Our view: 2009 Scion xD

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price. Email Kelsey Mays

Editor’s note: This review was written in October 2007 about the 2008 Scion xD. 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.

People in the market for basic transportation have never had it so good. No doubt some auto writer said that when Honda brought out the Fit last year, but the field has been made even stronger by the new Scion xD, a quirky hatchback from the brand best known for its toaster-shaped xB. The xD replaces the xA, and it’s better on all fronts. There’s more power — but still wallet-friendly gas mileage — and the cabin boasts a long list of standard features for its sub-$15,000 sticker.

What’s the catch? Space. The cargo area is short on it, and folding the rear seats to make more reveals some annoying design flaws. Drivers who regularly load their car up with passengers and luggage ought to look elsewhere, but anyone who travels light — or even middle-weight — would do well to give the xD a try.

Scion Styling
The xD shares its platform with the Yaris from Scion’s parent company, Toyota, but its styling charts a younger, funkier course. The low-lying grille and boxy rear profile stand out even among compact hatchbacks, which is a group that isn’t exactly lacking in style. My red test car drew mixed reactions. Several people said it looked bizarre — though they stopped short of calling it ugly — while others found it attractive. At the airport, one woman stopped unloading her bags long enough to mouth, “Cute car.” Some drivers pay $100,000 to get that reaction.

Most notably, few people came away indifferent. Perhaps that’s because the xD is new and apathy builds toward a car as it becomes more common, but I think the early reactions bode well for Scion. Polarizing looks usually sell, while bland often gets lost in the shuffle.

Standard 16-inch wheels come with a choice of three plastic wheel covers. As with other Scions, you can accessorize till kingdom come: Performance mufflers, 19-inch rims and LED cabin lights are among the options. I counted more than 60 performance, styling and audio accessories for the xD on Scion’s website.

The Inside
The cabin makes good use of its humble materials, with enough style to make you forget the substance. Given the car’s price, the overall fit and finish is respectable. The dashboard integrates the gauges, passenger-side airbag and outboard A/C vents into the same sheet of material. It has a textured surface, which gives it some flair beyond the molded-plastic dashboards that typify compact cars. The same is true of the center controls, which sit within a curvy piano-black panel. If you can’t look expensive, at least look different.

Other innovations include a twin-compartment glove box large enough to hold a few cans of soda — just don’t leave them in a parked car on a hot day; we’ve been there before — and a concentric instrument gauge that houses the tachometer and speedometer in the same circle. It takes some getting used to, but the backlit display — with red needles that do a full sweep whenever you start the car — looks pretty spiffy.

I’m 6 feet tall, and the driver’s seat seemed pretty elevated to me. Headroom is fine and legroom is passable, but the roofline is a bit low for my line of sight. I would sit farther down, but a seat-height adjustment isn’t available.

The xD’s audio specs would suffice in a car that costs twice as much. Standard equipment includes a six-speaker CD stereo, steering-wheel audio controls and two auxiliary hookups — one for generic MP3 players, another for iPods. The iPod hookup lets you view your playlists on the stereo display and change tracks using its controls. The system pipes out surprising bass quality, though it has a hard time overcoming road noise at highway speeds.

The air-conditioning dials below the stereo mar an otherwise competent dashboard. They’re similar to the ones in the Yaris, and they click about their settings just as cheaply.

Backseat & Cargo
The high ceiling preserves headroom in back, and the rear seats recline 10 degrees and scoot forward and back 6 inches. Legroom depends on where they are. I found it intolerable with the seats all the way forward but roomy when they were moved back. Assistant editor Joe Bruzek noted that with the seats all the way back, the second row was as comfortable as that of his family’s Honda Pilot SUV.

$15,000 Hatchbacks Compared
Passenger volume (cu. ft.) Cargo w/seats up (cu. ft.) Cargo w/seats down (cu. ft.)
Scion xD 84.0 10.5 35.7
Honda Fit 90.1 21.3 41.9
Suzuki SX4 90.3 16.2 54.3
Nissan Versa 94.7 17.8 50.4
Dodge Caliber 95.2 18.5 48.0
Kia Spectra5 98.1 18.3 52.8
Source: Automaker data

The cargo area behind the backseat is a smallish 10.5 cubic feet — half of the Fit’s. Conventional wisdom says scooting the rear seats forward increases luggage room, but that leaves a narrow gap between the load floor and the rear seats that can catch small groceries or suitcase wheels. There are flaps that come out of the floor and lean against the seatbacks to keep things from falling into the gap, but they also consume whatever room you gained by scooting the seats forward in the first place (see photos).

The seat folds in a 60/40 split, but to get a flat load floor you need to move it all the way forward first. Why Scion couldn’t engineer the seat to fold flat from its rearmost position — and do away with the fore/aft adjustment and those useless flaps — is beyond me. Plenty of other cars manage it just fine.

Going & Stopping
Gone is the xA’s feckless 1.5-liter four-cylinder, which is still afflicting Yaris drivers. The xD uses a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 128 horsepower, up 25 hp from before. Transmissions include a standard five-speed manual and an optional four-speed automatic. My car had the manual. The clutch operates with a light touch, and the stick moves easily, if a bit sloppily, from one gear to the next. I found acceleration peppy enough to merge comfortably into faster traffic, giving me a level of confidence the Yaris and Chevy Aveo didn’t inspire.

Depending on your need for speed, the xD’s highway performance ranges from adequate to gutless. High-speed passing requires downshifts to fourth or third, and the engine sounds coarse when pushed. Acceleration from 60 to 70 mph is anything but graceful, but at least it occurs without too much delay.

With the EPA’s tougher 2008 guidelines, gas mileage is 27/33 (city/highway) with the manual and 26/32 with the automatic. That’s on par with the Nissan Versa. The Fit is a little better; the Caliber, even with its base 1.8-liter engine, is significantly worse.

Front disc and rear drum brakes include standard antilock braking. They stop the xD with surprising efficiency.

Ride & Handling
Like most economy cars, the xD has an independent front suspension with a stabilizer bar. The rear is semi-independent, a typical economy-car setup that prioritizes cost savings over performance. In part because the cars they serve are so small, these suspensions can still deliver a fun driving experience.

Such is the case in the xD. Body roll seems well managed; even in tight corners, the car retains its poise, and the steering feels naturally weighted and reasonably direct. In rough terms, I place the fun-to-drive factor somewhere between a Yaris or base Dodge Caliber and the Fit. (In Toyota’s defense, I drove the base Yaris, not the sportier Yaris S.)

The xD’s turning diameter is a disappointing 37.1 feet, which trails most competitors.

The ride gets brittle over severe potholes and speed bumps, but it’s otherwise compliant. Tire noise begins to creep up at 50 mph, and by 70 mph I noticed significant wind noise and a dashboard rattle or two. Things could be a lot worse: At 75 mph, the engine was noticeable but hardly intrusive, and the car remained firmly planted, with no detectable steering shimmies or ungainly crosswind response. I suspect the xD would be much more comfortable over the long haul than the Fit, whose go-cart tendencies become a liability on the highway.

As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash-tested the xD. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, active front head restraints, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. An electronic stability system, which includes traction control, is optional.

Features & Pricing
Without the destination charge, the xD starts at $14,550. It’s well equipped at that price, with six airbags, ABS, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, air conditioning and cruise control. More impressive are the features this segment often forgoes — a CD stereo with full iPod compatibility, steering-wheel audio controls, overhead map lights and a simple trip computer with an mpg display. They’re all standard, though I would have traded one or two of them for a height-adjustable driver’s seat.

Options include an electronic stability system, an automatic transmission and the whole gamut of accessories. Pimp your ride in full Scion regalia, and the xD can run upward of $25,000.

xD in the Market
Cargo issues aside, the xD is a terrific little car. It’s well equipped, stylish and fun to drive — a compelling alternative to imports like the Fit and Versa, and a viable stretch in monthly payments over bargain-basement models from Hyundai, Kia and Chevrolet. It may even steal a few Yaris sales, which it probably should.

If there’s any wrinkle, it’s one Scion may not mind having. The larger, better-known xB has also been redesigned, and it’s priced just $1,100 north of the xD. The beefier engine, additional features and extra cargo room easily justify the extra dough, even when you factor in its lower gas mileage. As good a value as the xD is, the xB seems like a downright steal. Who does that leave to buy the baby Scion? We shall see.

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