2004 Scion xB review
By Ian Johnston
Posted December 28, 2003
Over the holiday season, I was in California visiting relatives. My dad mentioned one day that he had seen a "really funky" car at the Toyota dealership, which he thought I would like. He couldn't quite figure out the right words to describe it to me, and couldn't remember the name until we got there (so I couldn't poke around the net looking for info). We went around the next day to take a look at this funky car.
We arrived at the Scion dealership (conveniently located a hundred feet from the Toyota dealership), to behold exactly two models in the lot: one which looked for all practical purposes like a Toyota Matrix (which I'm sure is a fine car, but doesn't do anything for me), and the second, which looked like a Dick Tracy fantasy car mated to an oversized cardboard box. I was immediately fascinated. Thus began the trip which culiminates in this review.
You should know that the Scion brand is an offshoot of Toyota, just like Lexus -- everything is branded Toyota, from the window glass to the engine block. They're calling them Scions so that the youths won't scoff at the stodgy Toyota image. They're only available in California as of this writing. Other dealerships should be popping up around the US through mid-2004, according to press material, starting with the East Coast and South in February. Presumably, because they're really Toyotas underneath, the same excellent reliability and build quality will be in effect.
This review is based on two short testdrives, with about 25 cumulative minutes at the wheel, and about 40 minutes of static perusal. The information I will convey is necessarily limited by the short period of time I was around the car. Pictures were taken the day I left California, in driving rain; they're not as good as they could be. Click on any of the pictures for a larger copy.
The Scion xB (the other model is called an xA -- easily distinguished, no?) is literally a box-shaped car. You could model one quite accurately using cardboard, a ruler and sharp knife. There are nearly no curved lines on most of the car (the front is slightly bowed, but you have to look for it), and the back of the car actually has honest-to-goodness right angles on it. I can't think of a single other car where I've actually seen a right angle anywhere on it. I'd have to go back with a tool to measure the angle, but if it isn't 90 degrees, it's damned close.
The car looks huge in all the pictures I've ever seen of it, but it's actually quite compact (except in height) when you get up next to it. I'm considering replacing an 11 year old Honda Civic hatchback, and despite my impression that the xB is a bigger car, the Honda is actually around 5 inches longer than the xB, and about half an inch wider. The xB is much taller, but that's kind of the point.
Sitting down inside the xB, we were amazed at the sheer volume enclosed within the cabin. My father and grandfather were with me on this trip, and none of us are short people, with me at 6' 1", my dad at around 6', and my grandfather 6' or slightly shorter. I set myself up comfortably in the driver's seat, and my long-legged grandfather still had 2-3 inches in front of his knees in the back seat. The front passenger seat is similarly spacious. The driver's seat still had a few stops before the "full aft" position, suggesting that even taller drivers than me would be comfortable. We all noticed that we had about 5 inches of clear air above our heads. Particularly in the back seat of any small car, this is almost unheard of. The bottom line is that you could fit 4 people, even four large people, in this car with a good deal of space. It would be tight to fit three people in the back seat, but only because the shoulder room would fill up quickly.
The good first impression is continued when you start to look around at the features built into this car. As the sales person explained, the xB comes with exactly one factory option available: an $800 automatic transmission. All the other options you read about are installed by the dealers, and they're universally of the type that are "add-ons:" graphic kits, fog lights, etc. The car comes with ABS standard. As well as traction control and stability control. As well as power windows, mirrors, door locks and remote "keyless" entry. As well as, heaven forfend, tinted windows. As well as a high-quality AM/FM/CD which is ready to control a satellite receiver (like an XM or Sirius radio), and plays MP3 CDs. The only added feature you might desire that isn't available is cruise control. A bizarre omission, but as I will discuss further on, this is a city car.
As soon as I entered the showroom of the Scion dealership, I knew exactly to whom this car was being marketed. There was exciting footage of a rave on a bigscreen TV. There were big posters showing Scions modded beyond reason, with spoilers, body kits, hip flashy paint, lights, etc. Doubtless these modded cars also contained a metric assload of large speakers and amps, as well as strap-on turbochargers and loud exhausts. I was clearly too old to be looking at this car, but I persevered. (I'm somewhat dissappointed, I thought I had captured the TV showing rave footage -- the "Self Expre Scion" thing in the picture is a big-screen TV.)
Apparently (and understandably) Toyota is going out of their way to market these cars at the 16-24 year old market segment. These youths presumably have more money than sense, and are perfectly happy to blow it all on cars that look and sound phat-with-a-P-H. The salesman said the Scions are designed in such a way that hopups and modifications are relatively easy, suggesting that there were modifications available for intake (such as super- and turbo-chargers) and exhaust, suspension, etc. This will supposedly endear Scion to the youth market.
I can't say anything on this topic, since even when I was 16-24, I wasn't the part of that age demographic they would have been targeting. I do know that the xB is a funky looking car that immediately appeals to me by dint of being exactly unlike anything else on the road. It looks so little like the streamlined, wind-tunnel-tested look-alike boxes out there that it immediately catches my eye.
The xB is also an emminently practical car, packing nearly the cargo space of a minivan into a footprint smaller than a Civic. It gets a claimed 31 MPG city and 35 MPG highway (which is with the manual transmission; subtract one from each for the automatic). It appears to be "no-frills," despite an extensive feature list. In addition to all this, the base price of the manual model is $13,860 or something (I don't have a price in front of me, so don't quote me on that number). That's a shockingly large value for such a small price. I don't think our nation's youth will be the only ones who key into this value.
All That Space!
As I mentioned in the first impressions section, this car is huge for such a small car. Other reviews available on the web will give you exact figures, but you can pack four large people and a small bag for each into the car with the seats folded open. With the rear seats folded down, the cargo space becomes enormous, to the point where my father theorizes he could fit a couple of his tympani in there -- tympani, or kettle drums, are those enormous drums orchestras use, and they take up a ridiculous amount of space. In addition to all this, there's a little bit of "under floor" cargo space, where you could stash your stash, or keep a fairly comprehensive tool kit, or keep a few very valuable paperback books.
Unfortunately (and I still disagree with this choice by car manufacturers) the spare tire well is just barely big enough to fit their little tiny limited service spare tire. I hate those little tires, they seem like such a waste, when for just a few inches more space, you could fit a real spare. This is one of my only reservations on this car.
Driving The Cube
After our static inspection, we took the salesman up on his offer to drive the thing around a little bit. My dad drove out, and I drove back.
On the drive out (I was in the front passenger seat), I noticed that the ride was a little bit stiff, but not unlike the Civic's ride, which I quite like. The car seemed to have good pick-up in the low gears, belying its small 1.5l engine (they claim 108 HP and 105 ft/lb of torque, for you gear-heads out there). It seemed to be fairly nimble, which was almost a given considering the small tires and short wheelbase. The ride was a bit choppy on the freeway, and getting on to the faster road, the engine felt like it was straining. Visibility was excellent, despite some wideish door and window posts.
On the drive back, I found the clutch to be a trifle stiff to engage, although the particular car I drove only had 35 miles on the odometer when we started out. The shifter was fairly easy to engage, but had a certain cheap quality about it, in the way it didn't slide smoothly into each gear, but seemed to get lightly hung up on the way. The brakes required more pressure than I'm used to, although again, a few miles might improve them. There was no problem with stopping, once I got used to the additional pressure requirement.
The center-mounted speedometer and dash was a little bit weird, but it's one of those things that you get used to after a few minutes. I drove a friend's Echo (with a similarly centralized dash) and it stopped being an issue after about 20 minutes. However, because of the center dash, the visibility to the front of the car was excellent. Since the instruments weren't right in front of me, I could see much further down than in any other car I'd driven.
I found the engine to be surprisingly weak. That's not to say the engine is weak, it's more that my expectations were perhaps too high. I was expecting performance about like the Civic, but I found that the engine lacked any pep beyond the 3/4 throttle position. Getting on the freeway, I was able to floor the pedal all the way up the onramp without any danger of running into the cars in front of us. Once on the freeway, the xB was quite capable of keeping up with traffic, but it defintely wouldn't be winning any drag races, even with similarly sized economy cars.
Once I stopped focusing on how well the xB does at full throttle, the engine ceased being an issue. It was well up to the task of exceeding traffic when required, and keeping up on the freeway. It did seem that if we wanted to proceed up a hill and maintain a high freeway speed, a downshift might be indicated. Driving this car in the mountains would require a well-practiced and deft shifting arm.
The suspension was, indeed, kind of choppy. It should be noted that I was traversing some fairly typical California freeway, which is to say it was kind of mangled, and would produce a choppy ride in all but the most fluffily-suspended cars. At the same time that I call it choppy, the suspension comported itself quite well around corners and at stops, not exhibiting any of the brake dive or body roll typical with larger cars or more softly sprung rides. The suspension provided very good road feel, and I never had any trouble telling what road conditions were like.
The interior noise wasn't bad for so small a car. Certainly it was quieter than the Civic, but not as quiet as the Acura which had transported us to the dealership. I had feared that the high-revving engine (6400 RPM redline) would be uncomfortably loud on the freeway, but it wasn't even noticable, when combined with road noise and wind noise. Wind noise was also particularly subdued, considering that we were, as one other review put it, "punching a square-shaped hole through the air."
The engine, as I recall, was turning 3000 to 3500 RPM when driving at an indicated 60-70 MPH in 5th gear. I think it hit 4000 RPM at around 80 indicated, although I wasn't paying attention to RPM at that point. It's very likely that the Scion, along with most other production cars, indicates speed around 10% optimistically (ie, when you see 80 on the speedometer, you're actually going 70-73 MPH).
Both Scion models are based on the Toyota Echo frame and engine. Apparently Toyota introduced the Echo with an eye toward capturing the youth market, but it was a fairly dismal failure, mostly catching the attention of frugal 40-somethings, and not selling very well even with them.
The process of "analyzing" this car in comparison to other potential Civic-replacements is an interesting one. The Scion xB is an excellent car for the money, but it's also 2-3x as much as I had wanted to pay to replace the Civic. I drive motorcycles 90% of the time, and really only need a car for a few specific and relatively rare occasions:
The Scion xB excells at three of these four things. The only thing it doesn't seem like it'd do well is going long distances: the steering is fairly sensitive, and the suspension is busy. This car was clearly designed with city driving in mind: It's the perfect size to fit into small parking spaces. Its engine responds well at city speeds. It gets surprisingly good city mileage. It would be tiring to drive long distances, even though the seating position is comfortable and many of the amenities are available.
The percentage of the time that I'm firing up my car to drive inter-city is fairly small, though. Particularly with my parents on their boat, the longest trip I ever take is up to Bellingham or over to Bellevue; that point is one of the least important on the list, in real practical terms.
The situatation that's not addressed in the above list, of course, is cost. With motorcycles providing most of my transportation, it's very hard to justify getting into a $250/month car payment (or whatever the actual payment would be) for a vehicle that will be used for only 10% or so of transportation tasks. Yes, I would have a shiny new Toyota-alike that would provide years of reliable transportation, but I could spend a lot less on a used Civic and get the same thing.
However, gentle reader, this discussion is not necessarily germane to your reasons for scanning this review. Take it as you like, but obviously your situation will be different from mine.
The Scion xB seems like a well-put-together, excellent value in a new car. It handles itself well in all the situations I was able to experience in a pair of 30 minute test-drives, and seems to be a good all-around car. Obviously, it's going to appeal to a reader or not based on styling, since it is a polarizing design: any given person is likely to love it or hate it, but middling reactions aren't likely.
If the car appeals to you, you're half way there. If it doesn't appeal to you, scratch my name off the list of people with good taste. But if your mission is to find a small car with lots of attitude (I dislike that term as applied to inanimate objects, but it fits here), cargo/people space, and features for the price, it's very hard to beat the Scion xB.
For more information on the Scion:
consumerreports.org - Subscription required; they haven't fully reviewed the car yet.
Text and images Copyright © 2003 by Ian Johnston. Non-commercial use with attribution is explicitly allowed. Commercial use is allowed only with express written consent by Ian Johnston. "Toyota", "Scion" and "xB" are the property of individual copyright holders.
Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me.