2008 Scion xB -- Boxy trumps foxy

I suppose others have a more highly refined sense of aesthetics, but I just can’t get behind the debate over the old vs. new Scion xB, the funky five-seat space wagon sold by Toyota’s Gen Y-oriented brand. Aren’t they both ugly?

Really. If you’re serving, say, wart hog for dinner -- juicy, succulent, fall-off-the-tusk wart hog -- do you fret the relative pulchritude of wart hog A compared to wart hog xB? So it hardly matters if the redesigned car is more or less visually appealing than the original (model years 2004 to 2006). They both make babies cry.

Scion debuted in 2003 as Toyota’s bid for the hoodies-and-Vans set. From the beginning it was clear Scion’s brand mandarins had taken a big screwdriver to the collective heads of Gen Y, a demographic so savagely targeted from the moment of birth as to make it intensely allergic to anything like conventional advertising. Scion -- as successfully as any car company since Ferrari, I’d say -- generated its own owner culture, with Scion concerts, ring tones, car shows, clothing, sponsored exhibitions, Second Life environments and other insidious bits of affinity marketing. If Scion could get away with brand-marketed Ecstasy, it probably would.

To help deepen a sense of ownership, Scion sells its cars monospec, which is to say, with almost no factory options. Buyers can customize their rides with dealer-installed accessories (I’m partial to LED-lighted foot wells and cup holders, myself), sound systems and performance mods, such as lowering springs, sway bars and cold-air intakes. Not custom enough? There are vast warehouses of Scion-specific aftermarket chintziness available. To avoid freaking out inexperienced car buyers, Scion dealerships practice “pure pricing,” which is basically no-haggle pricing, except it’s pronounced, “Don’t, like, haggle me, bro.”

The original Scion lineup comprised the xA subcompact, xB space van (a retread of a Japan-market Toyota bB) and the tC sport coupe, all of them well equipped and aggressively priced. The underperforming xA has since been discontinued, to be replaced this summer by the xD, a new five-door subcompact hatch. The beautifully styled tC quickly established itself as the price-performance bogie in the subcompact coupe segment.

The surprise was the xB, for which Totoya/Scion initially had low expectations -- and why not? It looked like Frankenstein’s head on four wheels. But the xB caught on, and not just with tatted-up kids but with their elders. Why? The practical reasons, surely. The car was cheap, economical (powered by a thrift-intensive 1.5-liter, 108-hp inline four), and tremendously useful, with loads of cargo space inside that great rectilinear mess of a cabin. Meanwhile, the sheer strangeness of the shape -- the bumper jutted out like Alfred Hitchcock’s lower lip -- seemed playful, a bit of inspired anti-snobbery that foiled the sleek-equals-cool expectation. As for the twentysomething buyers, I don’t doubt that they vibed to the Pacific Rim hip of the xB, which emerged out of the Japanese industrial aesthetic of cubistic cuteness (also on display in the Honda Element and the coming-soon Nissan Cube). This is design that puts the funk in function.

The second-generation xB is, by the finely calibrated scales of postmodern design, less winsome and ironic, less a thumb in the eye than a finger in the wind of the marketplace. With its gently radiused corners, chamfers and bevels, the new xB is softer and more aero-sophisticated. The front bumper has been integrated into the front clip. Most prominent, the cabin glass is narrower, squeezed to a tapering, tinted, gun-slot aperture between the higher beltline and the lower roof. This makes the xB look lower, even though the overall height is the same.

That’s the only dimension that remains the same. The vehicle is up a full foot in length (167.3 inches) and 2.8 inches in width, over a wheelbase stretched 4.0 inches. The measurement that has provoked the most misery in version 1.0 partisans is weight: The new xB weighs a whopping 600 pounds more -- the equivalent of a Yamaha baby grand piano. Needless to say, piano not included.

To compensate for the additional mass, Scion has borrowed the family’s 2.4-liter, 158-hp inline four, the same as appears in the tC, and paired it with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Tuners, take note: This engine has been turned in the engine bay so that all the stuff you might want to modify (like the induction system) is squeezed against the firewall.

So then, the new xB is heavier, with a bigger motor (and reduced fuel economy) and it has lost that horse coffin “je ne sais quoi” so beloved by the Priory of Scion. What’s to celebrate?

Just about everything, starting with the fact that xB feels a hundred times more substantial than before. The booming hollowness is gone, as are the unpleasant droning notes that seeped into the cabin at speed. The first xB drove like a bad case of tinnitus. The 600 pounds are not wasted ballast. This car comes comprehensively equipped for its class, including front and rear disc brakes; ABS, traction control and stability control; 16-inch tires; front-side and side-curtain air bags; keyless entry; power doors and windows. Our test car, priced at $18,339, left me wanting nothing in equipment -- well, I would have liked to turn off the mesmerizing graphics on the audio head.

The new xB has 28 additional cubic feet of cargo space (with the rear seats folded) and what feels like miles more shoulder and hip room in the front. The cabin is bigger, more airy and easy to see out of -- even the thick C-pillars don’t really obscure outward views. The front seats’ H-point -- that is, hip point -- feels higher than before, making entry and exit easier (is xB quietly pandering to Generation Advil?). The centrally located instrument panel, with its bank of overlapped rotary displays, syncs up visually with the round air outlets.

I lament the decline in fuel economy (about 15%, I figure), though the new xB 22/28 city/highway miles per gallon isn’t awful. Flat-out merging-lane acceleration is better, and all-around liveliness and maneuverability is improved with the engine’s 162 pound-feet of torque, up 57 pound-feet from the previous engine.

Thanks to strut fronts and torsion-beam rear suspension, the car’s handling is more deliberate than before -- a consequence of the increased curb weight -- but it’s still a minor hoot to drive.

The steering is well weighted and accurate, if a little lazy on center, and the brakes have good pedal feel.

To be sure, the new xB is not as much a cult object as before. It’s bigger, heavier, unquestionably more mainstream, with a kind of American hot-rod conventionalism (the chop-top roof) supplanting the Asian preciousness.

And yet, take heart, xB devotees: It’s still ugly. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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