If asked to select new models for last year’s car of the year awards, I would’ve put Scion’s iM at the top of my list. I’ve always been more impressed by inexpensive practical cars done well than luxury sport models charging pricey premiums, and the iM did everything asked of it very well indeed. For 2017 it’s mostly carryover except for two important features, the badge on the grille and a host of premium-level safety features that are now standard yet were never offered previously.
As you may have already heard, Toyota said goodbye to its youth-oriented Scion brand that started off with a bang back in 2003 and ended in a fizzle at the close of 2016. All that’s left is this iM, which was already sold as the Auris Hatchback in Europe and simply as the Corolla Hatchback in Australasian markets, and the fabulous FR-S sports coupe that was also sold globally as the 86 (or at least as some version of the 86 nameplate including GT86 in Europe and New Zealand as well as FT86 in Nicaragua and Jamaica). Toyota’s triple-oval “T” badge and Scion’s logo were identically sized and shaped from onset so that rebranding costs would be minimal, therefore along with a 2017 mid-cycle update the 86 gets shipped from its Ōta, Gunma, Japan assembly plant more or less identical to all markets worldwide, while the Corolla iM merely gets a unique badge inserted on its backside before leaving its Takaoka plant in Toyota City, Aichi, Japan and heading across the Pacific to North American markets in order to maintain continuity with the previous model.
I could care less what Toyota wants to call it (Matrix would’ve worked too), because it’s an even better car now than it was under the Scion nameplate. Also important to the Japanese brand’s bottom line and the iM’s (86′) success, Toyota is a household name most consumers trust implicitly, whereas Scion never broke through to the mainstream. A friend of mine who manages a Toyota dealership five minutes from my house often told me he could’ve sold many more Scions if they were simply badged as Toyotas. His customers came to their dealership to buy a Toyota, and had no intention of doing otherwise despite assurances about Scion’s purely Toyota origins. It’s tough to blame consumers that have long been wary of Korean Daewoos rebadged under GM’s various brands (Suzuki included), Fords wearing Mazda logos and vice versa, Chrysler’s that are actually Mitsubishis, and the list goes on. Scions, on the other hand, were always Toyotas with flashier styling and standard full-load feature sets.
This one-price-fits-all approach continues with the 2017 Corolla iM, and with it comes positives and drawbacks. On the positive Toyota packs a lot of features into its base $18,750 suggested retail price, but that number might cause sticker shock to those looking for a simpler base five-door hatchback. Then again, only the new Chevrolet Cruze Hatch at $17,850 and Kia Forte5 at $18,200 are priced lower, with most brands choosing five-door hatchbacks as the sportiest versions of their compact lines. Case in point, even the Hyundai Elantra GT is priced higher than the Corolla iM at $18,800, as is the Subaru Impreza 5-Door at $18,895, Honda Civic Hatchback at $19,700, Focus Hatch at $19,765, Volkswagen Golf at $19,895, Mazda3 5-Door at $19,970, Fiat 500L at $20,995, and Mini Clubman all the way up at $24,100 (although to be fair many consider this British brand near luxury in comparison).
Despite being more reasonably priced than most of its challengers the Corolla iM offers considerably more for the increase. It starts with a premium like cabin that’s hard to beat, including woven fabric wrapped A-pillars, high-quality soft touch synthetic surfacing across the entire dash top, the upper half of the instrument panel, and tops of the door panels, not to mention a padded and contrast-stitched section for resting the driver’s knee down the sides of the lower console, while contrast-stitched padded fabric armrests and inserts join comfortable high-grade cloth seats. Additionally, contrast stitched leather surrounds the steering wheel, shift knob, boot, and handbrake lever, while piano black lacquer and metallic trim, sporty motorcycle-style circular gauges, top quality switchgear, and state-of-the-art touchscreen infotainment combine for a well suited up compact.
As long as we’re talking value, the Corolla iM’s list of standard features includes LED-infused automatic on/off halogen projector headlamps, turn signals set into the side mirror housings, LED taillights, stunning machine-finished 17-inch alloys with gray painted pockets on 225/45R17 Bridgestone all-seasons (although my tester was shod in Blizzaks for the sake of journalist safety – thanks Toyota), remote access, heatable powered mirrors, a tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, a 4.2-inch color TFT multi-information display, a large high-resolution seven-inch Pioneer infotainment system with very nice graphics and a backup camera, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, voice recognition, and a six-speaker AM/FM/USB/AUX audio system with Aha, internet radio, POI search, Gracenote, and more, as well as dual-zone automatic climate control, variable intermittent wipers, illuminated vanity mirrors, an overhead console with a nicely lined sunglasses holder, and two absolutely superb well-bolstered sport seats.
As good as all this is for a base model, another reason Toyota may want to offer multiple trim levels with next year’s Corolla iM is the current car’s lack of optional features when compared to competitors, such as proximity keyless access, pushbutton ignition, parking sensors, leather upholstery, cooled front and heatable rear seats, a regular moonroof let alone a panoramic glass roof, upgraded infotainment with navigation, a surround camera system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, Siri Eyes-Free, and the list goes on.
Then again this is only half true. While some of the Corolla iM’s rivals offer such goodies from the factory, Toyota provides dealer-installed options via their accessories catalog including stiffer lowering springs and other TRD performance upgrades, a larger rear rooftop spoiler, an infotainment upgrade with navigation, and even seven-color interior ambient lighting with a wide palette of available hues including blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, purple and white.
However, as mentioned earlier every Corolla iM comes well stocked with safety features such as the usual four-wheel discs with ABS, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution, traction and stability control, Smart Stop Technology that stops the vehicle when both throttle and brake pedal are pressed simultaneously, all part of the brand’s Star Safety System, while additional safety features like tire pressure monitoring and a full assortment of airbags also come standard, the latter including a driver’s knee blocker and front passenger seat cushion airbag.
Now, depending on the model, Star Safety is joined by an even more robust safety package named Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) that includes many of the active ingredients needed for self-driving. TSS comes in two flavors, again depending on the model, including this Corolla iM’s TSS-C system, which is also standard with the Yaris Hatchback and Prius C, or TSS-P that’s standard with the Corolla Sedan, Prius, RAV4 (including the Hybrid), Highlander (including Hybrid), and Avalon.
TSS-C includes a feature that automatically dims your high beams when an approaching car is detected or one passes by, Pre-Collision System that immediately slows/stops the car if it detects an imminent crash, and Lane Departure Alert that notifies you if a car is just behind you in the adjacent lane. TSS-P includes all of these systems while adding Pedestrian detection to the Pre-Collision System (the “P” in the acronym), as well as active steering assist that will turn your front wheels back towards your current lane if it detects a car in the adjacent lane when you attempt to change lanes, and dynamic cruise control that maintains a safe distance behind a given vehicle even if that vehicle slows. Toyota is the first mainstream volume brand to include such features as standard equipment on many of its new 2017 models, while the two systems are optional on other models and will probably become standard across the entire Toyota line soon.
Of course, adding either TSS system makes the above models safer, the IIHS giving the Yaris and Avalon Top Safety Pick ratings in standard trim, and awarding the Corolla Sedan, Prius, Prius Prime (plug-in), RAV4, and Highlander best possible Top Safety Pick Plus ratings in base trim, whereas the Camry and Prius V get the latter Top Safety Pick Plus ratings when their optional front crash prevention features are added. The Corolla iM isn’t on the list, but only because the IIHS has yet to fully crash test it. The moderate front overlap and side crash tests it has already undergone proved positive with a best possible “Good” score apiece, so as long as the small front overlap and roof strength tests do likewise the Corolla iM should at least be good for a Top Safety Pick rating. You might also find it interesting that the NHTSA has yet to crash test the iM at all, but on the other hand it may be comforting to know the European Auris (which as noted earlier is pretty much the same car) achieved a best-possible 5-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.
I certainly appreciated that the Corolla iM is as safe as can be, because it really likes to get up and go quickly. Under the hood is a 16-valve, DOHC, 1.8-liter four-cylinder with Valvetronic making 137 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque, which translates into spirited performance off the line and plenty of passing power at highway speeds. My tester came with the base six-speed manual, but Toyota offers a very well priced performance-tuned continuously variable transmission dubbed CVTi-S, complete with a Sport mode and a set of pseudo gears that can be manual actuated via the shift lever. I drove the CVT during the car’s official launch program as well as in last year’s Scion iM, and found the shifts pretty quick, making this autobox fairly fun compared to a number of competitive CVTs that are somewhat slushy, but if my money was on the line I’d keep the $740 and enjoy the sportier manual as it offers up a surprising level of precision more commonly expected from European performance cars, as did its nicely weighted clutch.
One of the main reasons to choose an iM over the Corolla Sedan and some others in the compact segment is its independent rear suspension (IRS); the regular Corolla making do with a less sophisticated and less expensive twist-beam setup in back. The twist-beam design is fully adequate for normal driving situations and even reasonable fun through fast-paced corners, but the iM’s more advanced multilink design feels rock steady at high speeds and really holds its lane when sudden bumps, potholes or other types of uneven pavement might unsettle a simpler rear suspension design. The IRS improves ride quality too, especially for those sitting in back.
Comfort in mind, the Corolla iM should live up to most owners’ requirements and then some. I already mentioned front seat comfort and support, these some of the best in the biz, while the steering wheel is nicely shaped with sporty thumb indents and boasted a thick padded leather rim for great feel and control. Most people should find the front quarters plenty spacious, as will those in back that enjoy an especially roomy second row. Positioning the driver’s seat for my five-foot-eight medium-build frame I still had four to five inches ahead of my knees and no shortage of space for my feet when seated behind, even while wearing my big clunky hiking boot-soled shoes, plus almost the same distance from the top of the my head to the roofliner. There’s no shortage of room from side-to-side either, while the door armrest was ideally placed for my size, although the center armrest, which incidentally had cupholders integrated within, was a bit low, albeit good for kids. On that note there’s ample room for three adults in back, but it would probably be a bit of a squeeze for larger folk.
The cargo compartment is nicely finished with high-quality carpeting on the floor, the seatbacks and the sidewalls, while underneath is a shallow what-have-you tray above the spare tire. Toyota includes four chromed tie-down rings at each corner for strapping down loose items, while the rear seatbacks fold 60/40 to expand the 20.8 cubic-foot dedicated cargo area to an undisclosed maximum (but it’s quite sizable).
Now that we’re being so practical, a key reason to purchase any compact car is fuel economy and the Corolla iM certainly won’t disappoint the stingy among us with a five-cycle rating of 27 mpg in the city, 35 on the highway and 30 combined with the as-tested manual, and these numbers came very close to matching my real-world results.
My test wasn’t without complaint, because the Corolla iM and many other Toyota models don’t have enough telescopic steering wheel reach for my body type. I suppose I’m long-legged with a short torso, which means I need to set the base of my seat rearward and then extend the steering column as far back as possible with any vehicle I drive. Toyotas, and some Lexus products, are the only vehicles that don’t fit me properly, their ergonomics requiring me to drive with arms almost straight out instead of allowing a kink at the elbow when the wrist is laid across the top of the steering wheel rim, the proper and safest way to set yourself up before taking to the road. I’m sure I’m not alone with respect to body type, although this issue may not often be seen as a problem being that the majority of drivers are never taught best procedures for setting the seat, steering wheel and mirrors for optimal car control. Unfortunately most driving instructors don’t know, and most motor vehicle licensing divisions are using guidelines developed way back when steering wheels were twice the size; hence archaic “10 and 2” hand positioning (today’s cars are specifically designed for 9 and 3). So I’m left really liking the Corolla iM and many other Toyota models, but not being able to get fully comfortable or feel totally in control.
Of course, my problems aren’t your problems, but before signing on the dotted line make sure to spend a good hour or more in the Corolla iM or any car you’re interested in buying if possible. If the iM fits you well I’m pretty sure it’ll meet most other objectives, as it’s one of the best in its class and totally worthy of your attention. Toyota is well respected for reliability and many of its cars are tops in retained value too, making the brand a good financial bet. In the end I highly recommend the Corolla iM.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press