2004 Scion xA Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor
August 6, 2004




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“Small cars are looking more and more like designer footwear,” declared a friend as we walked up to the xA, the first he’d seen.

I could see what he meant. While it’s a lot more rounded than its mechanical sibling the xB (popularly nicknamed the xBox), the xA brings an unusual, shape that we could only best describe as a “stout wedge.” Odd or fashionable? It’s up to you.

But there’s no denying that the xA boasts some very efficient packaging. Several feet shorter than a typical compact car, and rather narrow, too, the xA somehow allows four average-sized adults to sit comfortably — more comfortably than some much larger compact sedans and mid-size coupes.

Fun or just small?

U.S. automotive marketers are finally figuring out that if small cars are fun to drive, and if they bring the comfort and convenience features of larger cars, buyers will come. The xA is such an example. Based on Toyota’s global small-car platform, introduced to the U.S. in 2000 with the staid Echo sedan, the hatchback xA — called the ist in Japan — shares much of the Echo’s underpinnings but everything else is different inside and out. Scion, Toyota’s new youth-oriented division, operates only in the U.S. (with the lineup finally on sale in the entire country), so the same basic car is now sold as the Echo Hatchback in Canada, although the equipment, trim, and tuning of the car is quite different.

The hatchback packaging of the xA proves much more practical and elegant for this small car, not to mention the fashion-conscious Scion magic. The driving position is upright and visibility is rather good in all directions. You can barely see the hood. Tall drivers can fit comfortably in the height-adjustable front seats, and those under 6’-2” or so have good legroom and can fit in the back seat without bowing their head.

The dash layout is something that prospective buyers tend to either love or hate. Along with its relations the Scion xB and the Toyota Echo, and the MINI Cooper and Saturn ION, the rather small gauge cluster is in the middle of the dash, requiring the driver to bring his eyes over to the right. A fellow auto writer pointed out that it eliminates the need to peer through the steering wheel at a particular angle to read the gauges. But I remain unconvinced that it’s an improvement and not a distraction in eye movement.

Flamboyant interior, flamboyant sound system

Outside of the gauge cluster, the control layout is a bit flamboyant but typical Toyota. Steering-column stalks operate headlights, wipers, and cruise control, while the climate control system has three primary twist-knobs. The sound system resides high—perhaps hinting that it will be a big focus for those who buy the xA. Standard is a powerful system, co-developed by Pioneer, which includes MP3 capability. It sounds great, unlike the muddy, midrange-deficient systems in so many mass-market small cars.

Our test car had the optional Bazooka subwoofer and six-disc CD changer system ($774) with ten-color display. The large, tubular subwoofer mounted in the back cargo area eliminates some grocery-bag space for the sake of panel-shaking bass. And if you cue up some booty bass on the sound system, those panels do rattle.

Otherwise, there were no rattles or creaks. The interior materials are surprisingly nice for a car that starts in the $12k range. The dash is covered with a nice, slightly soft textured plastic material, and trimmed in what looks like brushed aluminum and a lighter plastic. But everything is tastefully done, not cheap-looking, and put together well.

A generous cubby area resides just at the bottom center area of the dash, where several CDs or small items could be stored. Its translucent cover is backlit with a nice orange hue — and we’ve been told that the color is also customizable. 

Nice, firm ride — but avoid the potholes

Small, low-priced cars — especially those from Toyota — tend to play it far on the comfortable side of the ride and handling balance, with very soft spring and damper settings and lots of safe understeer, the kind that would make grandma happy. Well, she would complain about riding in the xA. The xA’s standard (very firm) ride might border kidney-shaking for those in the pothole-riddled Midwest and Northeast, but for West Coast roads it’s about perfect.

Its standard suspension is very firm, with very crisp, neutral handling response. Changes in direction are crisp, without a whole lot of body motion. As we found out in some harder cornering with a passenger in the back, the back end becomes pitchy and bouncy and less predictable near the limit. For those who want even more control, through dealerships there are Toyota Racing Development (TRD) parts, including a strut-tower brace, available.

With 108 hp, the xA’s engine is no powerhouse. A cold-air intake — yet another dealer-installed option—will get you a few extra horsepower. It feels peppy but not extremely powerful. Peak torque of 105 lb-ft isn’t reached until 4200 rpm. Keep the revs up with the five-speed manual and there’s plenty of power, but the automatic — not well suited to this engine — can get bogged down.

The five-speed gearbox shifts smoothly enough. It’s a bit notchy, but each gear snicks neatly into place, including fifth, which is typically obstinate on some cars. The clutch on our test car didn’t completely disengage until almost reaching the floor, making shifts more tedious than they should be. A TRD quick-shifter kit is available as a dealer-installed option to shorten throws, but we thought the normal shift setup felt fine.

While the xA does have enough power, bringing the revs well into the 4000-rpm range is routine for keeping up with fast traffic. So it’s quite impressive that engine noise is seldom loud in the cabin and never buzzy, as is the case in some other small cars costing much more. The xA has an extra layer of sound-deadening materials, and it makes the little car very civil inside. There’s not much road noise either.

There aren’t many cars in this size class to compare the xA to. The MINI is in a much higher price class, and the Chevy Aveo is a bit cheaper. Having recently driven the Aveo, I much preferred the way the xA drove. It feels more solid and sophisticated than the Aveo, while somewhat more frisky and nimble, too.

Frugality a big plus

We saw about 32 mpg — equal to the EPA city rating — overall in mostly urban and suburban driving with a heavy throttle foot. In these days of ever-uncertain pump prices, that’s a big positive.

With its proven Toyota Echo underpinnings, the xA will likely be highly reliable and serviceable pretty much anywhere that you could take a Toyota, and we’re betting on a strong resale value over time.

This sort of car has been absent from the market for a long time — one that can serve as an excellent commuter car for mainstream suburbia, or one that brings a lot of character and is at least somewhat desirable to youth.

Scion places a big emphasis on customization, with a long list of dealer-installed appearance accessories and some performance accessories. While dealerships likely don’t make much money on the car itself, this is where they cash in. In the dealer-installed department, our test car had a carbon-fiber-look appliqué set installed, which we would have rather done without, plus some attractive upgraded wheels ($665), a security system ($459), and the aforementioned upgraded sound system. The only factory option available on the xA is side airbags ($650).

For young buyers, the xA can be a great first car with far more personality than what you can otherwise get for less than fifteen grand. Or if you’re looking for a second or third car, wipe that buzzy, torturous old hatchback out of your memory. Stay light on the dealer-installed accessories and you’re getting a great, well equipped conveyance that’s practical, fun to drive, and easy on your budget. Leaves room for those Pradas, doesn’t it?

2004 Scion xA
Base price / as equipped:
Engine: 1.5-liter in-line four, 108 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 154.1 x 66.7 x 60.2 in
Wheelbase: 93.3 in
Curb weight: 2340 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 32/38 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors; air conditioning; tilt/telescope steering wheel; six-speaker, 160-watt, MP3-compatible CD sound system; split-folding rear seats; rear wiper
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; six years/60,000 miles powertrain

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