Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
New models come to the Canadian market all the time, but it’s not all that often that we get an entirely new brand. One of the most recent to hang out a new shingle is Scion, the entry-level marque offered by Toyota.
Scion was initially launched in the U.S. in 2002. The brand was developed specifically for the North American market, using rebadged Japanese models, and all built in Japan, as they still are. Introduced to Canada for the 2011 model year, the lineup consists of the xD hatchback (based on the Yaris platform), the tC coupe (the European Toyota Avensis) and my tester, the xB hatchback, which shares its underpinnings with the Canadian-built Matrix. The iQ, coming for 2012, is badged as a Toyota in most other markets – and will also be fancied-up to become the Aston Martin Cygnet, which is undoubtedly the strangest sentence I’ve ever had to write.
The xB is probably the best-known of the three models south of the border, where its boxy proportions have earned it the affectionate nickname of “Toaster,” and where its blank-canvas customization possibilities made it very popular with younger drivers. It’s taking a little longer to find its footing in Canada, where it’s being aggressively marketed through social media to younger buyers and is available through a limited number of outlets in selected markets, most of them separate areas in existing Toyota showrooms along with a couple of stand-alone stores.
Toyota will probably have my hide for this, but given the xB’s low price, functional interior, the parent company’s customer loyalty rate and – most importantly – a door and seat setup that makes it ridiculously easy to slide in and out, I can see many older Canadians purchasing it, rather than the throngs of Gen-Yers that the company is so heavily targeting. Hey, it happened to cars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Honda Element and even the Matrix, which bypassed the younger target buyers and went instead to their parents and grandparents. Canadian buyers don’t always purchase the way their American counterparts do, and so the demographics might well turn out to be upside down up here.
So here I am, the 50-plus-year-old in the Toaster, and I might well be Scion’s core audience. It’s a mixture of good and bad in here, but overall, I can see the appeal of this funky little box. I’m a bit disappointed in the design, which was restyled from the 2010 U.S. model. It’s meant to be softer and more mature, but the in-your-face blunt edges of the old one had more character. Still, despite the fact that the tC coupe is a sportier driver, I like the xB most of all of the three.
It uses a 2.4-litre four-cylinder, making 158 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. A four-speed automatic is available, but my car came with the base five-speed stick shift. The combination netted me an average of 9.8 L/100 km (29 mpg Imp) in very cold weather – including an unexpected snowstorm that was especially brutal for my area – against the car’s published figures of 9.5 (30) in the city and 7.2 (39) on the highway.
Scion calls its pricing “mono-spec,” meaning that the car comes in one trim level only, with numerous standard features that would be optional on many of its entry-level competitors. In theory, buyers choose only the transmission and colour, and then go over to a long list of accessories to personalize the car, the price of which can then be rolled into the vehicle financing. In the xB’s case, the mono-spec price is $18,270 for the manual, and an extra $1,020 for the automatic transmission, plus taxes, freight and licensing. Although it’s based on the Matrix, it’s strictly front-wheel drive, with no all-wheel option.
The company had initially added another $6,760 in accessories to my tester, most of them dealer-installed except for the $1,975 leather seats, heated up front, which are listed on Scion’s Web site as “manufacturer installed” – which in my dictionary is a factory option, not an accessory. Well, whatever Scion wants to call it, they’re nice seats with two heat settings that got good and toasty on cold mornings. My car didn’t actually have all of its six-thousand-plus in accessories on board, since its 19-inch TRD alloy wheels, at $1,575, had been swapped out for the stock 16-inch steelies for winter, which also meant that the $50 wheel locks were in hibernation, as well as the $1,550 TRD “big brake” kit, which wouldn’t clear the winter wheels. I was actually disappointed, because I’m guessing the Toaster looks pretty cool with big rims.
For all its brick-on-wheels appearance, the xB is a fun little driver. I like the smooth clutch and shifter feel, even if the car does want for a sixth gear on the highway. Considering that it’s aimed at younger and presumably less-experienced drivers, adding a hill start assist function would be helpful; Scion could offset the price by ditching the standard Bluetooth, since they shouldn’t be talking on the phone while they’re driving, hands-free or otherwise. (Yes, I know they will anyway. It’s still a really dumb thing to do.) While definitely not a sports machine, the xB has lively performance and decent handling that’s considerably better than expected. I don’t know how well the TRD big brakes stop, but the stock ones did the job just fine, with nice pedal feel and quick response.
That’s partially offset by an extremely firm ride, so much so that a couple of bumps lifted my passengers right off the seats. It’s also very noisy, both in road racket – I’m guessing the low price doesn’t allow for much sound-deadening material – and in a creaky cabin where the plastic parts banged noisily together over any road imperfections. At times it felt like I was driving a Hungry Hungry Hippo, especially before the interior warmed up. The doors are tinny, and overall, the car feels cheap as well as inexpensive.
Still, price is a prime motivator for many buyers, and the xB undercuts most of its square-shaped rivals, especially when its standard features are taken into account: air conditioning, MP3/WMA-compatible stereo with USB and steering wheel-mounted controls, Bluetooth, outside temperature gauge, multi-information display including fuel consumption, power windows, keyless entry, cruise control, heated mirrors and variable intermittent wipers, plus six airbags, electronic stability control and disc brakes on all four wheels.
The interior is plain but handsome. The company has dipped heavily into the parts bin, and if you cross the showroom to the xD and tC, you’ll see more than a few items doing double-duty. Even so, they’re done well: while all three use the same big, simple and easy-to-use climate buttons, their bezels give a unique touch to each. I truly loathe the centrally-mounted instrument cluster, which requires the driver to look sideways for information. It includes a digital speedometer and dials for the tachometer and fuel gauge, plus the information display and clock. My tester had a premium Alpine audio system, for an additional $535. It wasn’t dead-nuts simple, but proved easier to use and more intuitive than the stock stereo that I tried in another vehicle.
Small-item storage space is good, with a large glovebox and open cubby above it, a little uncovered box on the driver’s side, short but deep door pockets, cupholders that are well out of the way of the shifter, and a covered console box whose lid slides forward for an armrest. Open it up, and the USB and auxiliary input are tucked deep inside, with a removable notched shelf so that one’s music player wire can be threaded through and then stored on the shelf.
The optional (oops, accessory) leather seats were comfortable up front, although my rear-seat passengers complained that their chairs were a bit too firm. No one argued with the impressive backseat legroom, though, or with the what-else-would-you-expect-from-a-shoebox headroom. The rear seats fold easily to provide a virtually flat cargo surface, and the hatch is easy to open and close.
Overall, despite its rough ride and noisy interior, I was genuinely sorry to hand my little Toaster back to Toyota at the end of the week. It’s so homely it’s cute, it’s incredibly practical, and it’s more fun to drive than I’d expected for the price. Whether it will make a dent in the Canadian market is still up in the air, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Pricing: 2011 Scion xB
Base price: $18,270
Options: $3,585 (Premium Alpine audio, $535; leather heated seats, $1,975; rear spoiler, $390; TRD sport muffler, $600; TRD shift knob, $85)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $23,345
Crash test results