I’ve never properly written up my xBox, so given that it’s Toyota Week—and it really is a Toyota—now might be a good time. It’s a bit odd that this is actually my first Toyota, given that I had a lot of relatively early exposure to and experiences with the breed, most always good. Those last three words pretty well sum up my experiences with it too.
Admittedly, the xBox’ design is not everyone’s cup of green tea. Many folks just plain hate it; my sister-in-law being one of the more vocal ones. I mostly love it, except the styling of the front end. There’s simply nothing roomier than a box, for a given amount real estate it occupies. I’ve always had a thing about packaging efficiency, and the xB is impossible to top.
It’s an incredibly practical car. And as cars increasingly get swoopier and more curvaceous and bigger and fatter and with ever smaller windows, my xB actually looks better and better to me as time goes by. My biggest fear is having to replace it. With what?
So how did the xB come about, given its rather odd design? No, it wasn’t designed so much for how I use mine, as a utility runabout or back roads bomber. It was never intended to come to the US originally; the 2000 Toyota bB (above) was specifically designed as a lifestyle vehicle for Japanese twenty-something males—something for them to just hang out in, away from their parents. Yes, the market niches in Japan can be amazingly narrow. So how did that dictate the shape and size?
Typically, urban Japanese live in very small apartments. So a category of roomy but compact “urban lounge” cars was created so that a young Japanese man and his buddies could putter around the crowded streets of Tokyo, with a maximum of interior space yet with the smallest footprint. To create it, Toyota took the Vitz/Yaris/Echo platform, lengthened it, and gave it a very tall and roomy box of a body. Another version of the bB origin myth is in the ad above.
In order to maximize comfort, whether for actual driving, or just lounging, either in traffic or just at the curb, the bB had nothing to impede sliding in and out from either side—the front seat is a split bench, and the shifter for the automatic transmission, the only one available on the bB, is on the column. Who would want a clutch and stick shift in an urban loungemobile?
Rather oddly, the bB offered optional AWD. Well, that was a very hot in thing in Tokyo at the time; one just had to have an AWD badge on a car to be cool, even if it never left the confines of the neighborhood, let alone the city.
For 2000-2001, there was even this Open Deck variant.
Now why didn’t they import that to the US? I might have been very tempted.
During the 90s and early aughts, Toyota and the other Japanese automakers put a lot of effort in capturing the youth market. Nissan was the leader with its “Pikes Factory” small-volume retro cars, like the Pao and Figaro. Not to be left behind, Toyota jumped in, and not just with the bB, which was relatively mainstream compared to its WiLL Vi (above), also on the the same platform. WiLL was a actually sub brand in Japan, as Scion became here. I fact, shortly before Scion was announced, Toyota was actually planning to use the WiLL name here too, and for a while, there was a WiLL website for the US, showing this car, to gauge interest in the WiLL concept. So if you think the xB is odd, this is what could have come over instead.
Well, it may not be as practical as the bB/xB, but I like it, as a modern take on a mashup of the Citroen 2CV/Ami, two of my favorite cars. I admit—I’m a sucker for all of these Japanese retro-mobiles and odd balls. Sorry, brougham lovers…
Toyota had been working on attracting the younger demographic in the US since 1999, when it launched its Project Genesis that attempted to bundle and market the Toyota Celica, MR2 and Echo to that segment. It was a flop and ended in 2001, and led directly to the decision to create Scion, as a sub-brand. In March 2002, the first two products were previewed, the xxB, which became the xB, and the ccX, which became the tC. The production 2004 xB and xA were released in January 2003.
The changes made for the US version involved mostly the interior, with bucket seats replacing the bench, and a floor shifter for the standard five speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. AWD was not offered, and a small mini-spare was added to the rear cargo area, as the JDM version had no spare (who needs one when the car is designed more for lounging than actually driving?)
The xB was an instant minor hit, and Scion got off to a very good start on the strength of it. The xA hatch and tC sporty coupe both sold reasonably well too. Scions were sold in a separate area of those Toyota dealers that chose to carry it, with a non-commissioned staff (“Scion Specialists”) to facilitate sales with no-haggle pricing. A wide range of customizing options and accessories played an important part of the Scion experience, as the xBox was seen as a blank canvas to be personalized, which these ads make abundantly clear.
In addition to younger buyers, the xB quickly found a following with decidedly older buyers too, who valued it for its unparalleled ease of entry/exit, visibility, and practicality. I guess that’s where I come in.
So how exactly did I end up with an xB? After we bought the Forester in 2000, I inherited the ’92 Dodge Grand Caravan (shown here packed up with the truck and trailer for our move from Los Gatos to Eugene in 1993) that had been primarily Stephanie’s kiddie-mobile. The two oldest were out of the house by then, and she loved the Forester.
The GC was actually quite handy, as I was in the middle of renovating the eight old houses I had moved to be rentals, and with the seats out, it could haul anything and everything, including sheets of plywood and drywall. In the winter, a closed van is a lot more practical than an open-bed truck, which I used mainly for the really big and dirty loads. And the driving position and unrestricted leg-real estate appealed to my 6’4″ frame.
In January 2007, I was invited to become a regular (and paid) writer at ttac.com. I was getting tired of the big and long Caravan, and longed for something a bit more fun to drive. Then one day the idea of an xB popped into my head, and I realized that it was a perfect solution—a shorter and sportier micro-van. At that time, a new gen2 2008 xB was known to be coming any day, but I didn’t really know much of the details except that it was to be somewhat bigger and more powerful. I wondered if that might be worth waiting for.
I drove out to the local Toyota/Scion store, and got to know the Scion specialist, who read TTAC. He said he would call me as soon as the first one arrived, and let me drive it. That turned out to be just a few days later, and what a letdown that was. I rather hated it; not because it was a bad car per se, but because it had lost all the unique character and appeal of the original.
I banged out my review as soon as I got home, and it was just about the first real review of it on the web. It went viral, and created a bit of a shit-storm, and probably helped shape the quickly forming negative image of the gen2 xB. I re-posted it here.
I sure didn’t want one of those, so I asked the guy about left-over 2006s. Well, there weren’t any, just about anywhere. There was no 2007 xB, and the 2006s were sold through the end of the year, and they had all been gobbled up. So I looked for a used one, and found a white 2005 in Portland, with only 14k miles on it, driven by a mommy who wanted a bigger SUV or such. She had it detailed, and it looked brand new, inside and out. And the price was almost like new too; I finally got her down to $12,500. These cars have always had some of the best resale values of any vehicle ever, and still do—more on that later.
So we drove up to Portland, looked it over (it was perfect) paid her husband the big bucks, and I drove it home. One the way, I noticed that the little 1.5 L four was spinning 4000 rpm at 80 mph. Not really a problem, as it’s smooth enough, but a sixth gear might have been welcome.
Since we’ve touched on it, let’s get the biggest shortcoming of the xB over with: it’s not an ideal long-distance car. The body lacks good sound insulation, there’s some wind noise from the upright A pillar, and the engine noise is somewhat noticeable at higher speeds. And it rides hard.
Yes, that’s actually my biggest single gripe, since we don’t use it much for long trips, especially since buying the Acura TSX. I use it mainly for lots of very short errands very close to home; my rentals are just eight blocks away, there’s a hardware store nearby, and there’s errands to run. And for this kind of use, the xB is as close as perfect as possible.
It’s the easiest car possible to hop in and out of, because of its high seats, high roof, yet unlike a CUV, it has a low floor. Getting in and out of the low TSX really brings that home. I love the Acura for longer trips, but I rather dislike driving it around town. Compared to the very compact and narrow xB, it feels huge and wide.
The xB is a superb city car, especially for a rather aggressive driver like me. I don’t mean obnoxious; I’m just a bit speedy and impatient by nature. And the xB makes nipping and tucking in and out of any little hole in traffic (or parking spot) easy and fun. One sits like on a throne, and the view out the huge and almost vertical windshield is unbeatable, as well as the through any of the windows. The high-mounted instrument pod is not centrally-located, as often is claimed, but is almost perfectly positioned for minimal eye movement, because one sits so high. If the instruments were behind the small steering wheel, it would be awkward to find them. The rest of the controls are all simple and highly intuitive.
I “customized” my xB with three additions that were functional, not for show. I bought and installed an after-market cruise control, as this was a rather glaring omission from the otherwise high level of standard content on these. It took a couple of hours and works like a charm. I can’t fathom having a car without it, as I use it whenever possible, which means as soon as I get on a freeway or highway. I set it at ten over the limit, and that way I don’t have to worry about my innate tendencies to drive fast unless I make a deliberate choice to do so. And it’s just a better way to control a car, by telling it what speed to drive. If only everyone else did.
I also added a leather wrap for the steering wheel, and a center arm rest, which is perfect for keeping the arm and hand near the shifter. It does tend to get a lot of use.
The 108 (or 103, depending on the source) hp 1.5 L 1NZ-FE VVT-i (variable valve timing) four is a bit small for a vehicle this boxy, although the xB does only weigh about 2400 lbs. Scion wanted the US version to have sporty attributes, so the final gearing is low (high numerical), which means that shifts came fast and furious. Although the little mill makes peak power at 6000rpm and will happily spin to 6500 rpm, it’s actually a long-stroker and has a surprising amount of grunt at low rpm too. Fourth is the normal gear around town. Getting under way from anything less than a complete stop is done in second. And sixth is sadly missing.
My unfailing imagination lets me think I’m driving a vintage Alfa Romeo Giulia 1600—the power and gearing are rather similar. It accelerates with gusto—as opposed to actually quickly—as the valve timing shift around 4500 rpm on the way to its redline. And the joy of this car is that every turn into a highway can be a full-throttle run. The joy of driving a slow car fast is a perpetual reality in this car. On a good day, it might just break the ten second barrier in the sprint from 0-60.
The sporty suspension tuning of the xB means a firm ride, which is gobs of fun when whipping through tight back country roads, and at high speed. And the steering is excellent—old school hydraulic power assist with genuine feel, quite quick and very accurate. Better than the Acura’s electric system all the way around. The xB is a veritable sports car wrapped in a box—a Sport Box. If it had fatter tires on it, it would be a real demon through the curves, but as it is, it does pretty well. Speaking of, I actually put slightly taller tires on mine (185 65R15s instead of the stock 185 60R15s) in an effort to get a slightly less harsh ride. It made a slight difference, although that might have just been the effect of new Michelins replacing the stock Bridgestones.
All of this explains why I don’t have any desire for a real sports car. Why bother? And this is so much more practical.
The other primary use for the xB is to take us out in the woods for our regular hikes. That involves some highways and then miles of gravel Forest Service roads; sometime 15-20 miles to get to a remote trail head. After years of tossing the xB around these roads, I’ve come to know its limits very intimately, as I drive about as fast as I think I can get away with without landing us upside down in a ravine or creek. Tighter curves almost invariably involve a bit of drifting on the loose gravel, enough to get the ESC beeping and trying to keep me out of trouble. Thanks, but not thanks. This video is on one of these roads, although not a very curvy one, as I had to shoot with one hand and steer with the other. And I wasn’t exactly pushing the speed (40 mph), but it gives an idea of where I like to drive. Sure beats the freeways of LA and the Bay Area.
Due to budget cuts, the US Forest service has drastically curtailed maintenance on the thousands of miles of these roads that crisscross the wooded parts of the state. Some get quite rough, with very abrupt huge pot holes that can’t be missed because of their size and the speed. Crash; bang! There’s times I wondered if the xB’s suspension was going to handle it. But after all these years, there’s no sign of any deterioration; it’s as tight and solid as ever.
Out in the woods, every other vehicle is either a Subaru, some other AWD CUV or a 4×4 truck. But not having AWD hasn’t stopped me yet.
Interior dimensions are huge; comparable to a Tahoe, except in width and of course entry height, which is much lower and better. Interior space and lots of real estate for my legs and head are very high on the list of priorities, and the xB is simply unbeatable in either of them.
And then there’s the rear seat. Once again, it’s amazingly roomy. Between the huge leg room, tall seat and straight sides, three adults can ride surprisingly comfortable. Not many vehicles can actually make that claim. The TSX is a torture chamber in the back seat by comparison.
The rear cargo area is short but tall. It’s actually a good size for the dog, as it keeps him from sliding around too much, given my driving style. He’s gotten real good about leaning into turns.
The seats all fold, so there’s plenty of room for hauling appliances and such, as long as I can find enough room for me to drive. I keep some roof rack bars on it, and use the xB to haul lumber and other long items up there. I only use my truck if I really need to, especially in the winter. The F100 always starts, but it’s a bit cold-blooded; the xB puts out heat after 8-10 blocks.
After eleven years—nine in my hands—how’s it held up? Before we do that, I need to point out that it only has 76,000 miles on it now, which is well below average for its age. I work at home, and this sure wouldn’t be my first choice for a commuter pod. But then those miles have been hard ones: constant short errands without a full warm-up. And lots of driving in the boonies.
Except for one niggling issue, which I’ll get to in a minute, it’s been absolutely flawless, reliability wise. Absolutely nothing has broken or required repairs. And it doesn’t feel like that’s a bout to change anytime soon. We’ll see.
That one issue is with the clutch release bearing. A brief recap: Not long after I bought it, the clutch release bearing started chirping when fully released. If I put just a bit of pressure on the clutch pedal, it went away. And it was accompanied with a bit of clutch shudder when pulling away from a start. I assumed it must just have been a very random bad release bearing.
I took it in to the Toyota dealer, and they agreed on that diagnosis, and replaced it under warranty. About 20,000 miles and some two years later, it started up again. Holy Toyota City! What are the odds of that? Two bad release bearings in a row? (none, as it turns out). I took it back, and they fixed it again, and threw in a new clutch as a good will gesture, but did charge me $293 for a partial share of the repair, seeing it was out of warranty.
Well, it came back again, in another 20,000 miles. Now I was totally stumped, as were all of you when I wrote it up here and asked for advice. Lots of well-meaning advice, but none of it really addressed the recurring issue. It wasn’t until six months later when someone came across that post and left a comment saying that he had the same issue. It turns out that almost certainly it’s a slight defect in the transmission input shaft that causes the release bearing to not ride on it properly.
Or not, given that an online search of Toyota release bearing issues brings up a number of others with similar issues, but not necessarily with that particular diagnosis as the cause. Whatever; I’m just living with it. It actually went mostly away for a couple of years, but now it’s usually to be heard. And the clutch is a bit jerky on take off, but I’ve long learned how to avoid that, with a slightly faster release.
So what’s the total tally, cost wise?
Repairs and maintenance: $1250 total:
($293 for the clutch repair, $340 for a set of Michelins at 33,000 miles, and $184 for another set at 70,00 miles, using the mileage warranty for a major adjustment; $53 for one set front brake pads installed by me; $48 for a set of spark plugs and an air filter at 62,000 miles; $71 for anew battery at 74,000 miles; and $261 for ten oil/filter changes, the first two being free from coupons that came with the car).
Fuel: $6,385 total
(based on average 30 mpg and average price over the nine years of $3.12/gallon) Fuel mileage is around 28 in town, and 32 on the highway.
Insurance: $2250 (I’ve been paying about $250/year for liability only coverage).
Registration: $360 (average $40 per year)
Depreciation: $6000 My younger brother just sold his identical 2005 xB with about the same mileage on it for a whopping $7000. I’ll use $6,500 as a current value for mine.
Total Costs: $16,245 divided by 61,400 miles = 26 cents per mile.
Interestingly, that’s actually a bit higher than what the Subaru Forester cost over 15 years and 170k miles (24 cents). And it had higher maintenance costs. But that because the mileage on the xB is low; the fixed costs are spread out over fewer miles. But that’s ok, as the total cost is lower; the xB has cost me $150 month in total. Not bad, really, for utterly reliable transportation.
Every car is a compromise, and the xB has its share. What would I like to change to make it perfect?
The suspension from a Peugeot, mostly. It’s not necessary to give up good handling with a properly sorted out compliant suspension. The xB’s can be brutal over old broken pavement and pot holes. What I’d give for a better ride. And a better sound-proofed body.
But that’s about it. yes, in my imagination I’ve built the perfect xB: the 1.8 L engine from the xD, a six speed manual, AWD, a slightly higher ride height, and of course a better suspension. And a longer rear end, for more cargo room. And different front end styling.
Maybe something like this? This “Eco Hummer” lived in Eugene a few years back, and son Ed shot it at the Country Fair.
Well, not exactly. But I like the thought and sense of humor that went into it. That second quality is a good one to keep handy with the xB, as it really is a rather goofy little thing, and doesn’t want to be taken too seriously.
The only question left to answer is the one I posed in the headline “My…Last Toyota?” It’s not that I’m unhappy with the the car or the company, it’s just that I can’t really see replacing it. With what? I’ve racked my brain, but for how I use it, it’s just about perfect, and there’s nothing really even close. So for the foreseeable future, it’s a keeper.