2008 Scion xB Review
By Chris Haak
The Scion xB in its first generation had been a lovable little box, underpowered but charming, and a nearly undiluted lift-off of the Japanese domestic market Toyota bB, modified only with a switch from right-hand to left-hand drive and a few other modifications necessary to make the vehicle more palatable to US consumers.
The old xB was hardly a sales hit (Toyota claims this was intentional), but did do a good job as an image leader for Toyota’s Scion sub-brand. Its boxy shape allowed for a small, yet versatile interior space, but its wimpy 1.5 liter, 108-horsepower four cylinder meant that it sometimes had trouble merging onto high-speed expressways. Also, the first-generation xB, while it was a fairly lightweight vehicle that got good fuel economy (EPA rated at 26 city/31 highway when adjusted for the 2008 figures), it also didn’t do particularly well in crash test results (four stars front impact, and just three stars for front side impact).
So, Toyota used the same playbook that so many other manufacturers have used over the past two decades: to make an existing product “better,” just add size and horsepower. In the xB’s case, the 2008 model’s curb weight jumped to about 3,000 pounds from about 2,400 pounds. The engine displacement jumped from 1.5 liters to 2.4 liters, and horsepower leapt from 108 to 158. Even the crash test scores jumped, with the front side impact rating going to five stars rather than just three (it’s still rated four stars in the front impact test by the NHTSA, however). Unsurprisingly, with no six-speed transaxles or hybrid drivetrains, the fuel economy suffered, dropping to 22 city/28 highway, or a combined loss of about 4 mpg.
The styling of the 2008 xB is an unfortunate departure from the classic, simple lines of the original. There are flourishes added, apparently just for the hell of it, but Scion would probably tell you that they’re hip. Basically, what had been a simply-styled vehicle and added bulging fenders, swept-back headlights, extra stuff to the front bumper, and a grille/hoodline that looks pretty similar to the tC sport coupe’s styling. Scion did succeed, at least, in more or less unifying Scion’s design language around its three models; prior to the 2008 xD and xB, all three vehicles had their completely unique style, but that concept was thrown out for the 2008 model year as the brand’s design DNA is finally beginning to establish itself.
When opening the door of the xB, the first thing you’ll notice is how light they are. There is a definite lack of solidity to the doors, which seems somewhat counter-intuitive that a car that has such good crash-test scores in side impacts would have light doors that lent a definite “tin can” aura to the xB experience. Hard, low-gloss charcoal colored plastic covers nearly every surface that you’d dare touch, with the exception of the seats and steering wheel, and the gauges are annoyingly located in the center of the dashboard, away from the driver’s easy line of sight. At least the speedometer is positioned toward the right side in the very horizontal row of small round gauges, so it’s not necessary to glance as far to check your speed as it is to peek at the fuel gauge, for instance. I’m not a fan of center-mounted gauges and probably never will be; when they’re positioned as they are in the xB, they don’t have a hood as they would on a “normal” car, so the small gauges remind me of the similarly puny, horizontally-arranged ones in a 1989 Buick LeSabre T-Type (am I dating myself here, or what?)
The Pioneer stereo system is another ergonomic foible; the power button is on the far-right side of the head unit, using the controls is fairly difficult, and it didn’t sound particularly great for its hype (as basically a factory-installed aftermarket stereo). I would have preferred a more dull, but probably similar-sounding off-the-shelf Toyota radio because its controls would have been far easier to operate.
Interior space is surprisingly generous; I am a tall driver and had no trouble finding plenty of room for my legs, shoulders, and head. In fact, on more than one occasion I actually felt small inside the xB because the top of the windshield is further away from the driver than it is in most cars. I have long arms, and it was a stretch to reach the windshield or dash. Behind me, there was adequate room to install a forward facing and rear facing child seat; our 10 month old actually seemed to like being closer to my wife than he is in our Sienna, although when I asked my wife why we have a $38,000 minivan if a $17,000 Scion would suffice, she said that she didn’t “feel safe” or as comfortable in the xB. Her safety concern stemmed mostly from the lightweight, tinny-sounding doors (which the Sienna does not have), although as mentioned earlier, the xB has excellent side impact crash test scores. It also goes without saying that the Scion also gives up quite a bit of horsepower, comfort features, interior room, and all wheel drive capability to the Sienna, so it’s more of a teasing comparison between her and me than a serious one. The two vehicles surely aren’t cross-shopped often.
The 2.4 liter four cylinder engine, shared with the Camry four cylinder models, is a reasonably smooth, quiet powertrain. The xB doesn’t have a lot of sound insulation, so there was not much isolation between the happenings under the hood and the passenger compartment, but the engine’s NVH characteristics were about average. My automatic-equipped vehicle had only a four-speed transaxle (a five-speed manual is also available), so there was a noticeable dropoff between gear changes as the xB had to rebuild its head of steam each time it upshifted. If you’re driving with your wife and kids – or for that matter, driving as you would want a 16 year old son to drive the car – the xB has plenty of power and torque and is actually fairly quiet. Start pressing the accelerator a bit harder, however, and the booming from the engine room starts, and the engine will wind itself out all the way to the redline before shifting to the next gear. It was easy to squeal the tires from a stop; I’d attribute a third of that to long-life tires, a third to aggressive throttle mapping in the lower RPMs, and a third to fairly decent low-end torque in the four banger. Aside from acceleration concerns (revs dropping off too far between gears), the four speed’s other downside is that it has to spin the engine faster than I’d like at highway speeds. Seventy miles per hour has the engine around 3,000 RPMs, which makes a noise that can be tiresome for long periods.
Steering feel was decent for the xB’s non-sports car persona, and handling seemed to be about on par with another tall-bodied vehicle I spent some time in, the 2009 Subaru Forester. The body is tall in the xB, so in spite of the ride height being relatively low, there is some leaning in the curves. I found the ride/handling balance to be acceptable and unnoticeable, which is, I suppose, damning with faint praise (it felt neither like an old Buick nor a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR).
The base price of the xB automatic I tested was $17,180 including destination. My test vehicle had only three factory-installed options and did not include any of the numerous dealer-installed accessories that Scion dealers love for people to buy. The only options it had were a $155 floor mat set, $449 XM Satellite Radio, and $795 16″ alloy wheel upgrade. The final taly came to $18,579 including destination; that’s not very expensive for a fairly well-equipped vehicle (air conditioning, power windows/locks, keyless entry, iPod connectivity, CD player, steering wheel audio controls, etc.), but the cardboard headliner and hard plastic throughout the interior shows how Toyota can have lots of boxes checked for included content while still keeping the price down.
Maybe I’m a little cranky about the xB because it had the misfortune of replacing the $115,000 Lexus LS600hL in the Techshake garage, and it’s hard to take a $98,000 automotive price cut in a single move, but the xB didn’t really endear itself to me, in spite of doing everything that I asked of it. It fits an interesting niche of the marketplace – small, boxy vehicles heavy on utility that are relatvely fuel efficient – also populated by the Chevrolet HHR and Chrysler PT Cruiser, but if I didn’t need the utility offered by the hatchback style and having a “cool” car didn’t phase me (or I wanted something that stood out much less), I’d probably look at a mainstream midsize sedan instead of the xB.