Econobox - at what cost? 



Our annual jaunt to Toronto for the Molson Indy (a Champ car race) typically results in blisters, or at the very least, tired legs and sore feet. TO — Toronto, Ontario — is a cosmopolitan walkers’ delight, with fabulous museums and historic sites; wondrous restaurants, clubs and bars; a plentitude of shopping options; and a mélange of cultural inspirations, all topped off by amazing views of the lake. After nearly 20 years, it has become a comfortable second home where we are as familiar with its street names and amenities as we are anywhere in the world.

But a sprained foot curbed my usual mode of transportation this year. Even the trek to the Metro from our base camp at the Harbourfront Castle was a bit too much. Time for a rental car. But instead of picking up the usual generic rental car slop, I managed to procure the services of Toyota’s new heralded econobox, the Scion xB.

The five-passenger Toyota wagon doesn’t look like a wagon … or a Toyota. It looks like the worst piece of gimmicky low-rider imitation in automotive history — like a mean cartoon kid with a severe under bite. You’ll attract attention in this thing. Expect laughs, guffaws, heckles and maybe a rotten tomato or two. It is, as my Mass. Ave. party friends used to say, fugly. Toyota offers only one xB body style. Can you blame them? Offer anything else, and the public would run screaming from this inception like Japanese movie-goers from a Godzilla flick.

Nor does Toyota offer any factory-installed options. Buyers select from 40 functional and aesthetic accessories to be installed either by Toyota at the port of entry or by the dealer. My advice is to skip the cup holder light in favor of the handling and performance package from Toyota Racing Development; every little bit helps.

Flat roof, flat hood, flat lift gate, squared corners — this machine is angular to the extreme. And in an era that is seeing even the tiny Mini Cooper come standard with 17-inch wheels, when stalwart hot rod builders and muscle car restorers deviate from the traditional 15-, 16- and 17-inch wheels to ask for 20s and even 24s, some genius at TRD decided this little grunt of a wagon should stand on 15-inch wheels.

One benefit of getting into the xB is that you no longer have to look at it. The xB offers a comfortable enough driving position, with well-placed pedals and minimal side bolsters that remind you that this is not a sports car. Chair-like seats are competent for a daily commute and were sufficient for driving to Exhibition Place to watch qualifying or to the CN Tower for dinner, but you wouldn’t want to drive to the end of Young Street, the world’s longest.

Despite its small stature, the xB has tall doors that open wide to accommodate tall passengers — unlike its sister, the xA, a shrunken subcompact version of the Matrix. Headroom surpasses what is offered by most of its taller competitors, and legroom is comparable — which means there’s plenty of it in front, not so much in back. Cargo space is decent unless you order the subwoofer, which takes up 2 square feet of storage space.

Gauges are centered high on the dash in the driver’s line of sight, but take a little getting used to. The stereo is also mounted high above the A/C controls, whose round vents have limited movement. So much flat glass makes visibility superb; it’s like driving in a greenhouse (which also means everyone can identify you behind the wheel). Big side mirrors facilitate the view rearward.

The xB is tight and easy to drive, although you’ll feel every bump in this very firm chassis. Handling is satisfactory, although some torque steer is evident. Despite the tower of glass, body lean through the corners is minimal. The vehicle stability control system eliminates skidding. Acceleration, while unimpressive, is adequate for an econobox, but it doesn’t have a lot of power, which made climbing the slope up from Toronto’s lakefront a considerable effort. You’re not buying a hot rod or a sports car, and you better know it before you drive it off the lot. Torque peaks at high engine speeds, so if you’re driving the manual, shift into lower gears for better acceleration ... especially if you want any exhilaration beyond a mundane transit or the spectacular scenery offered by a city like Toronto.

This small Toyota may be light on performance, but it’s big on quality design and assembly, solid construction and quiet operation with little wind noise and no squeaks or rattles. Designed to appeal to a young market, the xB offers durability and affordability — but at what cost?

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Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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