Scion xB: Bigger but Thirstier

Toyota redesigns the funky Scion xB to make it bigger and more powerful, but less fuel efficient. Still, it looks like it could be a hit

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Smooth ride, roomy interior, cavernous cargo space

The Bad: Mediocre fuel economy, no all-wheel-drive option

The Bottom Line: Bigger, more powerful—and thirstier at the gas pump

Up Front

If you're into quirky vehicles, you'll lament the disappearance of Toyota's (TM) boxy little Scion xB, which hit the market in 2004 and looked like a miniature bread truck. For most buyers, though, the new, completely redesigned 2008 Scion xB will be an improvement over the previous model—with one glaring exception: Fuel efficiency is way down.

The '08 xB is a foot longer, three inches wider, pricier, and more powerful than the model it's replacing. That makes it more mainstream and more directly competitive with such rival models as the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Chevrolet HHR, and the Honda (HMC) Element.

The front-wheel-drive xB's standard powerplant is now a 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine, compared with a 1.5-liter, 103-horsepower engine before. The '08 xB starts at $16,270 with a five-speed stick shift and $17,220 with a four-speed automatic, up 11.5% to 12% over the previous model.

The big downside of the new design is evident immediately. The '08 is more than 600 pounds heavier than the previous xB—and, largely as a result of this, is much thirstier at the gas pump. Whether with a manual transmission or an automatic, the '08 is rated to get 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway—significantly lower than the 26 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway the old xB would have been rated at under the new system the government is using to calculate mileage as of the '08 model year. In 229 miles of mixed driving in an '08 test model with an automatic transmission, I got 23.4 mpg.

The old xB got significantly better mileage than its rivals. The new one is right in the middle of the pack, between the slightly more fuel-efficient HHR, and the Element and PT Cruiser, which don't do quite as well.

As before, the xB comes with tons of standard equipment, including stability and traction control, antilock brakes with brake force distribution, cruise control, a 160-watt Pioneer audio system, a tilting steering wheel with audio controls, a trip meter, tire pressure monitors, remote keyless entry, and power steering, windows, door locks, and outside mirrors. Front, side and side curtain airbags are standard, too.

If you're into gadgetry, this is the model for you. An iPod port is now standard. For an extra $1,599, you can get the xB with dual rear-seat DVD players with 7-inch screens that tilt out of the backs of the front seats for loading of disks. Each of the rear-seat DVD players comes with its own wireless headphones. The only design flaw I can see is that both players are controlled by the same remote, which might lead to squabbles among the kids.

Technically speaking, if you go with the optional DVD-based navigation system ($2,250), you can have as many as three movies playing at once when the xB is parked (just pop out the nav system disk and pop in a movie). The CD player, which is behind the tilting navigation system screen, plays MP3 and other nonstandard disk formats, as well as short movie clips.

As with other Scion models, you can customize the new xB in numerous ways. Inside the car, you can add sport pedals ($79), custom shifter knobs ($65-$79), under-dash and cupholder illumination ($299), illuminated doorsills ($249), a remote engine starter ($529), and an extra console storage box ($279). On the car's outside, you can change the look of the grille ($215) and taillights ($375), add LED taillights ($375) and a color-keyed rear spoiler ($423), and upgrade to 16-in. ($795) or 17-in. ($1,595) alloy wheels.

The xB's styling may be more conventional now, but it's still odd. To my eye, the front end looks like the front of a London double-decker bus. The sculpted headlights look like narrowed eyes. The interior door handles are shaped like miniature wine bottles.

Will the new xB prove popular enough to get Scion's sales rising again? With two of its three products changing dramatically, this is (to say the least) a year of transition for Toyota's youth division. The drop in Scion's sales has been even more dramatic than might be expected because both the xA and xB are based on Japanese models that were taken out of production last December. So dealers have had to sell out of inventory until the redesigned xB and the new xD finally arrived in showrooms in June and August, respectively.

U.S. sales of the xB fell 38.2% to 23,661 in the first seven months of the year. Sales of the xA, which is being dropped and replaced by the xD, were off 53.8% to 9,204, and sales of the sporty little tC coupe, the only model remaining pretty much the same, fell 14.6%.

Toyota hopes the new xB and xD will take up the slack if tC sales continue to fall next year, as expected. The company projects total Scion sales at about 150,000 in 2008 (down from 173,034 in 2006), with the xB accounting for 60,000 units (about the same as in 2006) and the xD for 38,000 units (as opposed to 32,603 for the xA in 2006).

That would mean tC sales would fall next year to around 52,000, down 34.3% from the 79,125 sold in 2006. "It's a fickle, fashion-conscious segment in which the customers are always looking for the next new thing," says a Toyota spokesman. "But Scion's aim is to remain exclusive and appeal to young, urban opinion-leaders. The goal has never been to sell as many as possible."

Behind the Wheel

What surprised me most about the xB is the smoothness of its ride. I expected this vehicle to be clunky and a little truck-like, but the xB glides over bumps and maintains its poise at higher speeds. There are some whistling noises during highway driving, but the cabin is surprisingly quiet during regular driving.

The new xB is no speed-demon, but it's faster than I expected, too. I timed it at a respectable 9.2 or 9.3 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60 mph.

The '08 xB also feels much more solid and safer than the old one, which felt tinny. The old xB was slightly taller than the new one, and had an inch more ground clearance. Inside, its seats were set low, so it had enormous amounts of head space (46.1 inches in the front seat). That was more than most people needed, and made the interior hollow-sounding.

The new xB is less roomy, but the space is used in a more practical manner than before. Head space in the front seats has shrunk to 40 in. (plenty unless you're wearing a top hat), partly because the seats are set up higher. Front legroom has shrunk four inches to 41.3 in., which is also plenty unless your day job is with the National Basketball Assn.

Even though rear legroom is rated at 38 in. in both models, the rear seats feel roomier in the '08 because there's more room to slide your feet under the front seats. Cargo space with the rear seats folded down is dramatically increased to 70 cubic feet in the '08, 27 cu. ft. more than in the previous model.

My gripes about the new xB are relatively minor. The four-speed automatic transmission seems a little behind the times. Why not a more efficient five-speed automatic like the one in the Toyota Yaris? I also bumped my knee against the shift lever in my test xB, knocking it out of gear into neutral. That's annoying and potentially unsafe.

I'm also surprised that there isn't more storage space built into the xB for maps, magazines, and flashlights. There's a storage bin under the rear deck (above the spare tire) for stashing small items out of sight of potential burglars. But I would definitely consider paying an extra $279 for the optional console storage box.

Also, I still can't get used to having the instruments in the middle of the dash.

The setup in the xB is less annoying than in the Yaris because the speedometer is to the left of the cluster and less off-center than in the Yaris. But I still prefer a conventional setup with the dials and gauges directly in front of the driver.

Buy It or Bag It?

Toyota was surprised by how well the original xB sold. That's largely because the original xB didn't just appeal to the hip, Gen Y consumers it was targeting. Like the HHR and PT Cruiser, the xB also developed a considerable following among aging baby boomers, who liked its spaciousness, how easy it was to get into and out of, and its relatively low price.

The median age of xB buyers is 39, vs. just 24 for the tC, Toyota says. The Power Information Network (PIN) figures that the average buyer of the '08 xB is 43, only a tad younger than for the '08 Honda Element (45) and the '08 Chevy HHR (51). My guess is that the new xB will appeal to a similar group of buyers.

The new XB's price stacks up well against its main rivals. PIN figures the '08 xB sells for an average of $17,850. That's the same average price as for the small number of 2008 Chevy HHRs sold so far (even though dealers are typically giving cash rebates on the '08 HHR of nearly $1,000). The xB is considerably cheaper than the '08 Honda Element, which sells for an average of $22,377, according to PIN.

At an average of $15,714, the 2007 PT Cruiser is cheaper, but comes with less standard equipment than the xB. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

For those living in the snowbelt, an alternative model to consider is the more station-wagon-like Dodge Caliber, which is available with all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive '07 Caliber RT starts at about $20,000, taking into account a $500 cash rebate dealers are giving on the model through the end of August.

Other than the lack of optional all-wheel drive and mediocre gas mileage, however, I can't find much serious to criticize about the new xB. When the dust settles, my guess is that it will do the same thing the old xB did: surprise Toyota by being more popular than expected.

For more on the 2008 Scion xB, see BusinessWeek's slide show.

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