Caroline Pardilla, Deputy Managing Editor
Men pulled up alongside it to say how sexy it was. Cruising down the freeway, traffic surrounding the car slowed as motorists tried to figure out what exactly they were looking at. To drive the Scion xB, especially when it hasn't been released to the general public yet (it hits California dealerships in June and goes nationwide in 2004), is to be under an extremely bright spotlight. And even though our preproduction xB arrived in a color Scion officially calls "Camouflage," it did everything but blend in on the streets of Los Angeles. Just the sort of reaction Toyota is aiming for.
Like the nice, sensible friend you can always count on to get you from Point A to Point B, Toyota probably isn't the company you'd turn to for a good time or a jazzier image. Long saddled with the vanilla reputation of creating durable and economical cars, the car company is now trying to hang with the cool kids: Generation Y.
After winning over Generation X with Toyota products and baby boomers with Lexus, the Japanese carmaker decided to try something different by creating an entry-level offshoot, Scion, to connect with a younger consumer through affordable cars that reflect a trendy and active lifestyle. One of the first two vehicles put out by this up-and-comer is the xB, which the company has defined as "an urban subcompact van that projects the image of being an exciting departure from the norm."
It might just be strange-looking enough to repel the usual Camry-lovin' crowd and attract a different audience altogether, one that wants the hip factor of a Hummer H2 but doesn't have a wallet fat enough to accommodate that sort of trendiness. One would think this is tricky territory for a car company to aim for trying to be cool but promising value, two qualities that seem mutually exclusive in the marketplace. However, the brand-new marque has tailored itself to win over the Net Generation that wants instant gratification and cutting-edge style, but on its own terms.
Using the Internet and a low-pressure sales approach, Scion offers its customers the resources and freedom to check out the products on their own. And like Saturn, the cars will be sold at the advertised price. With a majority of car shoppers using the Web as their research tool, the Scion way seems like a natural evolutionary step in the car-buying process.
Now if only other car companies could price their cars the Scion way as well, that is by offering standard features you'd usually see on the options list (unfortunately, cruise control isn't on this list, nor can you get it as an option). For $14,165 (for five-speed manual transmission, $14,965 for automatic), not only does the xB come equipped with a Pioneer AM/FM/CD sound system with six speakers; air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and locks; and a remote keyless entry but also antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), stability control and traction control. A similarly equipped two-wheel-drive Honda Element EX would run you about $5,000 more.
Scion thoughtfully frees up the consumers' funds this way so that they can use the extra dough on a choice of 40 customizing accessories to make the vehicle their own. Toyota has also, for the first time, shared technical information with outside sources and collaborated with the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers' Association (SEMA) to develop aftermarket products specifically for Scion vehicles.
It sounds like a pretty story, but how does the car drive, you ask?
Despite its cumbersome appearance, this mini-minivan's light curb weight of only 2,425 pounds and compact size (the xB rides on a five-inch-longer wheelbase than the Echo but is almost 10 inches shorter overall) allowed it to whiz through the curvy parts of Sunset Boulevard with surprising dexterity. And even on an extremely blustery day of 20-mph winds, its boxiness wasn't buffeted about. In the canyons near Malibu, one driver zipped around each curve astonished that he didn't feel the wind as much as the car's anti-aerodynamic design suggested he would. The only time the wind seemed to bully the car was at a stoplight when it was put in neutral and we eased off the brakes. The headwind hit the 64.6-inch-tall car in the face and nudged it back as if it were sitting on a hill.
The xB comes with a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine enhanced with Toyota's VVT-i variable valve timing. With output rated at 108 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 105 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm, our test car posted a 0-to-60-mph time of 9 seconds flat. Some editors thought the engine refined all the way up to 6,300-rpm redline, while others felt the car couldn't be pushed past 4,000 rpm without trembling. Hardly enough oomph to excite the intended consumer the young urban male but what did you expect with only 108 hp?
But even though it lacks the peppy throttle of a 145-horsepower Suzuki Aerio SX or 160-hp Element, the xB has ample power for passing and merging on the freeway. Still, we couldn't help but daydream about what a supercharger would do. Our test car did come with a cold air intake kit which, according to Toyota, added about 10 more ponies under the hood.
Short gearing ratios might also have something to do with the car's liveliness. Indeed, during testing, the xB was well into fourth gear before crossing the quarter-mile line (in 16.8 seconds at 82.7 mph). And those on staff who disliked the Scion at first sight grew to love it for its drivability in the urban sprawl.
Braking performance was impressive as well, proving that the xB does indeed share Toyota DNA. Our test car went from 60 mph to a standstill in 123.7 feet. Pedal modulation was progressive and smooth and there was minimal nose dive as the car stopped straight. One driver raved that he felt as if he were behind the wheel of a premium performance car.
Another eager driver attempted to swing out the xB's back end by barreling around a corner at a high rate of speed (do not attempt this at home) but instead of skidding, the stability control, aided by the P185/60R15 tires, took corrective action and the car displayed admirable roll control. The steering felt tight, responsive and confidence-inspiring as well. For more leisurely driving, the suspension doesn't exactly offer a plush ride, but it isn't overly harsh or stiff, either. Broken pavement and bumps in the road don't transmit harshness into the cabin as much as you'd expect in an econobox.
The gearshift was the car's only real sore spot, as its long throws and vague gates left drivers to search for the gears. Our test car came with a carbon-fiber shift knob which was so skinny and cylindrical that it was almost difficult to grab on to, and reaching for it in the dark was sometimes hit or miss.
The rest of the car's spacious and quiet interior proved inviting for people of all sizes. Emphasis on 90-degree angles serves to expand the cabin. Legroom and headroom seem unnaturally abundant for a compact car, creating the sensation that you're hanging out in someone's living room. The xB's rear-seat accommodations offer enough space to stretch out your legs (or store the shopping bags or luggage that didn't fit in the rear cargo area). There was so much space that every person who sat in the rear seat felt compelled to ask if the front passengers had enough legroom.
One passer-by, who walked up to the car to check it out with his pregnant wife, commented that the xB seemed perfect for young moms as the rear-seat area appeared spacious enough to accommodate babies and all their accessories. One of our editors, who used the xB to take his wife and baby on a road trip, confirmed this. After stuffing baby gear, luggage for two adults and a "baby bouncer" in the cargo area, he used the rear-seat footwells to store more luggage and still had enough room for his wife to jump in the back to attend to the baby. He just felt weird about packing baby stuff in such a hip-looking vehicle.
The standard sport bucket seats in front are cozy as the side bolstering cradles both the driver and front-seat passenger. As for rear-seat comfort, some passengers complained how the thick padding was more than firm, it was uncomfortably hard. Still, with all the room back there, you can easily toss in a few throw pillows to appease your rear-seaters.
All five seating positions have headrests and three-point seatbelts. And for young families, all four passenger seatbelts have automatic locking retractors (ALR) to aid installation of conventional child seats. One thing you won't find in the xB is side airbags of any variety a shame in our opinion since you can get head and torso bags as a $650 option in Scion sibling xA.
Most of our test car's interior fabric and plastics were of better quality than one would expect for a car of this price. The cloth on the seats and on the doors was coarsely textured, making it appear durable. The plastics were fairly scuff-proof and not cheap-looking.
However, the cupholders up front are so low to the floor that the driver really should be at a stoplight before he or she ducks down to get a sip of soda. Only the front-seaters have their own cupholders, while rear-seaters are expected to share the single felt-lined, cup-size well located in the center console slightly behind the front seats. Where are your friends supposed to put their Mountain Dew?
The gauges are located in the center of the dash, replacing the area behind the steering wheel with a shelf and cubbies. Scion claims that this facilitates instrument reading so that the driver doesn't have to peer around the wheel to check information. This setup bothered some of our testers at first, but before they knew it, the storage area around the steering wheel was holding keys, pens, cell phones and wallets.
The cargo area holds 21.2 cubic feet, with the removable 60/40-split rear seat in use. That's about enough room to accommodate four airline-regulation-size carry-on bags probably not enough space for a road trip with four of your buddies. There's also under-floor storage next to the spare tire, which was great for storing valuables, like a cell phone and a wallet, when one driver went for a jog along the beach.
With the rear seats folded down, the cargo area measures 43.4 cubic feet. Compared to other economy cars, the xB's rear storage has about 10 feet more than the Scion xA; about the same capacity as a Ford Focus ZX5; 10 cubes less than Toyota's Matrix wagon; and over 30 cubes less than the Honda Element. Also, the second row can be completely removed, providing a flat floor for hauling surfboards, keyboards, snowboards, amplifiers and all manner of gear for the active driver. Compared to the Element, the xB not only seats one person more but has more headroom, front legroom and rear hip room.
In any case, the xB is meant to be an urban runabout, not a camper. It may not have the utility of an SUV but it has the height, space and visibility of one plus about twice the gas mileage of some its EPA rating with a manual gearbox is 30 city/33 highway (30/34 with automatic). Our observed EPA was 28 mpg during a week of spirited driving.
If you want a similarly priced car with a reliability record equal to Toyota's and a more traditional look, a Honda Civic would be a better bet. But, if you like the attention this "four-door Mini" attracts and all the room inside, the Scion xB is definitely more fun to own. Competitors in the looks department with a similar sticker seem nonexistent at this point.
While some editors were initially turned off by the Scion, grumbling that maybe the company is trying too hard to be cool and the ultraboxy vehicle isn't very easy on the eyes, eventually they came around after driving the xB. It's an impressive first step for the upstart Toyota offshoot to make, one other companies are sure to follow, but will the car's appeal fade once the novelty wears off? Hard to tell with kids nowadays, but Toyota is hoping its heritage of quality and value will lend some longevity to the Scion brand.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says: While I often question the marketing motives of corporate America, I can't deny the Scion xB's basic design philosophy: a cheap, versatile and fuel-efficient people mover built with Toyota quality and refinement. The styling is either bizarre or hip, depending on your aesthetic perspective, but the interior roominess and efficient use of space (think Toyota Echo times 10) make this small car feel downright SUVlike once you're inside yet it still offers the ride quality and handling characteristics of a small car. These "mini-minivans" are all the rage in Japan. Will the xB mark the beginning of a similar following in America? If the inevitable knock-offs sure to follow if the Scion meets or exceeds sales expectations offer a similar level of value for the money, I say, "Why not?"
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: In spite of the undisguised cost-cutting and marketing ("Let's gets the kids to drive our cars!") that have given rise to the Scion brand, I found much to like about the xB. It's certainly more appealing and better equipped than Toyota's Echo, with which it shares its drivetrain. Around sweeping turns, the xB was nicely glued to the road with minimal body roll despite its tall stance. Moreover, its 2,400-pound curb weight gave it a surprisingly tossable feel in these situations and its light steering provided decent feel and response. The xB was equally amenable to cruising along in city traffic, as its suspension did a good job of filtering out ruts and bumps, yielding an overall smooth ride. The 1.5-liter engine isn't very quiet or smooth compared to the Corolla's 1.8-liter, but as long as I kept the rpm up, it had enough juice to keep the Scion on pace with traffic.
Although I could take or leave some of the interior design cues the center-mounted gauge pod and the aftermarket-type stereo head unit with rainbow nighttime lighting among them the seating accommodations gave me plenty of reason to like the xB. The tall front chairs provide reasonable comfort and room (on par with Honda's Element), while the backseat offers an unprecedented amount of legroom for an economy car (more than that of some midsize SUVs), as well as a nice high seat back with large outboard headrests. Cargo capacity doesn't seem impressive until you fold down one of the rear seats. Are the xB's interior room and pleasant handling characteristics enough reason to buy one? Maybe. I really did like our test car and I thought it would be a fun first car. But I can't shake the feeling that most people would be happier with something heavier-duty, like a Focus ZX5, Matrix or Protegé5.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Matching its funky urban exterior styling, the sound capabilities of the xB's stereo ensure you'll be heard as well as seen.
The standard Pioneer AM/FM single-CD head unit cranks out 160 watts through four speakers (two in the front doors and two in the rear cargo panels) and two tweeters (planted at the base of the A-pillars). Upgrading to an in-dash six-disc CD changer (as was the case with our test vehicle), system hardware remains unchanged save for the increased CD capability and 10 psychedelic color choices for the LCD data display background. Satellite radio hardware and MP3 file-reading capability are also standard.
The faceplate controls are straightforward with simple buttons spaced adequately to prevent inadvertent selections. Drivers normally accustomed to rotary knobs for volume and tuning manipulation may chafe at the push-button-only layout; for a quick volume ante, your index finger must enter rapid-fire poke mode as when setting an alarm clock. Disc selection and loading can be confusing as the changer appears to have its own agenda when creating your musical menu; although, the absence of a cumbersome CD-magazine loader is always a plus.
Performance: The xB delivers on its promise to thump. Through three equalization modes branded Scion Sound Processing (SSP), the listener can opt for Neutral (a step above clock-radio speaker quality), Hear (strong vocals and sharp highs but lacking any real bass) or Feel Mode (abundant bass with clear midrange and distinct vocals the only acceptable setting) to suit his needs. Generic controls for bass and treble fine-tuning accommodate the strongest hip-hop or techno beats with rich sound; however, the upper volume tiers will provoke minor rattling and vibrations in various interior trim pieces. Front-seat passengers will detect a lack of sound from the rear due to the maximum distance between the speakers, and vice-versa for backseat riders; pony up the dough for the optional trunk-mounted subwoofer for added balance.
Best Feature: Rich bass without overshadowing vocals and highs.
Worst Feature: Confusing CD loader/selector and lame push buttons.
Conclusion: The most audio bang for the buck at this price point, and then some. Think of it as your own private nightclub on wheels. Hud Giles
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