"Scion appears to have hit a niche here. Cheap and stylish. Just like my brother. Except he's not stylish."
Good: stylish, economical, reliable
Bad: ergonomics, radio, handling

The Scion xA is a Mini knockoff that you'd find while shopping at Target. It's not the real thing, but it's in the same ballpark, is sort of cool on its own merits, and available for about two-thirds the price of the real thing.

What do you get for your suggested retail price of $12,530 (or, as tested, with side and curtain airbags, vehicle stability control, alloy wheels and moon roof, a bargain at $15,380)? You get a very cute, very economical, five-door hatchback, with Toyota's reputation for reliability.

Scion is Toyota's "youth brand." We know what you're saying, "Toyota used to be Toyota's youth brand." But that was when we were youths, and Conestoga wagons crossed the plains. Now that we're adults, the kids have decided - and rightly so - that Toyota is stodgy. "Why would I want to drive a 'Dad' car?" So Scion is a separate division of Toyota trying to make cars cool enough, cheap enough, and not-labeled-Toyota-enough to hook young car buyers. The hope is, when they're older and more crotchety, they'll start buying real Toyotas, and then maybe even Lexi. But for now, our focus is on these starter cars. And we love them.


Driving Experience

The xA drives a lot like a European economy car. It has a small, 1.5-liter engine, which puts out 108 horsepower, and asks you to get the most out of it. If you're willing to shift gears and really drive the car, there's plenty of power there. And lots of fun, too. The whole car only weighs 2,340 pounds. The xA reminds us of the old days, when you really needed to shift gears a lot to milk the engine's power. Now, most cars are so over-powered, that it almost doesn't matter what gear you're in. What fun is that?

There's lots of torque at the very bottom of the revs. So if good mileage is your goal, you'll be able to shift quickly up through the gears - Euro style. If you want a sportier experience, you just stay in the gears a little longer.

The handling, while acceptable, isn't quite as much fun as the engine and manual transmission. Here, you notice that the xA is an economy car, as it leans softly in corners, reminding you to slow down as effectively as if your parent were in the passenger seat wagging a finger. It's perfectly acceptable, especially around town, and even on the highway, but if your goal is windy roads and tight curves, spend the extra six or seven grand and get the Mini. What? Can't afford it? Well, then, shut up and slow down a bit before the corners like everyone else.


Interior

While the xA is a short car (only about ten inches longer than the Mini when measured from headlight to taillight), it's a tall car with a high roof, which leaves plenty of headroom and a feeling of reasonable spaciousness inside. We're fans of this tall, Ford Focus-like design. It's a great way to get some breathing room in what otherwise would be tight quarters. It's no harder to park a tall car than one you have to fold yourself into, so why not go "up"?

There's decent room in the back, considering the xA is a little car, and there's a hatchback that gives you access to a reasonable amount of cargo room. The rear seat splits, 60-40, and can be folded down for more space if you find a used mattress in the trash you want to cart off to your dorm room.

One thing you'll notice in this car is that all of the gauges are right in the middle of the console - on the dashboard in between the two front seats. There's nothing in front of the steering wheel, and the steering wheel has no controls on it, either. Everything is in the middle.

While interesting, this is a design that's only modestly successful from an ergonomic point of view. The only car in which we've really seen this work is the Mini, and that's because the Mini's speedometer is huge, and you can easily see it out of the corner of your eye while looking straight ahead. With the xA, however, you have to take your eyes off the road to read the gauges.

Air conditioning is standard in the xA, as is a tilt steering wheel, an ear-cracking, six-speaker stereo that plays CDs and MP3s, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. That's a lot for a cheap car.


Ergonomics

The controls are pretty straightforward and easy to understand - a hallmark of inexpensive, as well as well-designed cars. The ventilation controls, in particular, are nice and simple.

The radio, however, is an ergonomic abomination. It's a little piece of junk with tiny, little buttons for everything, including volume. So every single time you want to adjust the radio's volume (which probably falls somewhere between the brake and clutch on the list of most-used automotive controls), you have to lean forward, look carefully at the radio, locate the little, tiny volume buttons, and then push the one you want repeatedly until you reach the right volume. It's a complete and total pain in the butt. Guys, keep the tilt steering wheel, but give us a gol' darn volume knob, please.

For those who like cheap entertainment, the radio's also got a whole bunch of different color options for its display. So you can cycle through magenta, cyan, fuchsia, melon, etc., and decide what color you want your radio display to glow on any given day. Like we said, we'd trade that feature for even a cheap volume knob in a New York minute.


Styling

We like the styling of the xA. It's refreshingly unique and interesting looking. It's reminiscent of the Mini, only slightly bigger and boxier.

But just the mere fact that we think it's cool makes us wonder whether young drivers are really going to go for it. Our early focus group of one, however, proved that Scion might just be on to something. When shown the xA, Ray's son, Andrew, actually removed his iPod earbuds for the first time in months, and launched into an embarrassing display of drooling and begging - all of which led us to believe that Scion might have hit its mark.


Servicing

The Scion is, of course, a Toyota, which means that it's well-thought out. Servicing should be easy to accomplish and relatively affordable. Plus, there's nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in terms of the guts of this car. You can happily take it to your local mechanic down the street, without worry.


Reliability

Scion is a new brand, of course - but under the hood the xA is a Toyota. That's good news when it comes to reliability. Toyota has one of the best track records going. For this reason, we'd be surprised if the xA was anything less than very reliable. This is a cheap car, so unimportant parts may break off. But it'll probably run forever.


Overall comments

We think the Scion xA is a great basic, bare bones car, at a pretty cheap price. It's targeted at kids. But we'd be happy driving this car around town. It's extremely practical - which, when you think about it, is exactly the opposite of the tact taken by other cars marketed at kids, like Firebirds and Eclipses. There are four doors, cargo room with folding rear seats and a hatchback, good gas mileage, Toyota reliability, and a cheap price. Add in the funky, good looks, the xA is a smart choice for any driver, young or not.

But if you're going to run out and buy an xA, however, we must absolutely insist that you get the optional side and curtain airbags. This is a tiny car, and if you get T-boned by a 6,400-pound Hummer some day, that $650 you spent on the extra airbags might not feel so very extravagant. (If you're wondering just how great the risks can be in a little car, check out this recent study from our pals at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.) Enough said.

In terms of competition, you could also look at the Ford Focus with the ZTS package, a very sporty car with a two-liter Mazda engine, nice amenities and good handling. It's a little bigger, a little more expensive, more substantial, and more refined. If it were us, we'd probably buy that instead, because we're, what? Geezers. There's also the Mazda 3, which is similar to the Focus, with a much more interesting exterior. But again, more moolah.

You could also look at a Hyundai Accent or Kia Rio, both of which are good values, and even cheaper than the xA. But those don't have the coolness factor, or the versatility of the hatch-backed Scion.

So Scion appears to have hit a niche here. Cheap and stylish. Just like my brother. Except he's not stylish.


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