Auto-Biography: The xB EXBRO Overland Edition Is Finished and Ready For Off-Road Adventure

Some of you apparently thought it was an April Fool’s joke when I announced 0n April 1st that I was turning my xB into an off-roader. Well, here it is, ready to take on whatever the Northern half of remote Nevada can dish out. I just got back from a shake-down trip into the local mountains, and I’m declaring it finished.

And it’s not just because of the overlanding trip in June I did this; this is how I use it all the time, and I’ve finally got around to making it more suitable for its defined mission. Better late than never.

First: a note on “EXBRO”.  It’s the acronym for the small group that my son is a part of that has taken on an overlanding trip in various locations in the PNW. EXBRO5 is the fifth year, and this one will be in Nevada. Here’s a very brief outline of the trip, from son Ted:

The short version of the route: We’ll arrive in Tonopah, Nevada in the afternoon/evening of June 19 and spend the night either in town or in the vicinity. From there we’ll check out the Silver Peak mine and spend two days driving the Tonopah-Austin leg of the Nevada Backcountry Discovery Route. From Austin we’ll spend two more days on the BDR, driving the most remote leg of the trip, from Austin to Elko. After four days of BDR driving, we’ll then head off on our own route for two days, driving dirt and maybe even some paved roads from Elko to the ghost towns of Tuscarora, Midas and Paradise Valley, where we’ll find a place to camp for the night. The last day takes us to Thacker Pass, a new lithium mine, and then we’ll blast up to the Alvord Desert for a celebratory evening on the Playa.

That was the impetus.

As noted above, the xB has only two missions anymore: short around-town errands and taking us to remote trailheads. That’s not what it was designed for, though.

The xB was considerably modified for the US from its Japanese progenitor the Toypta bB, which was conceived as an urban “lounge-mobile” with a front bench seat and column shifter for the automatic. And the base version (above) did not have the body kit (Lower bumper dams, etc.). And it had the same 130lb/in springs as the Yaris/Echo, with which it shares many platform components.

When the new Scion brand was previewed in 2002, the bbX concept was clearly targeting the young, fast and furious crowd. And in the process, the production xB arrived with very firm 160lb/in springs and matching stiff shocks. And extra-thick sway bars.

That’s a bit ironic, as so many of these have of course ended up being lowered. And in further irony, the xB sold quite well to a somewhat older demographic, thanks to its easy to enter and exit body, as well as its looks. But most of those buyers have long moved on, as their backsides got tired of the harsh ride.

Me too, but instead of moving on, I decided to fix that.

I found springs from a junkyard 2002 Echo, and bought some new Monroe struts ($49/each) and rear shocks ($27/each) also for an Echo, and mounted the springs on the struts. The Echo struts are a half-inch shorter than the xB struts (in the lower section, not the spring length), so I cut the polyurethane rear lift blocks a half inch to match. I froze them and then ran them through my table saw. The half inch lift I lost front and rear was made up again by the larger tires, so my net lift is still 1.5 inches.

The next issue was the front sway bar. Sway bars are a wonderful thing on good pavement, but have a serious negative impact on rough roads and no roads. These torsion bars reduce lean in corners and curves, but in the process they also substantially increase the effective spring rate. That means when one wheel hits a bump, the response is very harsh. And articulation is reduced substantially.

I also got the softer bar from the junkyard Echo, but was increasingly intrigued in ditching it all together. Removing them from the xB is major surgery, requiring dropping the engine subframe and disconnecting steering and suspension components. So I bought a couple of the most aggressive carbide blades for my trusty old Sawzall and went at the two ends. They’re about an inch thick, and it took about 20 minutes each side. Fun!

The result of these suspension changes had exceeded my expectations or hopes. The ride is still on the firm side (to be expected for such a light car) and it’s never going to quite be a Peugeot 404, with its exceptionally long-travel suspension, but it’s much less harsh, on pavement and off.

We have a lot of these “Pillow” speed bumps in my neighborhood, and the difference is amazing. The wheels on one side almost float over them, compared to before. Yes, there’s a bit of lean on brisk curves, but it just reminds me of my 404s and other cars of the past. It’s not disconcerting at all. Sure, an extreme maneuver at high speed would be interesting, but I know what I’m driving, and if I want to drive fast, I take out the TSX, which handles about as well as it gets.

I thought I had found the only 205/65R15 AT tires at in the US. When I went to pick them up, they turned out to be cheap summer tires. It was too good to be true. Their website is a mess.

So it was back to winter tires, and these are what I ended up buying, in part because they were so cheap too (closeout). They’re a CV-rated tire, designed for vans and such, and have a very high (over 1800lbs/tire) load rating, and have a 6-ply carcass. The price was right, and the sidewalls are notable thicker than the typical passenger car tire, a bonus in rocky terrain.

They just barely fit (original size is 185/60R15). And the extra-deep tread blocks are a bit squishy in the curves at speed. But the traction is excellent.

I hit a few remaining patches of snow today, and they churned me right through. Of course it’s not the same as 4WD, but it’s pretty impressive. And this coming winter I’m seriously considering installing an LSD (limited slip differential). We’ll see…

Ground clearance is between 9 and 8.5″, which should be adequate. I didn’t want ti getting too jacked up and tippy-feeling. Here’s a 4×8 block of wood (7.5″ actual height) under the rear axle, which is a torsion beam affair and does not travel except for the very ends at the wheels. In fact the underside of the xB is exceptionally smooth and even; no differential pumpkins or shock mounts hanging down low.

Here’s the center of the underside; a good 8.5″ or more.

And quite a bit more than that at the front, in the center, where it’s at least 9″ or more. This is of course the most vulnerable area, under the engine sump and transaxle. A skid plate would be a major undertaking, and I’m confident it would be superfluous. I’m not taking it on the Rubicon.

There’s even a good 8″ at the front control arms. I took a peek at an Outback and Forester at a trailhead parking lot, and their suspensions hang down significantly lower. I’m actually quite surprised at how even the ground clearance is; there’s no real low-point.

I bought a basic roof rack at Amazon ($153) and mounted it to the Thule crossbars I already had. And the full-size spare is mounted securely to it, at the front. There’s no room for it inside, but there is still the mini-spare for backup, if it should come to that. I’ve never had a flat on rough terrain, yet.

When I first decided to take this trip, an idea popped in my head: maybe I can fit a bed inside too; turn it into a micro-van. And sure enough, here it is, the same 6’4″ long by 28″ wide 5″ foam mattress I sleep on in the van. Fits like a charm, once the passenger seat (and rear seats) are out.

I had a piece of 3/8″ plywood almost the perfect size laying around. I bolted the back end to the mounting holes for the seat backs.

The front rests on the cooler, which just happened to be the right size, and sits snugly in the well under where the passenger seat used to be. A couple of plywood braces support the section in between. I’m going to really try to keep my weight down, and this weighs almost nothing. Gear will be stowed under the bed.

The 7 gallon water jug will sit in front of that, in the passenger foot well. Put the heavy stuff in front, where the traction will benefit.

And it doubles as a center arm rest, which I had to remove for the bed.

My entry will be the driver’s side rear door. It works very well. No need to set up a tent, and all my stuff will be right there.

So there it is, ready to take on whatever Nevada’s back country can dish out. If not, I’ve got a recovery “snatch strap”, and even a folding shovel. And I’ll be in the kind of company that can pull me out readily, if it’s needed. My guess is that it won’t, but it’s good to be prepared anyway.

In the meantime, and for many years afterwards, I’ve got the xB I always wanted to have. I’m an Xbro after all.