The 2008 Scion xB reminds you of what was accomplished by the first 2004 xB, a car so shocking that the entire Scion brand still revolves around it.
Since the xB hit the street as a 2004 model, Scion has gained attention for its innovative commitment to personalizing its cars with optional accessories, its no-haggle pricing, and its thriving cultlike segment of borderline-scary owners, yet this is still the company recognized because it builds that funny box car.
So when it came time to design the all-new 2008 Scion xB, there was little chance it would be anything but a box.
Thinking Inside the Bigger Box
Odd as it might seem, what you see in these pictures and will begin seeing in Scion dealerships in a week or two is an Americanized version of the box thing. This is to say, the new xB is longer, lower and wider, and it has a bigger, more powerful engine.
The car that became the original 2004 Scion xB was never designed to American tastes. It was purely a product of Japan, where space is at a premium and styles, at least to American eyes, run from cutesy to what-in-god's-name. But this box is built for America, and there is currently no version of the new xB in the Japanese market.
At 167.3 inches, the '08 xB is longer by exactly a foot than the outgoing model. The new version is 3 inches wider than the old one. It rides on a wheelbase that's 4 inches longer. Its 16-valve, DOHC, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is the same that powers the Scion tC and the base-model Toyota Camry, and its increased displacement helps produce a maximum output of 158 horsepower, some 55 hp more than the previous motor.
If you looked only at the specifications, you'd think that the 2008 xB and Chrysler PT Cruiser were essentially the same car — a comparison that will surely make the Scion faithful cringe. But if you strip away the guerrilla-marketing programs and the thumping, bass-heavy music that always seems to accompany Scion events, the xB and the PT serve exactly the same purpose.
Of course, judging by the photographs of the Scion nation that we've seen, all xB owners flash mock gang signs at the camera whenever a picture is taken of them. We don't recall PT Cruiser owners doing any such thing.
No Toy Box
With height and width measurements that were nearly identical, the old xB upended so many basic car-design conventions that it became something of a curiosity — a toy. It was adorable to some; silly to others. And so the most telling difference between the old xB and the new one is that the new box is actually some 2 inches shorter in overall height.
There isn't any real function lost in the diminished dimension. There's 100.8 cubic feet of passenger volume compared to the 90.1 cubic feet offered by the old car, and there's still more-than-generous headroom inside for all five passengers. The new xB's greater track and width combined with its relatively modest height of 62.6 inches also help give the car some real stance on the road. Less like a toolbox on coasters and more like, you know, a real car.
The new look is a pretty accurate predictor of the way the car performs. The '08 xB feels more substantial and more stable, and it's ultimately more satisfying to drive than the previous model. It still has a relatively high center of gravity, so body roll is your constant companion. But when a corner arrives, the new xB leans smoothly and progressively as the force of physics makes its presence known, allowing you to pour the car into turns more smoothly than the somewhat tippy original.
The new xB rides on standard 205/55R16 all-season tires, so it doesn't have a huge amount of grip and will not inspire you to push the cornering limit. What you'll find, should the limit appear, is resolute understeer. If you want more grip, your friendly Scion dealer will be happy to offer you a number of optional wheel-and-tire packages that range all the way up to 19-inchers, though we suspect the nose-heavy distribution of the xB's prodigious 3,020 pounds (some 625 pounds more than before) will keep its handling dynamics from changing much.
The Power To Be Pleasant
The real revelation in the new xB is the new engine. The former 1.5-liter pea-shooter saw to it that you made some sacrifices for your funky style. In comparison, the new xB's 2.4-liter four-cylinder is thoroughly Camry-ized.
First of all, it's smooth thanks to dual counter-rotating balance shafts. And it has a broad, usable power band with a robust 162 lb-ft of torque on tap, so the xB is finally not as slow as it looks. Should you like, the Scion dealer can arrange to have a supercharger bolted on as an option, which should bring the peak power to 200 hp for a price not yet determined.
The xB's overall driving character is pleasant. Thanks to plenty of acoustic insulation, it's admirably quiet with little road or wind noise. The fairly rudimentary combination of MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion-beam rear suspension delivers a comfortable ride that is never jarring. And the engine never strains while pulling around the xB, despite the new car's weight. The 2008 Scion xB is, in a word, more adult than its predecessor.
Checking All the Boxes
Styling and image might define Scion cars more than anything else, but value is a critical part of the equation, too. At $16,230 for an example with a five-speed manual transmission, the xB is certainly inexpensive. The optional four-speed automatic costs another $950.
And the price represents good value, too. The list of standard equipment is unexpectedly long and includes cruise control, power windows, audio controls on the steering wheel, a six-speaker sound system with both iPod-specific and standard auxiliary inputs, air-conditioning, and remote keyless entry. All xBs also come with four-wheel disc brakes (the old model had rear drums), ABS, traction control, electronic stability control, side airbags for the front seats, and curtain-type airbags for front and rear seats.
Of course, you'll also find a few obvious examples of cost-cutting on this car. Old-school plastic wheel covers on steel wheels are standard equipment and make the xB look a bit like a small commercial vehicle. The automatic transmission offers just four ratios for forward thrust instead of the five- and even six-speed automatic transmissions of some competitors. We would opt for the five-speed manual anyway, since it makes the xB feel more responsive.
Don't Forget the Bottom Line
In Scion-speak, an accessory is what other companies call options, and they are a very big deal in building Scion's reputation for personalized vehicles as well as a prime contributor to the profit picture of Scion dealers. The most important of these accessories are an upgraded stereo system, navigation system, foglights and floor mats. Most of the rest of the items — both from Scion and a select group of Scion-approved vendors — are primarily cosmetic filigree. Meanwhile, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) offers a host of performance upgrades, including wheels, suspension pieces, an exhaust system and even a limited-slip differential. Go crazy, and you could end up with a quite expensive inexpensive car.
Our only real complaint about the new xB isn't what's changed from the old car, but one of the things that remain unchanged, like the center-mounted gauge cluster, which served no real purpose when Toyota introduced it on the Echo and hasn't improved with age.
Otherwise, the new 2008 Scion xB is quite a nice and practical car. We'd certainly buy it before we would a PT Cruiser or a Chevrolet HHR. Because, let's face it, those cars are square.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.