The latest version of the xB is the car most identified with Toyota's relentlessly youth-oriented Scion division because of its distinctive boxy styling. But if you don't know about such things as "viral videos," you best look at a more conventional Toyota, such as the Camry.

There was a media preview of the early 2008 Scion xB at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, where Marilyn Monroe's ghost is said to roam the halls, although she died elsewhere in the early 1960s in the Los Angeles area. Chances are that many media members at the preview wouldn't have recognized her if they passed her because they were born long after she passed away.

Emphasis on Youth
In fact, a good amount of xB preview time was taken up by presentations of how youth-oriented the Scion division is.

"We could take out a big ad in USA Today tomorrow and sell more Scions to older people, but we're not marketing to them. The average age of Scion buyers is 30, which is the youngest in the industry," a Scion official said at the preview.

The official quickly added that Scion welcomes buyers of all ages, but clearly left the impression that people over 30 or so really should opt for a regular Toyota car, SUV or minivan.

Actually, a good number of value-minded retirees and boomers have bought the xB because it's affordable, economical, roomy and easy to enter and drive, besides enjoying Toyota's sparkling reputation for reliability.

Non-Traditional Approach
But Scion says it really wants "young, urban, diverse" customers that seek things new and unique through non-traditional channels that are personal, trusted and authentic."

Scion has been involved with the worlds of hip-hop music, student film, street art and interactive media. It said it won't use mainstream print media or television to advertise the 2008 xB. Rather, it said it will utilize such outlets as offbeat Internet sites and the Scion site.

The xB preview involved driving the car over narrow, winding mountain roads and in heavy L.A. downtown traffic. But the event also involved a Scion headquarters tour and lunch at a Scion art gallery, with Scion-related art (that seemed like a stretch to me).

Models Come and Go
Scion's xA compact 4-door auto has been dropped, leaving the new xB and also-new 2008 xD, also presented at the Hollywood preview. The 2007 tC 2-door coupe is Scion's top seller and may be redesigned in the spring of 2008. (Scion is very secretive about future product plans.)

The xB goes on sale this spring, but the xD isn't scheduled to hit showrooms until August. Unlike the xB, the xD resembles other small Japanese sedans and has a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine with 128 horsepower, compared to the xB's 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which produces 158 horsepower and replaces a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder with 103 horsepower.

I drove both the xB and xD, but the latter isn't the subject car here. Suffice it to say that it handles better and has a slicker manual transmission shifter than the xB, although its highway acceleration is marginal.

Scion says Americans wanted an xB with more power and room, although lack of room never has been an issue with the xB.

Nicely Equipped
The xB costs $15,650 with a manual transmission and $16,600 with an automatic. It has a good amount of standard equipment, which includes air conditioning, cruise control, tilt wheel with audio controls and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.

Front-seat side airbags and front/rear side-curtain airbags are standard, as are a vehicle stability control system with traction control and anti-lock brakes.

Heavy Customization
The xB lends itself to heavy customization by younger drivers, much to the delight of Scion dealers. Scion says many young drivers customize their Scions with numerous Scion aftermarket accessories. Scion officials said at the preview that some Scion buyers "actually spend more for the car's accessories than they do for the car."

Scion says today's youth are used to customizing their lives-from coffee, cell phone ring tones and digital music players to sneakers and clothes to fit their mood.

"Scion's target buyer has changed the way business is done by demanding personalization and customization in all aspects of their lives," said Scion vice president Mark Templin.

Scions are offered with everything from custom shift knobs and larger alloy wheels with wider tires to upgraded brakes and vehicle lowering kits.

Then there are performance clutches, suspension modification parts for better handling-and so on. And most of that aftermarket stuff isn't cheap.

Changes
The xB has been sold here as a small 4-door car/station wagon/crossover vehicle since the summer of 2003. The 2008 version retains the old version's general look, boxy shape, front-wheel drive and 5-occupant capacity.

But Scion increased the new version's wheelbase by 4 inches, overall length by a foot and width by nearly 3 inches to provide additional space and a more comfortable ride. Wheels are an inch bigger at 16 inches, and brakes are larger.

Automatic Choice
The engine works with a 5-speed manual gearbox or a 4-speed automatic transmission, rather than a more modern 5-speed automatic. Scion dodged questions about the lack of a 5-speed automatic, saying it "accomplished what we wanted" with the 4-speed. Too bad, because some 70 percent of xB buyers are expected to get the automatic and a more versatile 5-speed unit would enhance performance and fuel economy.

However, the xB's automatic is responsive. The manual transmission shifts crisply, but gets notchy if rushed and works with a light but long-throw clutch.

Estimated fuel economy (lowered by the EPA for all 2008 cars) is 22 mpg in the city and 28 on highways with both manual and automatic transmissions.

Average Highway Performance
The xB is spirited in town but has average passing abilities on highways because it weighs about 3,100 pounds. Steering is quick, and the ride is supple. Handling is good, especially for such a high vehicle, and braking is strong. The xB is generally fun to drive.

Large outside door handles assist entry, and front seats provide good side support when snaking through curves. There's lots of room both front and-most especially-in back. Headroom is astounding. The middle of the back seat is comfortable, which isn't the case with most cars.

Unusual Center Gauges
Occupants sit upright and have a good view of surroundings, but the center-mounted gauges would be easier to read quickly if put directly in front of the driver instead of near the middle of the dashboard.

The large climate controls should be applauded, and other controls are easy to reach and use. Doors have small storage pockets and bottle holders.

The cargo opening is low and wide. The cargo area is spacious and can be made considerably roomier when the rear seatbacks are flipped forward.

The heavy hood is held open by an old-fashioned prop rod, but the neat engine compartment has easily reached fluid filler areas.

Scion must be doing something right. It sold 173,034 cars in America in 2006, up from 156,485 in 2005. However, Scion is a small Toyota operation. For example, Toyota sold 929,052 cars here in 2006, excluding Scions.

But, hey, more than 170,000 annual car sales is nothing to sneeze at. And Scion is pulling in young customers that Toyota hopes to keep in the Toyota family as they age.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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