- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

Toyota is once again attempting to strike gold as it did when it launched its upscale brand, Lexus. This time, however, its efforts are at the entry-level end of the automotive spectrum. Aimed primarily at young urban males, the Scion brand had a regional rollout that began in California last year and has now reached all corners of the United States. Unlike Lexus, Scion doesn’t have a dedicated dealer network with stand-alone showrooms. No, Scions are hawked under the same roof as Toyotas. The reason is that beyond selling some of its own models, Scion was conceived to draw young males into Toyota showrooms. A sound strategy if it works.

Toyota wants to lower the average age of its owner base while raising the ratio of male to female buyers. The hope is that Scion will accomplish both. Get them young and keep them long is the sales mantra of most car manufacturers.

If Toyota can convince young urban males that they belong in a Scion, the thinking is that they will move from a Scion to a bigger Toyota model and then perhaps on to a Lexus IS 300. General Motors grew into one of the world’s dominant corporations with such a strategy.

As with Lexus, Toyota launched Scion with two models. A third is on the way. The one with which the public is likely more familiar is the crate-shaped xB.

It’s a quirky looking, hey-look-at-me-I’m-different sort of design. The other is the Mini Cooper-ish five-door xA. Each is appealing in its own way, but the xA is the more mainstream of the two.

Toyota’s entry-level Echo contributed much to the xA. Its platform, suspension and engine all came from the Echo parts shelves. While drawing from the Echo helped keep down the price of the xA, there is nothing about an Echo to get a young guy’s heart racing. And remember, the xA is targeting young urban males.

The engine is Toyota’s 108-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder. The standard five-speed manual transmission encourages the driver to get the most out of this rather unspectacular power plant. Performance isn’t exactly sluggish, but don’t expect to blow the doors off the Ford Focus stopped next to you when the light goes to green. Around congested city streets, the xA accelerates adequately and cruises with determination once up to speed.

For $800, an optional four-speed automatic replaces the manual. Save your money. The five-speed provides more fun and better dynamics.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no difference in fuel performance between manual and automatic. It rates the xA’s fuel economy at 32 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway regardless of the transmission choice.

While the xA rides on Echo’s basic suspension, it handles better than the Echo. The xA sports a rear stabilizer bar not found on the Echo. Also, the xA has larger wheels and tires (15-inch on the xA versus 14-inch on the Echo). Nimble and predictable when cornering, the xA provides some fun in the twisties.

Stopping power comes from disc brakes on all four wheels. An antilock system is standard, as is electronic brake force distribution.

The xA’s cabin seems to be assembled with care. All the pieces fit together neatly. There were no rattles or squeaks in the xA used for this evaluation. The materials used appear more expensive than the price tag indicates. Placed at the center of the dashboard, the gauge cluster is easy to read. The controls and switches are uncomplicated.

Comfortable for a subcompact, the seats offer decent support. Front-seat occupants have sufficient room. Rear-seat passengers will find things cramped. With four doors, though, at least the rear seat is easy to access.

Luggage space is stingy, but more than doubles with the rear seat folded down.

There is only one xA trim level offered. It comes nicely equipped with air conditioning, dual power outboard mirrors, six-speaker audio system with CD player, power door locks and windows and tilt steering wheel.

The base price with delivery charge is a very reasonable $12,965, especially when you consider Toyota’s reputation for quality and its historically high resale value.

Where the xA makes the leap from solid transportation to something more compelling is in its options list.

Options drove the as-tested price of my xA up another four grand and all but one were dealer add-ons.

The only factory option available is the $650 air bag package that includes front seat-bolster side-impact and side-curtain air bags.

However, dealers can add everything from alloy wheels ($665) to an interior LED light package ($879) that illuminates cup holders and other areas. The $353 Sport Package offers blue/chrome pedal covers, OBX shift knob and a front strut tie bar.

The xA is well thought out and excellent entry-level transportation. If horsepower isn’t a factor, it is a smart choice.

Of course, there are always performance add-ons from aftermarket suppliers; but with the added cost of those air intakes and super exhaust systems (they do add a few extra horsepower), the base price can rapidly jump from reasonable to not quite so reasonable in a flash.

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