2006 Scion xB Review: Formula Tetris

2006 Scion xB - aka Chuck

Each generation of video games promise more glitz and more glamour, but underneath those wow-you graphics, it’s rare to have a game with timeless game-play. Tetris is one such game. No matter how you dress it up, Tetris is at once both instantly familiar, and instantly addictive.  It’s controls are idiot proof, it’s goals simple and without gimmicks. People have derived new games from Tetris, but at it’s core, you’ll know a Tetris game when you see one.  And that’s exactly what defines a 2006 Scion xB: a successful set of functional tweaks to the Tetris formula.

Introduced in 2004, the first generation xB is a carryover of the Japanese market’s Toyota bB.  As one of the three launch cars for the brand, the first generation xB made a big splash in the news and backed it up with strong sales numbers (169,292 units) over 4 years of production.  Automotive journalists and auto enthusiasts were aghast at the xB’s lack of exterior styling, and the apt nickname “toaster on wheels” has stuck ever since. Love-it or hate-it opinions aside, everyone has an identical epiphany the first time they get into an xB

“Wow, it’s really roomy in here”

And that’s how it always starts. The birth of a raving xB lover.  That initial shock of the toaster’s spaciousness is the first step in explaining other eccentric xB design choices.  What’s with the shelf above the glove box? Ah yes, it happens to perfectly hold your passenger’s lunch.  That wacky central instrument cluster grows on you and becomes intuitive and natural over time.  Moving the cluster from it’s traditional location also frees up another shelf that’s perfect for holding toll change or a GPS device.  The rear passengers enjoy identical cavernous space thanks to the xB’s flat roof line.  Calling shotgun suddenly becomes an unfamiliar phrase.  The rear seats fold down 60/40 to make almost a flat floor.  With the front seat reclined fully, I’ve helped friends make IKEA trips to buy queen sized bed frames. As the complaints against the car grow faint and fainter, the xB’s strengths come to the foreground and those initial reservations are lost to a distant memory.

But before we go and live happily ever after, let’s look at some of the downsides of this toaster on wheels.  Around town, the ride is firm and manageable.  But for how stiff the ride is, the roll motions in a turn are pretty bad.  Not as bad as a floaty Camry, but not as controlled as a Mazda3 of similar vintage.  The turning radius is unbelievable large for such a tiny car.  Making a u-turn requires pulling deep into the center of the intersection for extra clearance.  No definite numbers, but it feels like our retired 1997 Nissan Quest made turns easier.  The 1.6L engine mated to a standard 5-speed manual transmission is nonsense-free and will happily run circles around town.  My RPM sweet spot is between 2000 rpm and 4000 rpm – pulls nicely, but doesn’t make a ruckus while doing so.  The exception is climbing up a hill with four passengers and a trunk stowaway.  Budget an extra 1000 rpm to pull all that extra weight.

For all it’s available dealer customizations, quiet motoring is unfortunately not on the list.  Once the xB gains speed on a freeway, you better pump up the volume on that 6 speaker Pioneer stereo (iPod hookup and steering wheel controls standard) to drown out the onslaught of noises.  First, the engine will struggle to get out of it’s own way with a measly 103 hp and 101 lb-ft of torque.  In the process, you’ll hear and feel that poor engine kicking and screaming to it’s 6500 rpm red line. Once at speed, the tires will provide a constant not-so-soothing droning baseline.  If you’re lucky, the wind buffets against that vertical windshield and a loud whoosing ensues.  If you’re not, then it’s probably raining and you’ll hear each individual drop smack against the thin poorly insulated roof.  That useful wide rear hatch that swallowed all your groceries suddenly becomes an amplifier.  A comfortable highway cruiser, this cheerful toaster is not.  To make matters worse, it’s also rather unsafe.  In fact, there’s so much red on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety review page, it looks more like a shooting target than a review page.

So all listed downsides point towards the xB feeling cheap.  But that’s because it is cheap.  Retailing for less than $15k new, the xB packs a lot of standard features for it’s price.  With it’s Toyota Echo underpinnings, it’s a cheap car to maintain and reliable to boot. It’s no wonder that sales of the first generation xB increased every year through it’s production. The brilliant packaging and reasonable value eclipsed the cars’ shortcomings for many buyers. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the second generation.  On paper, the 2nd generation xB sounds like a better car: more power, less noise, better safety. But original xB owners feel the difference in their gut.  The charm of the original formula is gone and in it’s place, an ugly bloated blob of an appliance.  Straying from the classic no-frills Tetris was Scion’s mistake.  Here’s to hoping the company can recapture that excitement and charm with their upcoming iQ. In the meantime, I’ll stick with my darling toaster.