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New Car Review: 2004 Scion xA

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``Scion'' is defined by Webster as ``descendant or child.'' It's also the newest brand from Toyota. Lexus was created as Toyota's upscale division 15 or so years ago; now Scion comes online at the other end of the price spectrum. But there is far more to Scion than low price.

Few small, low-budget cars have made a lasting impression in America, as most have been mere ``transportation appliances,'' devoid of character and quality. The three Scions have plenty of character, with unique style, good performance, and Toyota build quality.

Scion was introduced in California a year ago, and is now nationwide. The two original vehicles - the sporty subcompact xA and utilitarian micro-van xB - have recently been joined by the tC, a small sports coupe. According to Scion, the three key characteristics of its vehicles are style, versatility, and surprise, and this rings true.

The xA and xB, in particular are not likely to be confused with any other cars available here, and both are configured for maximum space utilization and interior versatility.

The ``surprise'' part comes in the high levels of standard equipment and low prices. Although the style, advertising, and promotions, including ``lifestyle events'' encompassing music, art, fashion, and even cars decorated by graffiti artists, show a decided slant toward the urban youth market, Scions are really meant for anyone looking for something out of the ordinary.

Scion claim its cars are for people with ``luxury aspirations, but on a subcompact budget.'' ``Luxury'' might be a stretch, at least in appointment - don't expect leather and burled wood - but materials and fit and finish are first-rate, and compare well to some cars costing twice as much.

The outrageously boxy xB is not only popular with the young, urban buyers it was aimed at, it has proven popular with older ``empty nesters'' who some people might associate more with large domestic sedans or motorhomes. Hey, the box is useful. So is the non-box, the xA. And it's fun, too, as I discovered during the past week. The excellent space utilization possible with a four-door hatchback body is one advantage, and light weight, a sporty suspension tuning and, a thrifty 1.5-liter, 108-horsepower engine make it a winner in both fuel economy and fun-to-drive character. The standard equipment list is impressive, including air conditioning, antilock brakes, power windows, doorlocks, and mirrors, a rear-window defogger, and a six-speaker Pioneer AM/FM/CD audio system. It's no bargain-basement special that will cost an extra few thousand dollars over the base price by the time it gets out the door. The Scion buying experience is also designed for simplicity, with a no-haggle sales policy and high degree of personalization through factory options.

APPEARANCE: If you're familiar with the small cars popular in Europe and Japan, the xA will seem less unusual. It's short, narrow, and tall proportions have the crowded urban environment in mind. But it's relatively wider and lower in front, tapering higher and narrower to the rear for aerodynamic efficiency and stability as well as style. The stock wheels and tires nearly fill the wheel arches. Because of that, and its proportions, and its strong fender flares and rocker panels, the xA is much more muscular-looking than most small hatchbacks that have come to our shores. The windshield is nearly as raked as the hood, and, with the arched roof, helps give the xA a unified look seen from the side. The front is highlighted by large, complex headlights, while similarly-shaped taillights make it easily visible from the rear.

COMFORT: The xA is as distinctive inside as it is outside. Its four-door body makes access easy, and a hatch can't be beat for those times large, awkward things need to be moved. Just try to fit a computer monitor or a bicycle through the small trunk opening of a subcompact sedan. Inside, there is plenty of space for the two front passengers, and more than you might think in the rear seat. Because of the width, it's cozy for three adults, but there is enough leg and headroom for people up to six feet, depending on the height of the front seat occupants. The front buckets would not be out of place in a sports coupe costing $10,000 more than the xA. Interior design is high-tech modern, simple and straightforward but with flair. The most noticeable feature is the instrument panel design. The hooded instrument pod is placed in the center of the top of the panel, not directly in front of the driver. This makes sense once you realize that there are right-hand drive versions of this car in Japan, and such a design simplifies production. I adapted to it quickly. Below the instruments is the center stack, with a rack-mount motif thanks to metallic-looking plastic trim at its edges. All controls are well-marked and simple to operate, although the buttons on the stereo are on the small side. For enthusiastic driving, the pedals are placed in a way conducive to heel-and-toe operation. This is not a feature of a mere econobox commute module. Luggage space with the rear seat up is carry-on only, but with the rear seat down (it's split 60/40) there is plenty of storage space, and a bicycle fits easily, provided the front wheel is removed. I've seen huge SUVs with less useable space.

SAFETY: The Scion xA's unibody structure is designed to protect occupants in the event of a crash. Antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution are standard. Side and side curtain airbags are available.

ROADABILITY: A very European suspension calibration sets the Scion xA apart from other low-priced subcompact hatchbacks that have been sold here. While it can work perfectly well as a commute car, it is far more than that. Although the suspension configuration, with MacPherson struts in the front and a twist-beam axle at the rear, is nothing unusual for a small, inexpensive car, it is tuned very well for sporty real-world use. It's compliant enough for comfort, but firm enough to have fun in confidence. Stability in winds on the highway is good, and the xA's diminutive size makes city parking a snap.

PERFORMANCE: If it seems that the 108 horsepower (at 6,000 rpm) and 105 lb-ft of torque (at 4,200 rpm) that the Scion's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes is not enough, it's only pulling 2400 pounds of weight around. While it's not a true high-performance car, the xA is quick enough to be fun, but not so quick as to send your insurance agent on a six-month vacation to Hawaii. It's by far the most entertaining, and satisfying, U.S.-legal subcompact I've driven. Typically of Toyota engines, the xA's is a twincam, 16-valve aluminum alloy design with VVT-i variable valve timing, and can be matched to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. My test car had the manual, and that's the choice for maximum performance and economy, but the engine's great torque characteristics should allow for good performance with the automatic as well. It doesn't need to be revved to redline, and has plenty of torque for quick acceleration in traffic. Even driven in a sporty manner, and with plenty of stop-and-go city traffic, the xA returns over 30 miles per gallon of regular unleaded.

CONCLUSIONS: The Scion xA is a subcompact with style, verve, and character.

2004 Scion xA

Base Price			$ 12,480
Price As Tested			$ 14,957
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 16-valve inline
				 4-cylinder with VVT-i variable
				 valve timing
Engine Size			1.5 liters / 91 cu. in.
Horsepower			108 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			105 @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission			5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		93.3 in. / 154.4 in.
Curb Weight			2,340 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		21.7
Fuel Capacity			11.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P185/60 TR15 Goodyear Eagle LS
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / drum
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  semi-independent torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		32 / 38 / 33
0 to 60 mph				9.5  sec

Carpeted floor & cargo mats			$ 120
Alloy wheels					$ 665
Security package with remote entry		$ 459
Sport package - includes:
  OBX sport pedal covers and shift knob,
  Hotchkiss Performance front strut bar		$ 353
AM/FM/6-CD audio				$ 395
Delivery charge					$ 515