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Thinking inside the box

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After spending a week driving a Scion xB -- the ice-cube-shaped flagship of Toyota Motor Corp.'s new youth- directed brand Scion -- I would like to publicly apologize to Volvo for all the times I accused its products of being boxy. Clearly, I didn't know from boxy.

Styled with a T-square, a plumb bob and a cheese cutter, the Scion xB takes the concept of boxiness and sexes it up to new, almost platonic levels. You can well imagine somebody in Plato's cave seeing the xB's shadow on the wall and saying, "What the heck is that? ... Oh, silly me, it's just a box."

If for some reason you find the isometric design of the xB displeasing, Scion's under-25 demographic has a message for you: "Yo, old guy, get on home now, you're missing, like, 'Friends.' " This car is aimed squarely at the most subversive subset of Gen-Y, trendsetters who are abandoning the sport compact movement as it goes mainstream, a la "The Fast and the Furious."

The xB is to the sleek-and-low styling of sporty imports what chainsaw sculpture is to the Italian Renaissance.

The Scion brand was launched in California in June. (The brand will bow in the Southern and East Coast markets in February.) Thus far, the xB has outsold its more conventionally styled stablemate, the sport-hatch xA, by almost 2 to 1. And though the xB is the most radically styled, chunky monkeys including the Honda Element and the Suzuki Aerio SX also have found an audience.

So how did square get to be so dope?

It all started with the Japanese market kei mini-cars -- urban runabouts that are limited to 660-cubic-centimeter engines and narrow enough to squeeze through Japan's tiny streets. (The government encourages the use of kei cars by levying lower owner taxes and high fuel taxes.) The boxy shape -- called "tall wagon" in Japan -- was the natural result of seeking maximum cabin space over the cars' minimum footprint.

Kei-class cars constitute about half the Japanese vehicle market, and some of them -- the Honda Life, Nissan Cube and Suzuki Wagon R -- are wickedly clever little transportation gadgets. Besides being super-practical and dirt cheap, the cars appeal to the Japanese taste for a particular sort of goofy anti-styling, a kind of gothic cuteness and precious edginess.

The xB, built on the same platform as the 1.5-liter Toyota Echo, belongs to a larger class of vehicle, but the styling vocabulary is right out of the kei playbook. And considering how Asia-centric Gen-Y's tastes are -- whether for anime, electronics or "Kill Bill" -- perhaps it was just a matter of time before the mad-boxy style jumped the ocean to California.

"It's so ugly it's cute," my girlfriend, Tina, observed. (Almost makes you wonder how the Pontiac Aztek missed, doesn't it?)

The xB is, in fact, a warmed-over Japanese market car called the bB (for "Black Box"). There is talk already at Nissan Motor Co. that it might bring its Cube, scaled up by a factor of 1.2 or 1.5, to the U.S. market. If the xB hits, imitators won't be far behind.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" you understand the so-called Law of the Few: the select group of people who discover a new idea -- be it shoes or a band or a car -- and translate it in such a way that it becomes acceptable to a much wider audience. Old-school marketers call them "thought leaders." The existentially boxy xB is aimed right at this mandarin group inside Gen-Y, and the Scion brand rollout, first in California, reflects this staged assault on the command-and-control structure of Dub Nation.

Having grown up in a maelstrom of mass marketing, Gen-Y is naturally suspicious of ordinary advertising. Almost three years ago, Toyota approached the Los Angeles-based Rebel Organization (the marketing arm of URB magazine, the Rolling Stone of hip-hop, dub and underground music) to help the automaker connect with Scion's target audience.

"Peer-to-peer word of mouth is really key to these consumers," says Josh Levine, president of the Rebel Organization. "They are more interested in companies that they've heard about than those that get pushed on them from TV."

Rebel's under-the-radar marketing of Scion includes putting "street teams" at events like Hot Import Nights -- the Lollapalooza of the tuner world -- as well as supporting deejay contests, nightclub events, fringy art gallery showings and carwashes. The idea, Levine says, is to "put Scion where its audience wants to be."

The ironies abound, starting with the oxymoronic flavor of the name "Rebel Organization." And maybe it's just me, but there is something slightly sinister about an enormous corporation using underground music -- ever the secret-decoder ring of youth culture -- as a conduit to push its products. Imagine the Sex Pistols at CBGB, brought to you by Coca-Cola.

In any event, music is key to Scion's car-as-lifestyle message. The standard audio system is a Pioneer six-speaker AM-FM-CD-MP3 player pre-wired for satellite radio and sound-processing technology that will rattle your teeth with bass. A six-disc CD changer and a subwoofer system also are available. The cabin construction is extensively soundproofed.

The Scion is what they call "mono-spec," which is to say everything is included for the base price ($13,680 for models with a five-speed manual transmission, $14,480 for automatic-equipped models). Included are air conditioning; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; rear wiper- defroster; anti-lock brakes with traction and stability control as well as brake assist; halogen headlamps; remote keyless entry; privacy window tinting; full "ground effects"-style body valances; and that monster sound system.

Our test car -- with automatic transmission, security system and an alloy wheel upgrade -- went out the dealer's door at $16,403. As part of Scion's effort to build an emotional bond with Gen-Y, there will be no haggling on price.

Scion does offer nearly 40 aftermarket-style accessories so that buyers can personalize their vehicles: three styles of alloy wheels, carbon-fiber-style body trim, clear tail lamps, Yakima roof rack, rear spoiler, aluminum cross-drilled sport pedals, LED interior light kit and lots more.

For those furious few who want to slam the xB, Scion has a one-stop solution: a Toyota Racing Development performance package, including 18- or 19-inch Hart wheels; Pirelli P-Zero tires; lowering springs kit with struts and shocks; front strut brace; sport muffler and quick-shift kit with performance clutch; and cold-air intake. All supported by the factory's 36-month warranty.

Meanwhile, the aftermarket elves have been hard at work too. Toyota provided designs of the xB to members of the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., whose sprawling trade show is taking place in Las Vegas this week.

What with all the context, it's easy to overlook what the Scion xB is actually like to drive. The answer: It's OK. The interior has all the spatial nuance of a handball court, with the nearly vertical windshield pretty far away. The techy-looking instruments are centrally located, leaving the area behind the steering wheel as a kind of catchall shelf.

I'll say one thing for it. It's got headroom. I wonder whether the xB might presage the return of, maybe, stovepipe hats. Also, because the car is so narrow and the sides are so high, it's initially hard to judge where the curb is when parking. The first few times I parked, I was a foot or more away.

The doors are big and swing wide for easy access. The rear cargo hatch swings neatly out of the way to reveal a pretty good storage area of 21.2 cubic feet. With the 60/40-split rear seat folded, the number climbs to 43.4 cubic feet -- about the size of a comfy loveseat. Oh, right, sorry, I'm showing my age. I mean, about the size of a double turntable and mad PA system.

The least interesting part of the xB -- at least when it comes with the automatic transmission -- is the driving. The 1.5-liter, 108-horsepower inline-4, with variable-valve timing, is certainly a competent engine and clean too (low-emission vehicle status with Environmental Protection Agency-rated mileage of 30 miles per gallon in the city, 34 on the highway).

Unfortunately, the automatic transmission smothers torque. The car is lively around town, but it labors at L.A. freeway speeds. Otherwise, it handles pretty much as you'd expect, with crisp but by-no-means- razor-sharp reactions to inputs in the steering; firm and insistent brakes (front disc, rear drum); and stable posture in corners but with a front-driver's modest appetite for hard cornering.

Aftermarket performance parts are often a waste of time, actually making factory- developed cars slower and dodgier in reliability. But the xB -- which tips the scales at a bantamweight 2,450 pounds -- just screams for kit.

Cheap, stuffed with content, the xB is a perfect starter-kit car for 16-to-24-year-olds. Naturally, many of these kids will need Mom and Dad's help to buy a car, and it's an open question whether parents will look at the xB and say, "I'm not buying you that, that thing! It's hideous!" Parents are not likely to get it, and that's the point.

But I suspect there are a lot of boomers out there who will buy the xB too. You can't beat it for value and practicality, and there's no law saying you have to use it to go clubbing with your friends. That the Scion might reach across demographic boundaries will no doubt strike Toyota as exceedingly dope.

*

2004 Scion xB

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 155.3 inches

Curb weight: 2,450 pounds

Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline-4 engine with variable-valve timing; four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 108 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 105 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 10.6 seconds

EPA rating: 30 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway

Price, base: $14,480 (with automatic transmission)

Price, as tested: $16,403 (adds alloy wheel upgrade and security system)

Competitor: Suzuki Aerio SX, or a year's tuition at UCLA

Final thoughts: It's hip to be square

Source: Toyota Motor Sales, Car and Driver magazine

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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