New Car Reviews

2004 Scion xB Four Seasons Test

We’ve all voted,” announced Lovely Rita, Queen of the Fourth Avenue and William Street parking garage. “It looks awful.” Yvonne of the night shift was nicer. “So you got the Vault today, eh?” she wisecracked.

Yes, the looks different. The Vault. The Paddy Wagon. The Toaster. The Refrigerator. We heard it all. To see an xB on the roll is to stare. Ours attracted attention like the villainous Magneto waving his magic fingers around in a ball-bearing factory. Nicole Lazarus, our assistant art director, put it best when she wrote in our test car’s logbook, “If you’re ever feeling lonely, take the xB.”

You’d think the earlier Honda Element would have blazed a tiny path of boxy-car consciousness across America, but no. Junior high preteens, oldsters, “tough guys in Dodge Rams”-the logbook listed them on every page-all wanted to know what a Scion xB was. The problem was we couldn’t tell them. We called the xB “something distinct,” which is why we decided it was outselling the more prosaic xA by a margin of two to one, a big surprise to Toyota. We called it “something basic, remarkably rewrapped in unique packaging, like new fridge-packs of Coke.” We described it as “a Beetle for our generation.” We decided that it wasn’t a minivan or an SUV but “an odd little box.”

We took some time getting used to our xB, keeping it close to Ann Arbor for the first three months, discovering early that the small 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine “gets the job done,” in senior editor Joe Lorio’s words, “but you need all of it.” This is not unlike most Toyotas: just enough power (108 hp), just enough pull, and admirable fuel economy. It helps that the xB weighs a respectable 2420 pounds. The five-speed manual transmission is geared to make the most of the engine’s torque (105 lb-ft at 4200 rpm), which means it’s spinning at 4000 rpm at 80 mph. It’s as noisy as you would expect, and the tinny sheetmetal and space within conspire to give the engine drone and road noise a place to resonate.

It was bearable because the build quality, general materials, and all-around utility were terrific. On top of that, Scion includes extras such as ABS, stability and traction control, brake assist, power windows, keyless entry, and tons more, all for just over $14,000. Its tiny wheels, narrow track, and tall, boxy shape, of course, make stability control essential. Still, it’s a killer deal in your favor.

One serious flaw was difficulty slotting the floppy shift lever into second gear, which we noticed within the first 3000 miles and which led to the synchro’s eventual disintegration and warranty overhaul at 30,000 miles (right after our test year was over). We replaced the shift knob with a cool carbon-fiber OBX knob ($49), but it accentuated the balky second-gear action. The rubber-coated OE knob did a better job isolating the notchy feel of the long lever, so we put it back on. The other warranty repair fixed a misrouted hose that dripped A/C condensation onto front passengers’ feet.

The position of the speedometer-offset to the right of the steering wheel and perched atop the dash-was well received by everyone who drove it, young and old. It was easy to check with a sideways glance that kept the driver’s eyes on the road ahead.

A notable gripe concerned the radio, for its crappy sound quality and its teensy controls. The buttons are stupidly small, and controlling the volume involves tapping a plus or minus button repeatedly. We added an Alpine receiver ($450) with a simple iPod adapter ($135). The unit manages the iPod’s playlists with its own controls. Everyone was crazy for the iPod-ability of the Alpine, though it, too, had its share of fussy controls. At least we solved the problem of fuzzy reception.

We sent the xB to spend spring in New York with bureau chief Jamie Kitman. After logging 4500 miles in ten weeks, Kitman decided that it should be called an FUV-a Freakish Utility Vehicle. “It’s Japan’s answer to the VW Microbus, practical little haulers that don’t use much gas and have cult potential written all over their funky exteriors.” His logbook rant noted that “anybody else’s little freaklet would sell for more.”

During its first routine service (you choose a 5000– or 7500-mile maintenance schedule based on monthly miles), a nail was pulled from the right front tire and a patch installed. (It would hold for a few months until it blew, forcing a roadside tire change that exposed the difficulty of hauling the jack out from under the driver’s seat.) Kitman then sent the xB on the road with one of the musicians he manages, for hipster wisdom.

Singer-songwriter Peter Salett and guitarist Don Piper pronounced the xB perfect for their two-man tour of the South. “Amps and guitars fit neatly in the back, and the gas mileage (32 mpg average) is a big money saver for us.” They noted that from the inside, the upright windshield made it feel like a regular van, but its overall size made it a snap to park. That same upright windshield stance may have been the culprit for numerous stone chips collected along the duo’s 4650-mile, three-week, ten-state tour.

They found the turning radius huge, the front a bit cramped (we all did), but the seats fairly comfy. Both would have liked center armrests and more little cubbies to stash the stuff you need around you on the road. Also, air-conditioning and windshield wipers were found merely adequate in extreme use. They then made a brazen request to keep the car for another few months. We ordered it home immediately, in time for summer road trips to shift into high gear.

Gear is exactly what the xB won’t hold if you push the passenger load past two. Elbow room is tight, but rear legroom is so dandy that there were complaints about how difficult it was for the driver to reach back and grab something on the seat without an Inspector Gadget arm. At the same time, there is really no cargo room to speak of with those seats in place. Whining about the space stops the instant you jump out and realize that the xB takes up about three-quarters of a compact-car-only parking spot.

We gave the xB some attitude with spidery eighteen-inch PIAA wheels ($1476), grippy 225/35R-18 Yokohama Parada Spec-2 tires ($464) designed for street tuners, new doorsill inserts ($139), and a whimsical rear roof lip spoiler ($385). Never mind that America’s interstate potholes and PIAA’s aggressive wheels disagreed with a fatal bang. We don’t know what we were thinking. Ride quality was only somewhat marginalized, and turn-in really sharpened, while the skid-pad number improved from .86 to .87 g. But as road test coordinator Jason Bradley pointed out, better tire hookup also increased torque steer. Contributor Ronald Ahrens suggested, “Maybe in the South, this rubber would be OK,” and then he hit a pothole in South Carolina that just shattered one of the PIAAs. We gave up and restored the dorky-looking OEM rims.

An aftermarket intake ($335) and exhaust ($279) kit from Scion was more successful, giving the xB a nice growl. Performance improvement wasn’t enough to notice.

Scion has been a great success for Toyota. Its average owner is thirty-five years old, and the xB buyer is only thirty-one. Our experience doesn’t track. The youngest among us thought it was ugly, while the oldest thought it more interesting. Our creative director’s seventy-five-year-old in-laws appreciated its wide doors, tall seats, and great headroom. His wife suggested a Toyota brand for seniors called Scenility.

Some 80 percent of Scion buyers are new to Toyota, and the goal of 100,000 Scion sales for 2005 has been raised to 125,000 and could hit 170,000 if production keeps up. It’s easy to imagine. Technical editor Don Sherman is right when he describes the xB as “the pinnacle of utility for the dollar” and “very functional if not fun to drive.” Although some here felt the xB’s appeal to be restricted to its fresh look, there is no denying that the combination of useful space, great fuel economy, Toyota quality and reliability, low maintenance, and super sticker make it more beautiful than the naked eye can behold.