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    What’s in a Hatchback’s Name?

    autoKeeping young and beautiful is a not-so-subtle societal pressure on all of us, and carmakers feel it too. Toyota’s executives felt it in the early 2000s, when the days of the brand being perceived as a youthful upstart ended somewhere around the time when disco died.

    In 2003, Toyota debuted Scion to focus on Gen-Y buyers. Scion was also leveraged for the LGBT community. You might remember the Scion tent at the Civic Center celebrations after the SF Pride Parade. If Toyota was too broad, then Scion was sent in to appeal to the fringes.

    But Scion didn’t sell well enough. Toyota recently announced that the Scion brand is ending, and its cars will be folded into the Toyota portfolio.

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    That’s not a big stretch when you consider this month’s Scion iM, which is quite obviously a four-door hatchback version of Toyota’s venerable Corolla. From those mainstream roots comes a sporty-looking form that has been optimized by the corporate computers with a finely targeted feature mix.

    Base price including destination charge is less than $20K for either the manual or CVT transmission versions, and a short options list indicates that many of the iM’s niceties, like 17-inch wheels and a touch-screen stereo, are baked in. The focus on affordability means that more premium items like leather seating and a power sunroof aren’t available at any price.

    The iM’s sharp lines belie the Corolla’s resolute utilitarianism; the overall feel is pleasant and comfortable, but not provocative. The test car’s manual transmission demonstrated that, with long shifter throws and a too-light clutch that obscured its engagement point. The 137-horsepower four-cylinder engine had enough beans to scoot the iM up the Castro’s hills, but it got rough and noisy as the revs climbed.

    The iM’s interior, on the other hand, is built with attractive plastics, and the front seats are comfortable. While this Scion lacks the edgy zing the brand initially promised, the iM has the steady feel a Corolla buyer would want.

    The Honda Fit has that kind of predictability as well. Since its late-2000s inception, the Fit has been a model of space efficiency. The Fit is 10 inches shorter than the iM, but it packs in four more cubic feet of passenger space. Most impressive is the Fit’s large sedan-like 39.3 inches of rear legroom, while the Scion has less than 33 inches.

    The Fit fits most budgets, with a sub-$17K price for the LX and $22K for the loaded EX-L test car, complete with leather, sunroof and navigation. Its value is uncontested, particularly when considering the Fit’s exemplary resale value.
    One fly in the Fit’s ointment is its flat front seat cushions, which feel like low stools under the thighs of taller riders. Another is its engine, which produces a peppy 130 horsepower, but can get loud and boomy like the iM’s.

    Either of these hatchbacks would be safe and reliable transportation, and now both are marketed in ways that are true to their middle-of-the-road missions.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at www.gaycarguy.com. Check out his automotive staging service at www.carstaging.com