After four years in its original form, the boxy Scion xB was totally redesigned for 2008. Scion said that owners wanted their xBs to be bigger. Since it takes three years to produce a new car, the requests to expand the box must have started coming early. In any case, the only additional change for 2009 is to the paint chart, where Stingray Metallic replaces Nautical Blue Metallic.
This latest xB is indeed a bigger box, but it doesn't look so much like a box any more. And it isn't, as the increased length reduces the squareness. The styling is considerably improved. Plastic surgery on the chin has made a huge difference, and the other edges and angles are much softer, making the xB more attractive and less funny looking.
It's also less distinctive than before, but it's still distinctive compared to other cars of this size. Utility-wise, it's like the Honda Fit (front-wheel drive, five-door with good cargo space), but it looks more like the Honda Element.
The current xB is 12 inches longer than the original, on a wheelbase that's just 4 inches longer; this means bigger overhangs, which goes against the trend, as most new vehicles increase the wheelbase more than the length, efficient packaging that increases stability. The current xB is 2.8 inches wider, though, and that adds stability. And the wheels have been increased in size to 16 inches, allowing larger disc brakes, front and rear. The xB's brakes are very good.
The xB features electric power steering, which does away with belts, pulleys and fluid. It's quite nimble and fun to drive around town.
The bigger box provides an increase in cargo capacity, but 4.6 inches of legroom has been lost in the front seat, from 45.3 inches down to 40.7; in the rear, the legroom remains the same. So if Scion redesigned the xB to satisfy customers, it must have been those buyers who use the xB as cute little utility vans, not those who carry passengers. The front seats recline almost fully, and the 60/40 rear seats drop flat with one easy pull of a lever.
Not visible, but just as significant, is the whopping 50 percent increase in power. The xB now uses the same 2.4-liter engine that powers the quick tC Coupe. It makes 158 horsepower, an increase of no less than 55 over the 1.5-liter engine in the 2004-2007 xB. The engine employs all of Toyota's considerable variable valve timing technology (VVT-i), and gets 22/28 miles per gallon, at the EPA's ULEV-II (ultra-low) emissions ratings. The old xB got 30/34, but comparisons are difficult to make because the 2.4-liter engine has so much more horsepower, and because now the mileage is measured by the new 2008 EPA standards, which are more realistic than before.
Two transmissions are available, a four-speed automatic with manual shifting, and a five-speed manual. The automatic shifts well, but with only four speeds it kicks down a lot, especially from fourth to third. The xB would be smoother with a five-speed automatic, but that's not available.
Believe it or not, the Scion xB sort of has the limo look going for it. Maybe even a gangster look, like a sedan from the '20s. It's that new roofline with the thick C-pillar that's located all the way at the back of the car, and the uninterrupted dark tinted windows. The roof-to-floor B-pillar is hidden between the doors, covered by parts of the black frames around the windows.
There's also a subtle 1.5-inch taper from the height of the windows at the front of the front window to the rear of the rear window, adding to the effect of reducing the squareness and making the xB look longer. The optional rear spoiler, as on our test xB, extends the roofline even more.
Last year's new face vastly improves the looks of the xB from head-on, the three-quarter front angle, or side view. The old chin stuck out from under a thin grille, but the new unit is cohesive, still with a thin black grille but it's almost flush with the bumper below it. The headlamps are more shapely now, swept back, although they stick out at the sides, like bubbles. Below the thick plastic bumper under the grille, there's another black grille that sucks in air for the bottom of the radiator. At each side there are thin vertical black rubber things, apparently meant to be faux air intakes for brakes. They lend depth to the otherwise massive and flat valance.
The longer body, wide C-pillar, rounded fender flares and loss of the protruding chin make the xB look less square, from any angle.
Compared to the original, the interior of the latest Scion xB feels as changed as the exterior looks. There might have been a big loss in front seat legroom, but the driver still has a commanding view of the road. That's exceptional if not unique, for a car of this size. The short nose, big windshield, elevatable driver's seat, and far-away dashboard create this feel. You become aware of the distance to the windshield when you reach to adjust the rearview mirror, which is quite a stretch from your shoulder. The glass is upright, it doesn't sweep back.
There's less of a stretch from the front-seat passenger's knees to the good-sized glovebox. It's mounted low so it folds down, possibly on the passenger's shins. Above the glovebox there is a long thin tray which might be useful if it had a liner that offered some grip, instead of the hard slick vinyl.
Charcoal is the only color for the fabric seats, which are comfortable and well bolstered, although they're shapeless and light on padding in the rear. The fabric isn't as sturdy, outdoorsy or cool as that in the Mazda3, but charcoal makes the most of the cloth. The xB seats five. The three kids who rode in the rear seat of our xB didn't have a problem, but three adults would. Two adults wouldn't be uncomfortable though, because you can easily slide your feet up under the front seats.
For rear seat passengers, there are two cupholders that pop out of the back of the console between the front seats, a bottle holder in each door, and clever trays under the rear seats for storage of flat things like books and portfolios.
That wide C-pillar that enhances the exterior styling creates a blind spot when pulling out onto the highway at a 45-degree angle. Even knowing it was there and trying to peer around it, we managed to pull out in front of a car we couldn't see.
There are no gauges directly in front of the driver, which is a bit weird; but the row of four of them on the dashboard just to the right of the steering wheel makes up for it, because they're good. At the far left, is the information display, revealing things like fuel mileage and range. Then comes the clock, which is highly readable, unlike so many, the color is orange and it has an eave to reduce being washed out by sunlight. The digital speedometer is excellent, with big numbers that are, like the clock, eminently readable. Beyond these are the gas gauge and temperature gauge.
The new design has added a lot of sound dampening material to the xB, and it seems like most of it must be in the firewall. Or else the engine is just quiet. You can't hear much engine noise, maybe because it's drowned out by the tire noise. You have to turn the volume of the 160-watt Pioneer sound system up, running at higher speeds.
Our xB was equipped with the $1,800 navigation system, which incorporated the audio system. We longed for simpler controls. But we were thankful for the steering wheel controls for the audio system, which could adjust volume, set the band or mode, and move between the preset stations.
We were also thankful for the halogen high beams during two fast one-hour runs on a dark, winding and lonely freeway. But the flipside was that the projector low beams are treacherously weak. And for some reason there's only one backup light, on the driver's side. Is it a Scion styling thing, like one earring or something?
Scion has put special effort into the air conditioning, and it shows. Four round vents on the dash quietly and quickly blast out cold air.
The automatic shift lever comes out of the center stack at a 45-degree angle, an ergonomic improvement introduced by Honda. The door handles, however, show little thought about ergonomics. They're horizontal, thin, barely two inches long, and tapered to a point.
Most of the slim space between the seats is taken by two fixed cupholders, a slot for a cellphone, and the parking brake lever, leaving room for only a small console compartment rearward between the seats.
The 60/40 rear seats fold flat in a heartbeat, creating good cargo space behind the front seats. Scion says it's 8 cubic feet bigger than in the original model, which would bring the current maximum cargo capacity up to 51.4 cubic feet; but the only number Scion publishes is 21.7 cubic feet behind a second-row seat that's deployed for passengers. The front passenger seat reclines, and that's good for naps, but with the passenger seat down there isn't any more practical cargo space because it reclines right on top of the folded rear seat, so it sticks way up there. The Honda Fit and Mazda5 remain the masters of cargo space in a small vehicle.
The 2.4-liter engine borrowed from the sporty Scion tC might not move the xB out of econobox territory, but it certainly powers the xB to the front of the field. Just think, all you owners of 2004-2007 xBs: 50 percent more horsepower.
In terms of fuel economy, our average was 26.0 miles per gallon over 420 miles, most of it leadfoot running on the freeway. The latest EPA measurements say 22/28 mpg City/Highway for the xB, so we were right on the money. (That, and the current test procedures are closer to reality than the pre-2008 system.)
Throttle response is excellent, and, unlike the xD, it's steady. You get a lot of smooth acceleration out of just a little bit of pressing down of your foot. The revs climb right up through the numbers on the tach, until the transmission upshifts at 6100 or 6200 rpm (even if it's in manual mode). The engine doesn't feel like it's working hard, it feels like it's loving every chance it gets to leap between 3000 rpm and 6000 rpm.
Just don't forget that the Scion xB is not a sports car. We passed a truck going uphill on a two-lane, and with our foot on the floor we wished for even more quickness. Or maybe it was the five-speed manual transmission we were wishing for. Or a five-speed automatic.
The four-speed automatic kicks down a lot. This might be an annoyance if the xB weren't so eager about wanting to zoom forward. Every time it kicks down to third, it's happy. Give it a bit more gas at 75 mph on the freeway, and it kicks down to third and tries to get you up to 85, even if you hadn't quite intended to go that fast.
Seventy miles per hour in fourth gear is a comfortably low rev range, so there's lots of room for the engine to play, without screaming. The engine makes its peak torque of 162 pound-feet at 4000 rpm, and you can feel the engine come on there.
It's fun and nimble to drive around town. The electric power steering gives good feedback to the steering wheel, and the extra 12 inches of length is not an issue.
The great brakes add to the around-town fun, not because you use them hard in the city, but because they're smooth, tight and responsive, with pedal pressure that's just right. And when you need them, they'll be there. The front and rear rotors are both big for a small car, about 11 inches, and the front rotors are ventilated so they stay cooler under hard use. The rear brakes on the former xB were drums, so four-wheel discs are an upgrade. They're equipped with ABS, of course, and with EBD, which balances the front and rear forces, and Brake Assist, which gives more braking than you asked for. Basically, sensors read your foot and overrule your brain.
But if you take the xB out on back roads to play, don't expect the transmission's manual mode to be very manual; about half the time it doesn't listen to the driver. Also, if you plan to drive the corners hard, you'll want to invest in TRD suspension components from your Scion dealer. The xB wasn't made for that. The wheels jounce around on bumpy surfaces.
But worse than that, the ride isn't quite up to sharp spots on the freeway. There's a stretch we often drive that has a row of steel expansion strips over some uphill-downhill curves, and at 75 mph the xB had us going oomph over the worst of them. These sharp jolts occurred in other places. It wears on you, in short order.
All-new last year, the latest Scion xB is very different than the previous model. It's longer, wider, faster, and less quirky looking. It offers some fine features, including a good fabric interior and 60/40 rear seats that easily fold flat, creating an excellent cargo compartment behind the front seats. From the driver's seat, the xB provides an unusually high feeling of command for a small car. It's nimble, fun to drive, and the brakes are outstanding, although the ride can be jagged over certain types of bumps.
Sam Moses drove the xB in the Columbia River Gorge before filing this report to NewCarTestDrive.com.