Road Test: Scion xB

We look at the 2011 xB utility compact

December 6, 2011
by Tony Whitney

Purchasingb2b October 2011: Fleet Management print edition

BODY STYLE: 5-door micro van/general utility vehicle
ENGINE: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic, 5-speed manual
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100 kmh in approx 9.9-secs
FUEL ECONOMY:  9.5-litres/100 km city; 7.2-litres/100 km hwy. (manual 5-speed)
PRICE: $18,360 base. As tested with automatic transmission, $20,815.

Scion is a new nameplate to most Canadians and even to some people with good auto industry savvy, so perhaps a little brand history would help before we look at the 2011 xB utility compact that the automaker describes as: “Urban, edgy and authentic”.

The Scion brand was developed by Toyota specifically for the North American market and the first Scion products—the xA hatchback and xB utility compact—were launched in 2002/2003. It took several years for Toyota to move into Canada with Scion; our first products arrived in 2010. The main aim of Scion is to attract young buyers to the Toyota stable, but like all “youth market” vehicles that went before, they’ve proved to have wider appeal already. Incidentally, the name is pronounced “sigh-on” and not “sky-on”.

The Scion branding process was handled by a consultant in Los Angeles and much of the promotional activity has centered around so-called guerrilla marketing techniques and extensive use of the internet and social media to get word out with younger buyers. The vehicles seem to have sold strongly in the US, but time will tell whether similar success is experienced in Canada.

Certainly, Scion faces some challenges here and competition is strong for all the products sold under the Scion nameplate. Even so, Toyota has a very powerful presence in this country, so perhaps Scion will establish a firm foothold.

Scion was initially sold by 45 selected Toyota dealers in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver at what the company calls “store-within-a-store boutiques”. By next spring, 40 more Scion dealerships are promised for 30 markets.

It’s interesting that Toyota is introducing a new nameplate when some rivals have been shedding them at regular intervals. For buyers, though, there’s nothing like having lots of choices in the marketplace—especially at the reasonable prices and low interest rates we’re experiencing right now.

Generation ‘x’
Since the xB was one of the first two products from Scion to arrive in North America, the current model is the second-generation version. Interestingly, the earlier xBs have been a fairly common sight in Canadian cities even though they were never officially imported.

A fair number slipped over the border and many seem to have found their way into business roles thanks to their practicality and attention-grabbing appearance. The xB often seems to have found a home as a graphic-covered “rolling promotional vehicle” for all kinds of products and services, much like the VW Beetle, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR, Toyota Prius and (more recently) the Fiat 500.

If anything, the new xB is a little less radical in design than its predecessor. The first model, with its low-slung stance and very boxy bodywork was a real head-turner until we all got used to it. In a sense, the new xB has grown up a little, and while it still retains the chunky box-on-wheels look, it seems to have been subtly sculptured here and there. It remains a very distinctive piece of styling work, without having the truly off-the-wall approach of Nissan’s Cube. The xB is a very practical design thanks to its shape and is perhaps more suitable for business and fleet applications than some of its rivals.

Rivals include the Chevrolet HHR and PT Cruiser; the Dodge Caliber, Kia Soul, Toyota Matrix, Nissan’s Cube and even one or two subcompacts like the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta.

Power for this little front-wheel drive Scion is provided by a fairly thrifty 2.4-litre 4-cylinder that generates a quite respectable (for this class of vehicle) 158-horsepower. Buyers can choose a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Having tried both, I’d go for the auto option. With today’s automatic transmissions, there’s very little loss of power and shifts are very swift and “stepless”. It’d be nice to see both these transmissions with an extra gear, like so many other Toyotas these days, but this is, after all, a price-point model.

Limited options

The dash has an unconventional layout, with the instruments clustered near the centre.

There’s only one trim level for the Scion xB (though leather seats are on offer), but the interior layout is intelligent and tasteful, without being luxurious in any way. The instruments are quite tiny and are ranged across the central part of the dash, but this is easy to get used to and the layout proved quite efficient. They can be scanned just by eye movement, so there’s no safety issue here.

Three simple knobs control heating/cooling, fan speed and air distribution. The good old three-dial HVAC system is still the best there is—we find ourselves driving luxury cars that are so complicated you need to pull off the road to effect a temperature change. The controls in the xB can be operated without looking at them, even after very brief experience with the vehicle.

The steering wheel is just the right diameter and the rim is grippy too, so from a tactile point of view, this Scion feels a lot sportier than it is. The steering wheel carries multi-functional controls, something normally found on more expensive products than this little Scion.

The fairly complex sound system occupies a prominent spot on the upper console, befitting a vehicle that’s aiming at young buyers. The USB and auxiliary ports are located in a central armrest bin. Bluetooth capability is standard on Scion xBs.

The rear seats fold down in 60:40 fashion and there’s a cavernous amount of space back there. This should please business users, as the vehicle can easily tackle light deliveries. The rear hatch swings high, so tall users aren’t going to crack their heads every time they reach back there. The interior is loaded with useful stowage bins and cubby holes, so this is a great vehicle for long road trips.

Incidentally, this is an easy vehicle to climb in and out of so older folk or people with lower back problems won’t encounter any grief. Both front and rear doors are nice and wide and the sills are low, thanks to that ground-hugging styling.

Like the PT Cruiser, the xB is likely to attract more than its expected share of older buyers, empty-nesters and the like. It’s comfortable inside too, with lots of headroom and plenty of leg and hip room. It’s almost spacious, but is still a compact rig which is very easy to park and to maneuver in tight traffic situations.

The xB is fun to drive, though at this price, too much refinement and opulence should not be expected. The ride may not please everybody, but this Scion has light and accurate steering, a responsive brake feel and quite impressive acceleration. It handles well and is comfortable on the freeway, but uneven road surfaces are not ironed out as they would be in a more expensive vehicle. Basically, the ride is well in keeping with what buyers should expect in the lower price ranges.

Value for the money

The second-generation xB retains the box-on-wheels look

With a base price of just a little over $18,000, the xB is good value, especially since that figure includes air conditioning, power windows, keyless entry and heated remote mirrors. There are six air bags, traction control and also electronic stability control—something found these days on surprisingly inexpensive vehicles—plus all-around ABS-equipped disc brakes.

Like some of its rivals, this Scion is a great product to communicate a specific corporate image—it conveys a cutting edge ambiance and an awareness that its business operator is well up on the latest urban transportation trends.

Other models in the Scion lineup include the xD, a sporty hatchback, and the tC, a sleek-looking coupe. Upcoming is the new 2012 iQ micro compact—a truncated city car that must be almost as stubby as a Smart. It looks very tiny but actually seats four people, though the ones in the back had better not be NBA-sized.

Scion’s stated aim is to create a range of urban vehicles that combine attitude, affordability, quality and fuel economy. The company wants to give every driver (or business operator, for that matter) “the means to boldly express their personality and individuality”. The xB certainly confirms these aims and gets the job done very well indeed.