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 Scion xB 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."