed like a compatible partner at first, before accumulated knowledge and experience shattered the illusion? Sadly, that’s what I experienced in the iM.
The fabric driver’s seat proved much too soft for my liking. Perhaps a lighter person wouldn’t sink so far, but I felt like I’d never hit bottom. The biggest complaint from this 6’4″ driver, however, was that a comfortable seating position proved impossible to find. While the steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake, its reach falls far short. As such, every attempt to get “in the zone” proved maddeningÂ â€” the wheel remained too far forward, while the door-mounted armrest sat too low to allow a comfortable grip on the wheel with my left hand. Adjusting the seat position to bridge the gap, ahem, came up short.
It’s too bad, as legroom proved perfectly acceptable. I’ve yet to talk to an average-sized iM driver, so I’m not sure if the seating issue is just my cross to bear.
In the backseat, a place I normally avoid going, my scalp came close to grazing the headliner, but I was born a stringbean, remember. Legroom isn’t any different from what you’d expectÂ in a compact car.
Legs in Search of Muscle
Toyota didn’t throw out Scion’s one-size-almost-fits-all strategy when it comes to the orphaned iM’s drivetrain, so if it’s not offered on a Corolla, this thing won’t have it. The sole powerplant is Toyota’s venerable 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which, at 137 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque, isn’t exactly a caged tiger. Stoplight launches â€” best described as “drama-free” â€” were accompanied by some buzziness from the continuously variable transmission. If owning a sensible screamer is your goal, you’d best look elsewhere.
If given a choice, I’d have enthusiastically opted for the available six-speed manual in the hopes of stirring up some entry-level fun, instead of keeping the CVT perpetually locked in Sport mode. (The tranny’s seven manual mode shift points were called on to keep the iM out of the rhubarb on freshly icy hills.)
A big letdown was steering feedback that fell on the numb side of the fence, but at least the iM’s legs proved up to the task. Unlike the Corolla, the iM drops its cousin’s torsion-beam rear suspension in favor of an independent setup, leading to competent and composed road manners, especially in corners. Road imperfections could stand a little more ironing.
If Toyota saw fit to endow the iM with extra power, heavier steering and less wheel play, the model could shine as a hotter hatch. Unfortunately, the automaker doesn’t seem to want to join the ranks of the Mazda 3 GT, Honda Civic hatch, and uplevel Volkswagen Golfs in that small but energized segment. Then again, I could be making the mistake of looking at the iM as a wholly new model, and not as a replacement for the long-gone Toyota MatrixÂ â€” a niche-filling model available for most of its run with a solitary, entry-level powerplant. (All-wheel-drive and a hotter engine option bowed out after 2006.)
Let’s face it. Neither the Matrix nor the iM slinked off the drawing board as an enthusiast’s car. Want to have more fun without leaving the camp? Toyota will gladly sell you a 86, now with an extra 5 hp. Try not to use the backseat. Twenty-somethings with a dog, a paycheck and a shelf from IKEA, on the other hand, might find their easily attainable prayers answered, especially with prices starting below $20,000. Your girlfriend’s stern dad would have a hard time withholding his approval.
The Art of Just Enough
On the tech front, those car-hungry Millennials will need to make do without Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Toyota likes its in-house connectivity, so deal with it, youngsters. Infotainment and Bluetooth functions are accessed through a seven-inch touchscreen, with voice commands and hands-free calling accomplished through steering wheel controls. Navigation is notably absent, though Toyota makes itÂ available through an optional tech package.
To keep the iM’s free-spirited yet sensible occupants safe, a grainy backup camera joins a lane-departure warning and pre-collision warning as standard equipment. Just remember neither system will physically rein in the vehicle if things get out of hand, so abandon any autonomous dreams before walking through those showroom doors.
Minus the nagging seating issue and less-than-thrilling performance, the iM bore all the hallmarks of a vehicle willing to soak up your lifestyle â€” and general neglect â€”Â for years without complaint. With so much borrowed from the sedate and reliable Corolla, it’s hard to conclude otherwise. It’s also easy on the eyes.
In mixed driving, this tester averaged 29 miles per gallon, less than the EPA combined rating of 31 mpg (which is 2 mpg less than the combined efficiency of a base, automatic Mazda 3 five-door). Keep in mind, however, myÂ near-constant use of the CVT’s higher-revving Sport mode, not to mention the winter rubber.
Toyota’s well-adjusted stepchild is anything but red-headed, but its pleasant looks, mild-mannered disposition and competitive price masks a lack of brawn. With the automaker seemingly eager to throw off the shackles of sensibilityÂ â€” something it telegraphed at the Detroit auto showÂ â€” it should consider taking the iM to the gym. Respectability is great, but it rarely breeds enthusiasm. Have the Corolla sedan tag along, too.
[Images: Â© 2017 Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]