- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Remember the Trojan horse? A big, hollow equine made of wood, left, legend has it, at the gates of ancient Troy. Hidden inside: a group of Greek soldiers. Once safely inside the walls, they popped out under cover of darkness, let the besieging troops in and promptly took over the city.

Different horse, different course: Toyota’s new Scion xB (and its stablemate, the xA), is saddled with the mission of how to get inside the wallets of young car buyers. The problem is, this isn’t the first horse to be parked outside these gates and gaining access isn’t as easy as it used to be. Last year, Honda rolled its boxy, Element utility vehicle up to the entrance of the city. But, before the young folk could get a look at it, a band of baby boomers crept out and swiped it for themselves, filling the back with antiques and home improvement supplies, instead of the expected load of surfboards and mountain bikes.

Toyota has been here before. A few years ago, it offered its subcompact Echo for inspection. The gates opened, then closed — with the Echo still outside. Said Generation Y, “No thanks.”

Undaunted, Toyota is back knocking on the doors again, and its latest effort has the best chance yet of hard-wiring a connection to the elusive youth market. Hidden inside this time is, once again, the Echo (or at least the little Toyota’s drive train). But the skin is far different, and that’s why Generation Y may well give it a tumble.

The xB’s Appliance Deco styling is both funky and functional. The slab sides seem to beg for customizing, and Scion’s arm’s-long option list is stocked with items to do just that. Boxy lines make for big interiors, and that allows the not large xB to be surprisingly large inside.

Four to five adults fit comfortably inside, with head and legroom that is flat out impressive for a small wagon. The materials, fit and finish belie the modest entry price. The xB’s unconventional dash layout gets mixed reviews. The speedometer is mounted high and to the right of the normal location.

A big binnacle houses the speedometer, gas gauge and a small inset tach at the point where the dash and windshield come together. The placement allows you to check your speed without rolling your eyes too far from the road and it takes less time to get used to than you might think.

To the right is a small screen with clock and odometer. Missing and missed: a water temperature gauge.

Just below is the sound system, whose tiny button design requires that you be 20-something (or at least 20/20 something) in order to read at a glance.

One level further down are the HVAC controls, a trio of rheostats that are easy to see and simple to operate.

The xB’s cargo capacity is quite large, given its overall not large size. You can pack 21.2 cubic feet of stuff behind the back seat, and that number expands to as much as 43.4 cubic feet, if you flip the seats flat.

There are two cargo caveats. First, if you’re more than 6 feet tall, introduce yourself to the lift-back door. You’re going to be bumg into each other a lot. Second, if you buy the optional subwoofer, whatever you put in back will have to work around its howitzer-sized housing.

The Scion engine is, as noted above, the same, 1.5-liter four-cylinder found in the Echo. It’s effective at getting the xB from point to point, economical (30/34 city/highway miles per gallon with automatic) and keeps up easily with highway traffic. However, it’s buzzy when you put the boot in and, like any small displacement motor, it responds better with the manual transmission. With 108 horsepower and 105 foot-pounds of torque, it takes a bit to get up to speed (0-60 times figure to be in the 10+ second range), so drivers learn quickly to pick their spots when passing or merging.

Being downright upright in shape, handling is obviously not sports-car caliber, though the xB is stable and predictable feeling. Toyota’s Vehicle Stability Control with traction control is along for the ride as standard equipment, ready to step in when it detects front/rear wheel slides during cornering, with throttle or brake intervention. Ride quality is fine for a small-size vehicle.

Scion’s sales plan calls for a gradual rollout. The two-car lineup first went on sale in California last June. The xA and xB will make their showroom debut on the East Coast, South and Southeast regions in February. The rest of the country follows suit a few months later, when the lineup will be joined by a sporty third member.

Scion’s xB backs its straight-edge styling with a lot of utility. The level of standard equipment is high and the option list is long.

That’s good for personalizing your purchase, but for best value, it’s advisable to approach the accessory list as one would a salad bar. Add just enough to perk up the flavor, but not so much that you miss the point of having a salad in the first place.

The base xB is a nice package for a delivered price of $14,165. Whether that package will be unwrapped by the baby boomers or the boomers’ babies remains to be seen.

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