It seemed oxymoronic that Toyota named its youth brand Scion when it was introduced in 2003. After all, a scion is a descendant, not a progenitor. And today's test car, the 2008 Scion xB, is actually part of the first new generation of Scions.
Regardless, Toyota built a basic car and marketed it to young buyers. It turned out to be good idea - nearly 175,000 Scions were sold last year. Perhaps the most distinctive model was the xB, a box with edge that appealed to the tuner set, particularly on the West Coast. If there is such a thing as the flinty Yankee teenager, the xB brought them out in New England. My own trio of teens would not be caught dead in a Scion xB. But I liked it, as did a surprising number of other folks of a certain age who valued its spaciousness, easy access for passengers and cargo, fuel economy, and cool lines.
The new Scion xB, however, seems to lean more toward my generational line. It's larger, more rounded, and more - as Honda might put it - Elemental. I'm not sure why the company did this, unless Toyota believes the youth market is tapped (or aging) and it's now after the socioeconomic line-blurring of the Honda Element, Chevrolet HHR, or even the PT Cruiser.
Understand that the 2008 model is improved, but it's hard not to wonder about the car's target audience. For sure, the new xB is plenty more powerful than last year's version. The 1.5-liter wheezer has been replaced by the engine from the best of the Scions, the tC - a great performance buy. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine ups the horsepower by 55 (to 158) and the torque (which you'll need with a full load) to 162 lb.-ft. from a choking 101 lb.-ft.
The new power plant is matched with either a four-speed automatic, as tested, or a five-speed manual. The automatic was surprisingly sporty, running to redline before shifting in full-auto mode, or letting the driver race to rouge in manual-option mode. It is not a rocket off the line, but it steps out as fast as most folks need to go. On the highway, the tug of the extra torque is noticeable when pulling out and passing at commuter speeds.
Steering seems a bit vacant, with a disconcerting lightness of being. In corners, the more than 600 pounds of additional weight only adds to a tendency for body roll - and that was in the stiffened-suspension Toyota Racing Development model we drove.
Still, it would be easy to learn to love this car's utility and performance (plenty for most drivers). The interior has fold-flat rear seats, an ample rear cargo area with extra bins below, and head and leg room front and rear that seem to rise and stretch forever. It takes some time to get used to the fireplace-mantle effect of the broad, flat dash, but the coolness of all the gauges being placed in a thin, horizontal slab at center dash provides a reassuring "I'm driving here" feel.
Typical of Toyota, the front seats leave room for improvement - they're short in reach from butt to knees, and what appear to be high, gripping bolsters instead sag like angel food cake when occupants are pushed side to side in cornering. Why cut the cloth for the bolsters without putting some muscle beneath that skin?
Notably, the Scion sees Toyota finally spreading standard safety equipment - including electronic stability control and multiple air bags - into its less expensive models.
On the outside, the crisp lines of the front end of the previous Scion are lost in a rounded bulge that looks like a cowcatcher. The rear, despite an optional airfoil, seems to sit too high and round.
Despite the negatives, the 2008 Scion xB is a fine car, at a great price, for the right person. I'm just not sure that is the young buyer that the company initially targeted.
Maybe the young Scion is marching back toward its past.
Royal Ford can be reached at email@example.com
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