First Drive: 2008 Scion xD

Toyota's Scion division introduces the all-new xD, hoping to jumpstart flagging sales in the critical 18- to 35-year-old market

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Bull terrier looks, tight handling, custom accessories

The Bad: Disappointing gas mileage, slow acceleration

The Bottom Line: A tight little hatchback with a high coolness quotient

Up Front

Toyota (TM) continues to be the juggernaut of the auto industry, but its three-year-old, youth-oriented Scion division isn't doing very well. Scion's overall sales fell 28.8% in the first half of this year, to 61,004 units.

The inexpensive little Scion xA hatchback flopped and is now being replaced by the new xD, while the boxy xB has been totally redesigned for the '08 model year. Even the tC—by far the best of the three initial Scion models, in my opinion—saw its sales tumble 11.8% to 33,550 in the first half of the year.

One reason the tC has done so much better than the xA and xB is that it's the only model that really caught the fancy of the 18- to 35-year-olds Scion is targeting. According to Scion, the median age of tC buyers is a very youthful 24, as opposed to 38 for the xA, and 39 for the xB.

Will Toyota's rejiggering of the lineup be enough to get Scion back on track? I recently test-drove a preproduction version of the new xD and I'm not so sure. It's a nice little car, with cool, bull terrier looks, a practical four-door hatchback design, and some of the appeal of the tC. It's a much better car than the xA. However when you look at the basic car (as opposed to its hip, edgy, marketing and custom accessories), I'm not sure xD is fresh enough to make the big splash Toyota is hoping for.

It's hard to say exactly which rival models compete directly with the xD. The competitors that come to my mind are such practical, economical fixtures of the suburbs as Toyota's Yaris (with which the xD shares many components), Honda's (HMC) Fit, and Nissan's (NSANY) Versa.

Scion hopes those models will look stodgy next to the xD. The company is pitching the xD mainly to young, college-educated males, three-quarters of whom will be new to Toyota-made vehicles, and is crafting an edgy marketing program designed to appeal to that group. For instance, one element of the campaign is an odd online game called Book of Deviants. Players are encouraged to kill little creatures called sheeple and help the little deviants take back their city—not exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to most suburban soccer moms.

Another thing setting the xD apart is the amount of accessories you can buy to personalize the car, including several dozen your Scion dealer can install, and others that are being sold by outside suppliers. You can add an appliqué to the B-pillars ($75); a color-keyed spoiler ($385) to the rear deck; and a custom tip to the exhaust pipe ($76). Don't like the relatively clunky, standard steel wheels? Then go with the 16-inch alloy wheels ($795) and funky wheel covers ($78) and locks ($65). You can also add everything from even bigger alloy wheels and a quick shift system to an overhead console.

The basic xD is reasonably priced, though not cheap for an economy car. It starts at $15,070 with a stick shift, and $15,970 with an automatic transmission. However Toyota is hoping most buyers will spend a lot more. In addition to all the custom accessories you can also get the car with most of the usual upgrades, including a navigation system ($2,250), a Pioneer sound system ($689), XM or Sirius satellite radio ($449), and a gray, leather-wrapped steering wheel ($279).

The xD comes with a long list of standard equipment that includes cruise control and a trip meter, a tilt steering wheel with audio controls, a six-speaker/160-watt sound system, and tire-pressure monitors.

Standard safety features include front, side, and side curtain airbags; antilock brakes with brake distribution and braking assist; and a first-aid kit.

Behind the Wheel

The xD is basically a tight, European-style small car with a bunch of optional add-ons designed to appeal to young male buyers. It's fun to drive on curvy backroads and around town. Both its suspension and electric steering systems are similar to those in the less expensive Yaris.

One big improvement over the xA is the xD's engine. The xA was badly underpowered, with a tiny 1.5-liter, 103-horsepower engine. By contrast, the 1.8-liter, four-cylinder powerplant in the xD delivers a much more impressive 128 hp and has an appealing growl when you push the car a little (much more appealing than the annoying whine of the engine in the Honda Fit).

However I was disappointed by how pokey the xD is. In theory, the new Scion has more zip than most of its rivals because its engine is slightly more powerful. For instance, the Yaris' little 1.5-liter four-banger only delivers 106 hp. The Fit only has a109-hp engine.

The xD feels quick, but that's mainly because it's small and you feel like you're sitting close to the pavement, not because the car is genuinely fast. I did three 0-to-60 mph runs in a row in my test xD with an automatic transmission, and came up with a relatively slow 10.4 seconds each time. The Fit (a little over nine seconds) and the Nissan Versa (9.5 seconds) were both faster when I tested them. One reason the xD is slow is that it weighs 2,615 lbs., 322 lbs. more than the Yaris.

If I were buying an xD, I'd definitely go with the manual transmission. Given the size of the engine, I'd guess the car could accelerate from 0 to 60 in under nine seconds with a stick shift. The four-speed automatic didn't do much for me, anyway. It has a rudimentary manual mode (low, first and second), but it would be more fun if it had paddle shifters like those in the Honda Fit.

I was also disappointed by the xD's mediocre fuel economy. The xD is rated to get 26 miles-per-gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway with an automatic and slightly better (27/33) with a stick shift. I didn't push my test car particularly hard, yet I only got 26.5 mpg in 152 miles of mixed driving. That's about the same as the 26.3 mpg I got in the Fit, but much worse than the 33.9 mpg I got in the Yaris. Both the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla get well over 30 mpg, too.

One of the best features of xD's interior is the dashboard, which is curvy and stylized and seems to be molded out of a single piece of material (which means fewer rattles and squeaks as the car ages). It's a gorgeous piece of workmanship, which in my test car was clad in an inexpensive, carbon fiber-like, textured material that was very attractive.

I like the fact that the xD comes with an iPod hookup, but some of the other youth-oriented features seem designed more for show than functionality. The little gray and black radio screen has a distracting, screen saver-like background that's constantly swirling and changing. It also has a video game joystick-style main control button that you turn to raise or lower the volume, and push up, down, or sideways to change the radio channel. I found this feature immensely annoying because half the time when I tried to alter the volume I ended up changing the radio channel instead.

The xD's front and back seats are small, relatively rudimentary, and adjust manually. I found them uncomfortable. Sitting in the driver's seat is a little like sitting in an old-fashioned movie theater seat without a lot of back support.

Otherwise, the interior design is very practical. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern and are very simple to operate (you pull up one lever on the seat back to slide them forward or back, and another lever to fold them down). The headrests retract easily at the push of a button.

The xD's seats are much less versatile than those in the Honda Fit, which fold up in various innovative ways. With the rear seats down, the xD has 35.7 cubic feet of cargo space—which is a lot, but considerably less than the 42 cubic feet of cargo space the Fit has with its seats down.

Buy It Or Bag It?

If all you want is an economy car, there's no particular reason to buy an xD. Toyota's own Yaris is cheaper and gets better mileage, the Fit is more versatile, and the Versa is more fun to drive and will probably be a little cheaper, too.

The two main reasons to buy an xD: You like the way it looks and/or you love the many cool ways in which it can be personalized. If you fall into either of these categories, go for it.

Just keep in mind that you're probably going to pay more for the xD than for competing models, especially if you start loading up on accessories and options. Lately, buyers have been getting an average rebate of roughly $500 on both the Yaris and Versa, bringing those cars' average selling price down to $14,237 and $15,410, respectively, according to the Power Information Network. That's less than the xD's starting price with an automatic transmission.

The Fit costs a bit more—$16,303 on average, recently, according to PIN—but it's still likely to cost less than an xD with a few accessories. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)

So, here's the big question you need to answer before buying an xD: Is its coolness factor worth the extra money you'll pay?

Click here to see more of the 2008 Scion xD

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