It all started out innocently enough back in 2004, when Toyota brought over its Japanese-market bB and called it the Scion xB. To everyone's surprise (including Toyota), it caught on like wildfire, outselling the more conventional xA by a margin of nearly two-to-one.
Like all truly original, successful ideas, the xB was bound to be imitated. So it comes as no surprise that the recently redesigned Scion must now square off (get it?) against two new stubby competitors, the Nissan Cube and Kia Soul. We had the trio together in the office recently to determine who builds the best box.
We found all three offer more style, comfort, and utility than one would find a typical small car. Don't be fooled though - under their similarly shaped sheet metal, the xB, Soul, and Cube have very different personalities: one is practical, one is value-minded, and the other is just plain cool.
To our chagrin, Toyota took a hot butter knife to the edges of its groundbreaking Scion xB, such that it is now almost conventional-looking compared with its competitors. It has also grown a few waist sizes. Today's xB is a foot longer and 2.8 inches wider than the original, and weighs in at 3020 pounds - a 600 pound increase that makes it the heaviest in our test.
That extra, shall we say, maturity, does have its benefits. The xB's interior is spacious and functional, if somewhat drab. Cargo room behind the rear seat dwarfed that of the Kia and Nissan. The powertrain was likewise more grown up, its 158-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder putting out more grunt than the other vehicles. We found it commendably quiet on the highway - a huge improvement from the first generation car, which buzzed at 4000 rpm at cruising speeds.
The xB is no longer the youthful eye catcher it once was, but like most Toyota products, it remains a strong choice for its practicality.
The Soul looks like no other Kia on this continent, with its boxy profile, quirky lamps, and fire-engine-red interior, which comes standard with the Sport trim level. It's not quite as novel looking as the Cube, but it's cute and still stands out in a crowded parking lot.
The Soul still is a Kia, and thus has a strong value component. Its base price of $13,950 is the lowest in our test, and our $18,000-ish test car had plenty of impress-your-friends features, such as Bluetooth and a USB input. The interior materials are a bit of a letdown, with lots of hard, shiny plastics. The splash of color is a nice departure, but its brightness - not to mention the glare it causes in the windshield - can grow tiring after a while.
Even with the top-level, 142-hp four cylinder, the Soul is no hot hatch, as the 2.0-liter is rather reluctant to rev. That said, the Soul is actually quite fun to hustle around town, thanks largely to its five-speed stick and its squat proportions.
We've been keen on the Nissan Cube ever since we drove the previous generation Japenese domestic market car in 2008. After driving a U.S.-spec model around Ann Arbor, we can make it official: the Cube is the new king of hip squareness, and is the box-car of choice for anyone trying to turn heads.
The asymmetrical styling has all the eccentric, distinctly Japanese appeal of a Tamagotchi pet and draws plenty of approving, "What is that?!" stares. Even the X-design wheels are unusual and eye-catching.
The fashion statement continues inside, where sofalike seats and rippled surfaces establish Nissan's desired, lounge-on-wheels effect. It's also spacious and comfortable, though there's less cargo room with the rear-seat up than in either the xB or Soul.
You wouldn't think the Cube would be much of a driver's car, what with its 122-hp four-cylinder and CVT automatic, and you'd be right. Instead, the Cube makes for a comfortable city cruiser, with effortless steering, a well-damped ride, and tight turning circle.