By Roger Boylan
One of the main raps against Japanese cars over the years has been their blandness. This is less true now. Granted, many still have all the personality of a bowl of ramen noodles, but a strain of quirkiness has crept into the line-up; after all, Japan is the country that gave us Kabuki and Noh theatre, not to mention Pokemon. Those influences are apparent in some contemporary Japanese vehicles, such as the Nissan Cube and Honda Fit, as well as the Scion xB– the original xB, the oh-so-hip one that looked like an angry refrigerator. As far as its present-day descendant is concerned, however, the image that comes to my mind is that of Hector, the Looney Tunes cartoon bulldog. Actually, a squared-off version of Hector. Put it this way: if Hector mated with a shoebox, you’d have a 2011 Scion xB.
And that may be ridiculous, but it’s not all bad. Few test vehicles have endeared themselves to me so completely, from so unpromising a start. “Hideous,” “clumsy,” “too square”: these were just a few of the comments elicited family-wide by the appearance in our driveway of the purplish-blue Scion (“Elusive Blue Metallic” in Toyota’s delightful euphemism). And yet we regretted having to part with it. What changed? Well, for one thing, the beast has personality, no question about it. It looks different. It’s square. The roofline has a thick C-pillar at the back, and the B-pillar is artfully concealed between the doors, hidden by the black window frames. The face has a blunt, aggressive (bulldog-like) snout and gaping air dam (the latter being part of a minor stylistic freshening for 2011, along with dual back-up lights, a telescoping steering column, and a sliding console armrest).
For another thing, I used this car for a wider variety of tasks than I demanded of most recent testers. It hauled groceries, went on excursions, drove family members to the airport, commuted to Austin and to San Antonio: In short, it became a member of the family for a week. And an inexpensive one, at that. Admittedly, its fuel economy isn’t all it might be; I’ll come back to that in a minute. But otherwise it’s a penny pincher. My test xB bore a low sticker price of $17.5K and came with modern conveniences you can’t take for granted in a small car, even these days: a visually pleasant and comfortable charcoal fabric interior, excellent ice-cold air conditioning, cruise control via the usual steering-wheel stalk, information display, 160-watt Pioneer audio system plus iPod and auxiliary connection, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, power side mirrors with turn signal indicators incorporated (nice touch), power windows and locks, halogen headlamps, tinted glass—insufficiently so for the sadistic Texas sun, however—and, alas, 16-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers. I detest plastic wheel covers. Nothing on a car screams CHEEEP like plastic wheel covers. But Scions are made to be customized, and alloys are available for a little extra: $795 for 16-inch wheels, $1595 for 19-inchers. Personally, I’d make them standard. Anyway, remember that Scion dealers offer options a-plenty–including upscale audio systems. I’d invest in one of those, too, because the stock system isn’t very impressive. It’s outdated and has a low-rent look. The sound is fine, but the tuning knob feels loose and about to fall off, like a shirt button hanging by a thread. The adjacent controls are tiny and hard to read and are reminiscent of what you’d have found at the low end of the car spectrum, ca. 1985. All of which is in stark contrast to the rest of the instrument panel, notably the admirably sized and logical HVAC knobs, just beneath.
Back to the car’s virtues. The xB’s external boxiness implies internal capaciousness, certainly, and capacious it is, especially with one or both of the rear seats folded down in a 60/40 configuration. I managed to fit a week’s shopping plus two large suitcases and a couple of duffel bags in there with room to spare. But space isn’t all the xB offers. This is a comfortable car to ride in, at least in the front. I drove a wide loop around San Antonio and eastward to Houston along I-10, a 150+-mile drive, with no lumbar liability at all. However, the rear seats, although broad and spacious, are less padded, and so might not be the ideal perches for a long journey, according to first-hand passenger reports. I think this owes more to the car’s somewhat jittery ride, especially over rough surfaces and expansion joints, than to the actual seat bolstering, which—again, in front—is excellent.
In fact, the driver’s seat would be a fine place to spend time if it weren’t for the view of the dashboard. But you get used to anything, so you even get used to that. Used to, mind you, not fond of. I’m no fan of the centrally-placed instrument cluster that has graced other Toyota products—the Yaris, the Prius, the late unlamented Echo—but it’s no big deal for me, and I have to admit that at least I had no problem telling what my speed was, not with the huge digital speedometer shouting the numbers at me. No more “oh, about 65, officer?” There’s the precise figure right in front of you, in Halloween orange-and-black: 54. Or 86. Or whatever. (Seeing the numbers 123 up there is theoretically possible, according to info gleaned from one or two rival automotive websites. But I wouldn’t know, officer.)
Downstream from the info panel cascades the central console, an affair of rather cheap-looking plastic imitation steel from which the shifter for the 4-speed automatic transmission protrudes at a 45-degree angle, like the lever in an old Alfa Romeo or in some modern Hondas. The shifter, and the transmission, work fine, as long as you don’t take the manual shift feature seriously; it doesn’t, about 50% of the time. But there’s no need for the manual feature anyway, because the eagerness of the auto tranny , even with just 4 speeds (c’mon, Toyota) is one of the unexpected pleasures of this unsporty car. It finds the sweet spot for every gear, and when you need kickdown, you’ve got it, at the price of a roaring engine. But hey, you’re moving, and pretty fast. I timed 0-60 in ideal early morning conditions—dry, light breeze—in just over 8 sec. Pretty good for an unaerodynamic box. The engine that makes this movement possible is the good old Toyota 4-cylinder standby, the one with 158 hp and 162 lb-ft. of torque, formerly used in the base Camry and high-trim Corolla and still available in the Matrix. It’s noisy, as noted, when revving, but it’s a good solid powerplant that isn’t likely to give any problems. It comes with Toyota’s Variable-Valve- Timing-with-intelligence (VVT-i) setup, providing the broad torque band that propels the box forward so urgently.
The xB’s handling is secure, if not dramatic. Brakes are firm and effective, but not grabby, and the electric power steering gives reasonable feedback, although no more than that. But then you’d hardly expect to go canyon-carving in a box. Still, it’s an enjoyable enough car to drive quickly on back roads, despite a touch of tire roar on pitted surfaces. And your Scion dealer will be only too happy to set you up with the TRD sport-tuned suspension option.
Another attraction is its safety factor. The 2011 xB has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It passed all its crash tests with flying colors, as indeed it should, with its raft of safety gizmos: standard traction control, antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, Smart Stop Technology (a brake override system that cuts engine power when accelerator and brake are stepped on at the same time) and six airbags, including side curtain bags for both rows.
Unfortunately, the xB’s not as oblivious as it might be to the allure of the fuel pump: EPA estimates are 23 city, 28 highway. Driving hard, with lots of freeway cruising, I got an average of 25 mpg on regular, pretty good but not as good as we’ve come to expect these days. Not a deal-breaker, though, if you’re smitten with this quirky car, and quite a few people are, judging by the number of xBs on the roads hereabouts. It handles well, goes relatively fast, carries a lot of cargo, and boasts top-notch reliability. Some might even say it looks good. Beauty being, as we know, in the eye of the beholder, others will disagree. But whatever it is, it isn’t bland.
Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.