Curbside Classic/Review: 2008 Scion xB – A Case Study Of How To Kill A Successful Car

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(I only did a few actual car reviews during my four years with TTAC. One can’t exactly get press cars in Eugene, so it was a case of taking  a dealer car on a test drive. I decided I wanted an Xb in April of 2007 for my next car, by which point there were already none left at the dealers. The new gen2 hadn’t arrived yet, but from little information there was about it, I already knew I was going to be better off with a gen1, and I found a cherry used one. I got to know the Scion specialist at the dealer, who knew I wrote for TTAC, and he called me when the first one came in and let me take it for a long drive. I was a bit shocked; it seemed retrograde in almost every respect except for a few, certainly in the categories that had made the xB so endearing and unique. So I spit out a review as soon as I got home, and it ran the next day, pretty much the first actual review of the gen2 on the web. Needless to say, it was pretty controversial, and it went viral. It’s not the typical, objective review (what would you expect?), and it has to be seen in the context of the times, when GM was tanking, and Toyota was riding high. – PN)

Having wrested the title “world’s largest car manufacturer” from General Motors, Toyota’s already committing some of the same mistakes that brought GM down. The all-new 2008 Scion xB is a blot on Toyota’s relatively unblemished copybook. It bristles with classic GM-think: dumb it down, fatten it up and cheapen it out.

scion xb_picture (7)

The original xB was a brilliant design, an instant cult-classic, as unique and iconic as the original VW Beetle. The “toaster” elicited the same emotional responses as the old bug: children, young drivers, and the young at heart loved it. More traditional folks often hated it. It’s a controversial, polarizing but original design, and a highly practical one. The gen1 xB is barely longer than a Mini and almost as much fun to drive, with the accommodations of a Tahoe, and yielding thirty-plus mpg.

If the last gen xB evoked images of a lacquered bento box lunch, the new xB evokes a big, sloppy hamburger wrapped in greasy paper. Toyota’s drive to assimilate into the American heartland is relentless; its Texas Tundra brand BBQ sauce-stained fingerprints are all over this little porker.

The xB has gained 650 pounds, a foot in length, and three inches in width. Obviously, there’s a price to pay at the gas pump for that corn-fed heft. EPA numbers are down almost 25 percent for the city cycle (’06 adjusted), from 28 to 22 mpg.

That xB’s extra 12 inches are totally wasted; it all goes to making the hood longer. More room to mount a set of Texas steer horns? And since height is reduced, the XB actually loses usable passenger space.

The throne-like seating position has lost four inches of leg room. Headroom has also diminished. Ditto the back seat, where my 6’4” frame once sat in limo-comfort, with a good four inches of clearance to the front back-rest. Now my knees graze the horrendously cheap-feeling fabric of the front seats.

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The xB’s front seats might as well have been lifted straight out of a 1971 Chevy Vega. Where the old xB thrones were nicely bolstered and contoured, with a nubby textural two-tone fabric, the new ones are molded blobs covered in a dreary monolithic black fabric. Even the Chevy Aveo’s seats put these to shame.

Toyota must have scored a volume deal from GM for vintage interior molds; the door panels are now harder than a trigonometry quiz. The xB’s lamentable polymerization also includes the upper arm-rest surface where my elbow likes to rest. At least the Vega had a little cushion there.

The xB’s interior package suffers mightily from the reshaped dimensions, the new seating position and the new model’s higher belt-line. The xB’s superb view– favored by many of its elderly patrons– has been cruelly reduced. Now one sits deep and low, Hummer style, peering out gun-slit windows. And less of them: the rear three-quarter windows have disappeared.

Scion Xb 2008 dash

The cute, perfectly positioned, oval-shaped analog instrument cluster that once perched atop the xB’s artistically shaped and textured dash has been replaced by four small oval, orange-lit displays. They’re buried low and deep in the middle of the ponderous dash. The nervously-flashing digital speedometer is yet another 1980’s GM throw-back.

The new XB has the Camry’s 2.4-liter 158hp engine. It’s a competent and smooth-enough mill that makes the new xB a somewhat faster vehicle, but a less engaging one. The old XB’s little 1.5-liter engine had an eager willingness and mechanical presence that made every trip to the pizzeria fun, especially with the stick.

In another GM-esque move, the Camry’s five-speed automatic didn’t make the bean-counter’s cut; the xB’s old four-speed slushbox soldiers on. Buyers opting for the manual tranny now row their boat with a shifter that protrudes from a large extension from the bottom of the dash– which only enhances the perception of lost interior real estate. The gen1 xB offered van-like leg room, a boon in these console-constricing times. Equally annoying, the vague-acting clutch pedal sticks up higher than the brake pedal.

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The new XB is faster, but the fun (and challenge) is gone. The new-found heft and softer ride takes xB handling from Mini territory right to into Camry Land. And we all now how engaging and exciting THAT is.

The xB’s electrically-assisted steering lacks the crispness and linearity of the former hydraulic unit. There were times I swear I could feel the electric motor on the other end of the steering column muttering back at me under its breath– in a way that reminded me of my fifteen year old son.

Is there anything good to say about the new, ostensibly improved Scion XB? Yes. It now comes with cruise control and more air bags.

In short, the xB has become nothing more than a low-content five-door Camry. It’s Toyota’s el-cheapo ($16,230) version of the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx.

In fact, the new xB doesn’t deserve the Scion moniker, which established the brand’s U.S. reputation as a provider of affordable automobiles with original style, efficiency, quality, innovation and fun. Maybe Toyota could get a deal on the Oldsmobile name from GM.

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Postscript:  The gen2 xB is an interesting case study. The gen1 (Toyota bB) was original designed strictly for domestic consumption, an urban rolling lounge for young Japanese who had little or no space at home. When the Scion brand was launched, the bB was federalized to meet US regs, but nothing about was oriented specifically to the US market. It was a gutsy gamble, and one that paid off handsomely, as the gen1 xB sold very well during its three model years (2004, 2005, 2006), and was the car that put Scion on the map.

The gen2 xB was the exact opposite: it was designed specifically for the US market, supposedly based on what Toyota thought Americans wanted, and/or the feedback they were getting from xB owners. The result is that it lost many of the original’s most endearing and appealing features. It would have been much better to refine the original just slightly, dropping in the xD’s 1.8 liter engine for the extra power folks were asking for.

The gen2 xB has been a big sales disappointment for Toyota, never selling nearly the numbers that the gen1 did. Six years later, it’s still on the market, but has been eclipsed by the Kia Soul and the Nissan Cube.  What Toyota forgot is the lesson that VW learned early on with its original Beetle: ride the momentum of passion and enthusiasm for as long as you can, and don’t change a winning formula; just improve it.The xB had the potential to be a modern-day Beetle; maybe not for twenty five years, but certainly more than three.  Toyota cut it short with the gen2 xB, and is not likely to get it back. One wonders if there will be a gen3 xB.

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