Editor's note: This review was written in August 2009 about the 2008 Scion xB. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Where once the Scion xB was alone, the field of small, boxy cars has grown to include the Kia Soul and Nissan Cube. To be competitive, cars like these need to carry people and stuff easily and comfortably, and they must be reliable. These are the worker bees of the automotive world. Now, the xB has one major flaw and a few other issues, but overall, it's an easy car to live with. I also think it's a decent car for young drivers. Despite the fact that it's not the newest car in the field, it still sets the standard. It gets the job done.
Scion redesigned the xB in 2008, but precious little has changed since then. (See a comparison of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 models here.) So new- and used-car shoppers for those model years can read the same review and get a sense of the car, no matter the year.
For starters, the boxy xB is small on the outside but massive on the inside. I did a lot of carpool duty in the xB, all of my friends are tall, and none of us felt claustrophobic. The xB is a natural pick for road trips.
Still, the seating isn't perfect. By far, the biggest flaw of the car as a whole is that the steering-wheel position is about the worst I've experienced in any car. Other reviewers didn't react as negatively, but no matter how I adjusted my seat, the steering wheel sat way too low in the dashboard, even when tilted upward. It didn't brush my legs, but it felt as if the steering wheel was sitting on top of them. It was also too far away for comfort, and there's no telescoping adjustment, either, so I was stuck.
The bad seating wasn't limited to the driver: All of my front-seat passengers were unhappy that the xB didn't have an armrest for them. If you carpool, expect to hear about the lack of an armrest — a lot.
On a positive note, when you fold the rear seats flat, you get a massive cargo area: The xB carried a bike and camping gear pretty well. The cargo area was easy to get to, thanks to a rear hatch — as opposed to a swing-out refrigerator-style door. It's also easy to fold the second-row seats, so it's no bother to carry a lot of cargo in the xB. Note, however, there is a lack of covered storage space in the xB. Many open bins, yes, but only the small glove box and tiny center console area are covered.
All the switches and dials for things such as the door locks, windows and heating/cooling all feel good. They won't be confused with a luxury car's, but you also won't get the feeling that whatever you're tugging, pressing or sliding is going to snap off in your hands. They're also well laid out, so that you can find what you need quickly and use it intuitively.
Finally, visibility is what I'd call a "partial" flaw. There is a decent-sized blind spot over the driver's right shoulder because of a large rear-roof pillar. It's one of those things that can be an issue on the highway and in some parking situations. If you're thinking of buying an xB, I think the one thing you must do on your test drive is include some highway driving/passing/merging and see if the blind spot is an issue for you. The rest of the visibility in the xB — out front, to the sides — was fine.
The steering is good for this class. In some cars, the steering is so light, you feel as if you're playing a video game — the car reacts almost too quickly. The xB doesn't have that problem.
While the xB is not a sports car, it moves away from the light nicely and has enough oomph for passing and merging on the highway. Our test model came with a manual five-speed transmission. First and 2nd gear are what car reviewers call "short," which means two things: One, you have to shift from 1st into 2nd gear sooner than you would in some other cars; and two, 2nd-gear starts are really easy. In winter, a 2nd-gear start can come in handy, so to me, that's a good trait. On the flip side, this suggests that 1st gear is lower than it needs to be, and having taller gears could improve the xB's mileage, which is an EPA-estimated 22/28 mpg city/highway. Because of its large, 2.4-liter engine, it probably couldn't match competitors like the Soul and Cube, but the xB could have better mileage.
What helps all of this is that the clutch is light and picks up nicely. The gearshift also moves well between the gears.
Yet, the manual transmission highlights another xB flaw: You can't see/use the tachometer. The Scion has center-mounted gauges, which some people don't like, but that's not the issue. The issue is the tachometer is the same size and color as the temperature gauge and fuel gauge that sit right beside it in the instrument cluster. It also lacks an actual red line — just a filled-in section of the gauge. I never used the tach, preferring to shift by the sound of the engine or by feeling when the engine was running out of torque. That's not ideal.
You say you don't drive a manual? First, shame on you, but second, given that all the gauges are the same color, you'll find it's also hard to differentiate between, say, the temperature gauge and the fuel gauge.
Safety and Reliability
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives this generation of xB the highest rating — Good — for both the frontal- and side-impact crash tests. See the list of standard safety features here.
Consumer Reports predicts the xB's reliability will be much better than average.
In the Market
I've driven all of the small, boxy cars, and the Scion is the most capable one in my book. It lacks the new, standout styling of either the Cube or the Soul, but in terms of driving, it's the best. It's also the most practical on the inside, offering the most usable space. It's plenty capable on the highway with the manual transmission, its visibility is mostly good and it doesn't demand a lot of compromises (assuming you can fit in the driver's seat, of course).
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