Toyota just announced that the Scion xB is finally ending after a run of a dozen years. To anyone that really appreciated the xB, though, this is no big deal, as the car has really been dead since 2007, when the second generation was released. But it’s still worth taking a moment to appreciate what this underrated car was.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my one “modern” car in a fleet that includes a weird ‘70s British car, a yellow bug, and a toilet-equipped van is a 2006 Scion xB. It’s primarily my wife’s car, and the one most often entrusted to haul the kid around and perform the basic mobility needs of normal life.
And I absolutely love it.
Keep in mind, this is the car that I’m most likely to slide into immediately after driving a brand-new press car for a week, and I’m continually staggered at how often I’m not disappointed to get back behind the wheel of the humble, fridge-looking xB.
I always expect that after a week of driving a car with all the latest gadgetry, often with three times the power or more, and heady, redolent lungfuls of new-car-smell, I’ll be crestfallen and glum to be stuck driving that little 108 HP box. But I never am.
I’m absolutely serious here. Somehow, despite it being cheap and basic on pretty much every single metric, that first-gen Scion xB manages to be delightful to drive, and possible the most practical and flexible car I’ve ever owned.
If you’re skeptical, I get it. So I’m going to try and explain the best I can here.
The original xB is perhaps the most gleefully rational car design to come out in the past decade, and somehow that basic, unassuming design manages to be fun as well. It’s also the most Japanese car design in many ways as well, since it feels a lot like a scaled-up Kei car: a ruthlessly practical use of space, above all.
The first xB came from the Toyota bB in Japan, and came over pretty much unchanged, only losing the bench seat and AWD, and gaining a manual transmission option. In Japan, they even got an amazing trucklet version, the Bb OpenDeck, but we only had the enclosed box.
In an era when cars were starting to chop their greenhouses and lower rooflines and small windows were becoming vogue, the 1st-gen xB sports an unashamedly tall roof, with massive windows. The hood is only as long as it absolutely needs to be, and behind that stubby hood sits a huge box, grabbing as much of the car’s length as possible for interior room.
The result is the most airy, open interior on any small car — hell, on almost any car at all, save for a dedicated cargo van. There’s more headroom and rear-seat legroom than in cars twice the size of the xB, and that includes most SUVs as well as sedans. It feels cavernous and open in there.
The cargo space with all seats up is adequate in length, generous in height, but when you fold those back seats down, the xB becomes a tiny but useful van. I’ve crammed a full-size washing machine in there with room to spare. The interior volume can become an almost unobstructed cube of space in no time, and you can cram a genuine metric shitload of stuff in there. The interior trim, while never luxurious, is rugged and able to take the abuse of stuff-cramming without getting much worse looking, too.
It’s an insanely easy car to live with. Getting a kid in is easier than almost anything I’ve tested, and it’s plenty comfortable, if not luxurious. The visibility is airport-control-tower-good, and mechanically, the 1.5-liter 1NZ-FE engine seems to be bulletproof. It gets 30+ MPG in the city routinely, without trying hard.
The biggest shock, though, is that this little utilitarian transport-bot is actually fun to drive around. My xB is a five-speed manual, which certainly helps wring the most out of those 108 boxy horsebots, but the 2395 lb curb weight helps, too. The car just feels light and nimble. Maybe it’s part of the airy space inside the car and the minimal exterior dimensions, but I’m not sure I’ve ever owned anything as easy to toss around, maneuver, and park.
I always knew the xB could be fun, but I actually came to respect its unexpected driving abilities when I asked legendary driver and TV-face Tiff Needell to whip it around the little track at Willow Springs. It was hilarious and far better than I would have expected.
Needell hooned the crap out of my car, whipping around sweeper turns at 70 or 80 MPH while cranking the wheel back and forth, grinning like a maniac while talking about “Scandi flicks.” The xB leaned and the traction control beeped like an alarm clock on crank, but it held on tenaciously.
Like most cars at their limits, it was an absolute blast, but it also proved to be remarkably composed at those limits in a way I’d never have suspected. And then, after all the abuse it took on that track, I drove it home, same as always.
Scion completely lost the program with the next-gen xB. It gained 600 lbs, the tall greenhouse was cropped down to stupid, art-school-sketch levels, and all vestiges of the innocence and rationality that made the car great were gone. All that was left was an insipid caricature of what the car originally was.
I have no idea what I’d replace the xB with. The Nissan Cube somehow overcooked the basic box-car formula into a silly mess, and while I like the Kia Soul, there’s something about the essential simplicity of the original xB that keeps me holding on to my increasingly scuffed and worn little white box.
As diametrically opposed as its box shape is to my Beetle’s angle-less roundness, I can’t help but feel that the xB is one of the few worthy successors to the Beetle’s legacy — humble, cheap, simple, practical, surprisingly charming, and unexpectedly fun.
So, while the xB hasn’t done anything for me in years, I’m still sad to see the line end. The initial version of this car is one of the few cars I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to almost anyone, and represented a straightforward approach to car design that’s hard to find now. Usually, when people talk about rational, they say things like “coldly rational.” I think the xB was a novel exception to this rule, being one of the most warmly rational man-made objects I can think of.
Goodbye, little goofy box. I hope designers in the future pay you some respect and attention.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.