Hopped up on Red Bull and M&Ms, I watched Marilyn Monroe hug Elvis on Hollywood Boulevard as I steered my 2008 Scion xB toward Mulholland Drive.
Speeding through every turn, I braced for my box-a-majig to roll like a die during a craps game, sending me off a cliff into Studio City.
But the xB's stiff suspension held me tightly through each curve. Its squared-off body, which looks much bigger than it drives, hardly rolled through the winding road that cuts through the Hollywood hills.
Zooming away from that famous block-letter Hollywood sign toward the Pacific, I pushed the urban racer through its paces.
Somewhere amid the heady overdose of caffeine and the speed rush, I realized the average Scion buyer was born the same year Elvis died. I shuddered. Talk about feeling old. But I shook it off and just enjoyed my time in the box.
The xB is one of the few vehicles you can say has nicely matured and still insult someone who drives one. So Scion owners, please don't take this the wrong way, but the new xB shows signs of growing up.
It's bigger in nearly every dimension compared to the first-generation xB, which created a buzz when it arrived in America from Japan three years ago with a body that seemed carved by a meat cleaver and a too-cool-for-school attitude.
The new xB, rolling into Scion dealerships now, has refined its look with softer edges that make it look like a glamour shot of its former self. The flat-side panels and bay windows have been replaced with more bulging fenders and smaller windows.
This is still not an average-looking vehicle, just a more sophisticated one, especially with its smoother ride, crisper handling, more comfortable interior and an upgraded engine.
At Scion headquarters in Torrance, Calif., executives of Toyota Motor Corp.'s youth oriented brand tout the xB as ugly and brash, as if it were the anti-hero in the prosaic world of sedans, vans and pickups. They may be overstating their case. But this second-generation model looks more mainstream than cult classic -- and could wind up hauling just as many AARP members to early bird specials as its predecessor carried college students to underground German techno parties.
Whether delivering the hip or those with hip replacements, the xB offers passengers lots more when it comes to size. The xB's new platform adds four inches to the wheelbase, 12 inches to its overall length, 2.8 inches to its width and 3.5 inches to its rear track.
The longer wheelbase smooths out the ride, the wider track enhances handling and stretching its overall length adds lots of interior space.
The passenger volume is up more than 10 percent -- to 100.8 cubic feet -- and there's a larger rear storage area. Basically, the xB's shape has gone from toaster to a toaster oven.
Inside, the xB is comfortable and different -- maintaining some of the funkiness that could dissuade more conventional consumers, which should be reassuring to many current Scion drivers.
On the instrument panel, for example, the speedometer and three other gauges are mounted in the center of the dash, replacing the cheaper-looking single gauge in the first-generation xB. That's a big improvement, even though the dash still features large open spaces of plastic and the plastic silver trim feels a bit cheap.
The digital speed readout is another twist that seems at home on this vehicle. Additionally, the gear shifter seems to float out from the bottom of the dash, giving the xB a different feel than other vehicles. It's an interesting presentation
Like all Scions, the xB comes with an assortment of amenities, including electric windows and locks and a six speaker stereo system that can connect to an iPod or other music player. The new xB adds a few more standard features, such as self-locking doors, a cruise information display that gives the driver the outside temperature, current miles per gallon, average speed and a host of other bits of driving information.
From there, Scion encourages buyers to customize the vehicle any way they want, adding everything from 19-inch tires to a supercharger. Scion executives promise at least 40 accessories for the new xB, and additional after-sale items will, no doubt, become available quickly. The xB comes in only one trim level, but it can be upgraded a la carte to the owner's content, limited only by the buyer's budget.
The base model is comfortable and covers all of the basics and safety features, such as side curtain airbags, electronic stability control and traction control. With a starting price of $15,650, including shipping, the xB is a good value, a factor that may start to attract older, less hip buyers.
It's also a good multipurpose vehicle. The 60/40 split back bench row offers enough room to carry two adults comfortably and folds nearly flat. The front seats offer ample leg room and lots of head room.
There are even scads of little storage spots on the base model xB. On the door, in the dash, on the backs of the seats, anyone looking for a cool dry place to stash something will find it.
The 2.4-liter engine is a welcome replacement to the previous generation's 1.5-liter, 103-horsepower four-cylinder. The new four-banger, based on the Scion tC's power plant, creates 158-horsepower and 164-pound-feet of torque. It is quick off the line and never strained for power, even when climbing the steep roads near Laurel Canyon with the AC cranked up high.
The xB offers a five-speed manual or $950 optional four-speed automatic transmission. The automatic was not nearly as smooth, but still matches the manual in gas mileage at 22 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg highway.
The lower city mileage may be one weakness to this low-priced funky vehicle, especially since it was built with young city folks in mind. But people buying this self-locking box don't simply consider good gas mileage.
It comes down to the exterior design that will make or break the deal. I like the smoother feel and rounder edges. But that may not be good news for the xB. The last thing a young, hip urban dweller wants to hear is that someone old enough to be his uncle likes his wheels.
That the xB doesn't stand out as much as the previous model may sell a lot more of them -- just to people who don't drink Red Bull, drive responsibly and actually remember 1977, the year we lost The King.
2008 Scion xB
Type: A front-wheel drive five passenger vehicle Retail price*: $15,650 Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, 158-hp, 164-lbs-ft torque Transmission: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic, with clutchless shifting EPA mileage 22 mpg city / 28 mpg highway (both transmissions) Notes: Be careful with so many ale carte options, the price can quickly climb. *Includes shipping Report card
Overall: *** Performance: Good New 2.4-liter engine provides more power and longer wheelbase and wider track create better handling. Exterior: Good The xB wears its softer edges and bigger size well. Interior: Good Very nontraditional. Increased space makes it more comfortable but over use of plastic feels low grade. Safety: Excellent Standard side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. Pros: A well-priced multipurpose vehicle. Cons: New xB loses some of its funk factor. Grading Scale Excellent: **** Good: *** Fair:** Poor: *
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