- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

Think of it as a baby Hummer without the stigma.

It’s the Scion xB, a box on wheels from the youth-oriented division of Toyota, which is finding favor among an increasing number of buyers who love it for its practicality, low price and, yes, even its funky looks.

The xB arrived on the scene in 2003 and by the end of 2004, nearly 54,000 had been sold. In 2005, it’s on a pace to sell about 55,000.

One of three cars in the Scion lineup, the xB is the roomiest and most practical. The others are the xA, a small four-door hatchback and the tC, a sporty coupe with a 160-horsepower four-cylinder engine.

Both the xA and xB have more modest aspirations. They are powered by a 103-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine, which provides reasonably sprightly performance for stoplight sprints and freeway cruising.

The big attraction of the xB is its cavernous interior and tidy exterior. At an inch under 13 feet long, it has subcompact dimensions that make it easy to squeeze into parking spaces.

At the same time, it provides 90 cubic feet of passenger space, which is as much as in most compact cars, and more than some. Behind the rear seat is a cargo area of 21 cubic feet, which is about the same as the trunk capacity of a Lincoln Town Car, though much of it is vertical.

The Hummer analogy is apt. The giant Hummer H2 also is a box on wheels. It seats six persons with 4 cubic feet of cargo space, or five persons with 40 cubic feet for cargo. It weighs 6,400 pounds, can go almost anywhere, but gets about 10 miles to the gallon.

On the other hand, the front-drive xB seats five, with its 21 cubic feet for cargo. It is limited to paved highways, weighs 2,450 pounds and delivers EPA-measured fuel economy, with the four-speed automatic transmission, of 31 miles to the gallon in the city and 35 on the highway.

Moreover, the xB’s five passengers sit in reasonable comfort. The front bucket seats are softly padded and covered in a durable cloth, and both the outboard seating positions in back offer limousinelike stretch-out room, with gobs of head and knee room.

Even the fifth-passenger position in the center rear is compromised only slightly by a low hump in the floor. The rear seatbacks do not recline, but are raked at a comfortable angle. They fold flat to expand the cargo capacity to more than 43 cubic feet, and the headrests do not have to be removed.

The xB is deceptive. At 5 feet 5 inches, it’s fairly tall. Yet it’s also built low to the ground, so that when you get in, you step down over the sill. It’s reminiscent of the 1949 Hudson, a low-slung post-World War II car that bragged about its “step-down design.”

With a prominent hood out front, the feeling from the xB driver’s seat is that of driving a larger car. Yet when you look out back to poke into a parking space, you’re surprised at how easy it is to maneuver. The steering wheel adjusts for rake, but in the top position it assumes a buslike attitude.

The 2006 model has a 103-horsepower engine. Its rating was downgraded from 108 in 2005 because of a new measuring system, but it has the same power.

It’s no drag racer, but the four-speed automatic transmission is geared to give it a reasonable jump off the line. Though you won’t prevail in many impromptu acceleration runs, the xB does not feel strained in ordinary driving. Going up hills with a full load is another matter.

Inside, the xB makes a virtue of simplicity. The stereo system’s control panel on the 2005 model, which presented an array of small buttons, is improved on the 2006 model, which features a volume control knob.

The xB’s instruments sit high on the dash, where it takes some squinting to read such things as trip mileage, the clock and the fuel gauge.

Fortunately, however, the speedometer is big and bright, night and day, and close to the driver’s sightline, so it’s easy to read.

There are plenty of bins and cubbies to stash small items. But the front cupholders are small. There are no cupholders for the backseat passengers. And the xB is not available with cruise control.

Despite those missing items, the endearing thing about the xB is what it offers for the money. In addition to all of its practical attributes, it arrives as a well-equipped car. The 2006 model, with the automatic transmission, starts at $15,195.

The price included antilock brakes, vehicle stability and traction control, air conditioning, remote locking, power windows and mirrors and a stereo with an in-dash CD changer, but no side air bags.

Options on the test car included a six-disc in-dash CD changer, alloy wheels, carpeted floor mats and a rear-bumper protector.

All of that brought the suggested sticker price to $16,347.

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