Saturday, May 22, 2004

Toyota's Scion goes national


Affordable car designed to attract younger generation

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Toyota Scion

ZOOM

Fun and funk-tional box on wheels
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheelshalf

What I drove: 2004 Scion xB, a four-door, five-passenger wagon with a four-speed automatic transmission

Base price: $14,480

Price as tested: $18,443

Options on test vehicle: Sound Package (AM/FM/6-disc CD, Bazooka Tube Subwoofer), alloy wheels, Light Package (LED light enhancement, cup-holder illumination, fog lights), rear spoiler, Scion security, Preferred Package (carpeted floor mats/cargo mat, net door sill enhancements, rear bumper applique)

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

Engine: 1.5-liter, 16-valve, in-line 4-cylinder producing 108 hp and 105 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Standard 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 155.3 inches

Width: 66.5 inches

Height: 64.6 inches

Weight: 2,450 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 30/34

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles.

Assembled in: Japan

Safety: Dual front airbags, stability control, traction control with brake assist, antilock brakes, LATCH child seat anchors.

Cool: Radical design, econobox price, standard features galore, roomy interior, great gas mileage, entertaining ride

Uncool: Disappointing audio system, tinny sheet metal, sluggish acceleration

Accolades: Earned the "Lowest Relative Ownership Cost" award in the "wagons under $15,000" category from Edmunds.com


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Toyota has never had trouble attracting baby boomers, but it's had a heck of a time appealing to their offspring.

Last June, in the boldest move yet made by an automaker to capture its next generation of buyers, Toyota launched Scion, a new youth brand aimed at "Generation Y." Scion sells its two vehicles - the xA and xB - through Scion showrooms (located at Toyota dealerships) staffed by specially trained, youth-savvy salespeople.

Initially marketed only in California, Scion is going nationwide in June. Several Cincinnati dealerships (including Beechmont Scion, Kings Scion and Scion of Cincinnati) will begin selling the xA, xB, and an all-new sports coupe, the tC, next month.

Simplicity and affordability are key to Scion's strategy. Thus, the $13,280 xA, $14,480 xB and the $16,465 tC are offered in mono-spec trim. Buyers only have to choose among transmissions, colors and dealer-installed accessories.

Both the xA and xB share the Toyota Echo's platform and 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The wee powerplant pumps out 108 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque, and can be mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

Hip to be square

Of the two Scions, the xA is the less radical. It's a four-door hatchback-crossover resembling a miniaturized Toyota Matrix with fender flares.

The xB, on the other hand, is one of the weirdest looking vehicles on the road. If SpongeBob SquarePants had a car, this milk carton on wheels would be it. The xB is so sharp-edged and angular it makes the Honda Element look globular.

The xB looks incredibly dinky - and at only 115 inches in length, it is short. But climb inside and even 6-foot-5-inchers will find headroom and legroom to spare. The seating position is upright, and outward visibility is excellent.

Cargo space is tight when the 60/40-split rear seats are up and an optional subwoofer speaker is anchored in back. But with the rear seats folded, you'll have 43 cubic feet in which to haul luggage, laundry and furniture back to college from Mom's.

Square-o-dynamics

The xB's Echo chassis has been stiffened up to give it a sportier ride, and the car is actually entertaining to drive. It steers, corners and brakes nimbly. Its weakest link is its engine.

My xB test car had the automatic transmission, and I quickly learned to switch off the "overdrive" (which is activated every time you start the car) whenever I needed some punch. The 1.5-liter engine is smooth and economical, but its lack of torque causes it to struggle up hills and on freeway entrances.

Not surprisingly, this box on wheels is about as aerodynamic as a brick. Wind noise is pronounced at speed; and the tall, flat sides make it vulnerable to crosswinds. On one particularly blustery day, the xB and I were tossed to and fro like Piglet and his umbrella.

Part of the xB's affordability comes from the use of flimsy sheet metal. Every time we slammed a door, we cringed in preparation for the ear-shattering clank. The only other cheapish feature I discovered was the driver's shoulder belt, which folded upon itself not once, but three times during the week, getting stuck in its slider.

Standard features galore

Otherwise, the xB is so comfortable and well equipped, it transcends its "econobox" mechanicals. Standard amenities include air conditioning; antilock brakes; traction and stability control; a six-speaker stereo with CD player; tilt steering wheel; remote keyless entry; power windows, locks and mirrors; and a one-touch driver's window.

Listen up, three ways

The standard Pioneer audio system offers a choice of three sound settings: "Neutral," "Hear" and "Feel." Neutral muffles the music, Hear enhances the music with crisp highs and lows, and Feel makes the car vibrate like a massage bed.

My test vehicle had the optional Sound Package, which features an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a 10-color-changing screen, and a Bazooka Tube Subwoofer. The subwoofer, which looks like a giant Hostess HoHo, is anchored to the floor behind the rear seats and vibrates the entire car with booming bass. Even the Beatles' mellow "Something in the Way She Moves" sounded rappish.

For a car aimed at music-loving youth, the audio system is surprisingly weak. The sound quality isn't state of the art. The control buttons are miniscule, hard to figure out and awkward to manipulate. And where are the steering-wheel-mounted controls?

My xB tester featured an optional $879 Light Package, which includes fog lights, an LED light enhancer (whatever that is) and an illuminated cup holder. Do kids really go for this stuff? Maybe I'm just old, but I'd ditch the color-changing screens, illuminated cup holders and "Hear" and "Feel" sound options in exchange for a killer stereo.

Something every starving student can appreciate is great fuel economy, and the xB delivers, with an EPA rating of 30 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.

Hitting the mark?

Though it's aimed at drivers 30 years my junior, the xB should appeal to people all over the age spectrum. Myself? I enjoyed the xB best when I was inside it and forgot what it looked like from the outside. Even after seven days, whenever I got back into the xB in a parking lot, I felt a little shocked: "Am I actually driving that thing?"

Often, by the time I got to the car, I was no longer alone.

"You don't mind if I look inside do you?" asked a woman outside the dry cleaners.

"I have six kids, so it wouldn't work for me," she said, "but maybe when the kids get older ..."

Attracting this much attention, and enjoying this much utility, has never been so affordable.

E-mail ctrigger@aol.com



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