Pros: Energetic engine; ample cargo capacity; unique styling

Cons: Aging transmissions; so-so fuel economy; buslike driving position

Streamlined hatchbacks are appearing left and right these days, but the 2012 Scion xB is keeping it real. Just look at that bread-box profile; sleekness is not in this Scion's repertoire. Still, there's a timeless funkiness to the xB's style; it's almost like a modern-day Volkswagen Bus. We wouldn't be surprised to see surfers rocking vintage xBs a few decades from now, maybe with some curtains in the windows for modesty's sake.

Surfer approval is actually a big deal, because it indicates that the vehicle in question is genuinely practical. To that end, the xB boasts a whopping 69.9 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity-enough for a pretty big stack of surfboards, or perhaps all of your worldly possessions in a pinch. Of course, the xB's appeal extends far beyond the young and carefree crowd. Try to think of another compact hatchback or crossover SUV that combines versatility and affordability like the xB. Now that the Honda Element is history, the Scion is arguably in a class of one.

Like a VW Bus, the xB is not without its drawbacks, chief among them a pair of outdated transmissions and forgettable fuel economy. Its driving position is also surprisingly like that of the Bus, thanks largely to the upright windshield and the oddly angled steering wheel. But we're nitpicking now, so never mind. In a class full of curves, the 2012 Scion xB is proud to be a box, and that stubborn practicality is a trait we'll always appreciate.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Scion xB is offered in one trim level with numerous available accessories. Standard features include 16-inch steel wheels (with your choice of three plastic-cover styles), air conditioning, power accessories, cruise control, a first-aid kit, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker Pioneer audio system with HD radio and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

Add-ons include 17- or 19-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with two seven-inch LCD screens, a premium Pioneer audio system with a 5.8-inch touchscreen and Pandora Internet radio connectivity (iPhone required), a navigation system with a seven-inch touchscreen (replacing the premium stereo's smaller touchscreen) and a variety of mild performance aids like lowering springs and a sport exhaust.

You can also get a limited-edition RS 9.0 model for 2012 that boasts an aggressive orange paint (with matching headlights) known as Hot Lava, a honeycomb-patterned grille, illuminated front and rear Scion badges, perforated synthetic suede upholstery and individually numbered badges-you know, for when the xB RS 9.0 is on a prestigious auction block someday.

The xB's front seats are firm and flat, offering little adjustability. Forward visibility is perhaps uniquely strange (the FJ Cruiser also comes to mind) thanks to the upright windshield, which seems like it's about five feet in front of you. The tilting and telescoping steering wheel is obviously an improvement over the tilt-only wheel in earlier xBs, but it still doesn't extend far enough for lanky drivers. It's also angled forward pretty aggressively, even at its lowest tilt position; think big yellow bus. At least the climate controls are user-friendly for all.

The xB's driver information center consists of a row of four overlapping circles mounted toward the middle of the dashboard. The digital speedometer is the closest circle, so keeping track of your speed shouldn't be an issue, but we're not sold on the ergonomics of putting gauges somewhere other than in the driver's line of sight. Interior materials are mediocre, but we suppose plush polymers aren't really the point of a car like this. The standard non-touchscreen Pioneer face plate looks great, adding a bit of custom flair to what's already a pretty distinctive cabin.

Moving to the back seat, the xB offers such satisfactory accommodations for two that we consider it a viable alternative to compact crossover SUVs for passenger carrying. The rear cushion is reasonably high, and legroom is plentiful. Cargo capacity is another of the xB's SUV-like traits, starting at 21.7 cubic feet behind the back seat and expanding to a formidable 69.9 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded.

Technology

The xB's standard Pioneer stereo is much more attractive than the typical base stereo in this class, and it even lets you customize a 16-character welcome message that appears every time you turn it on. We especially like the iPod-inspired mode-selection dial. The optional touchscreen stereo is tempting, though, as it brings the added functionality and cool-looking font of that 5.8-inch screen-plus an iPhone-powered Pandora feed and a little extra power-for under $500. However, we'd like to see a subwoofer come standard with this premium system; Scion does provide the necessary RCA output (with the base system as well), but you'll have to go buy a sub yourself.

The other notable high-tech extra is the navigation system, which has a seven-inch touchscreen. It works well enough, but for the $1,999 it'll cost you, wouldn't you rather stick with the neat 5.8-inch touchscreen and use your phone for navigation?

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive xB is powered by a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 158 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. That's a lot of engine for a compact utility vehicle-in fact, the mid-size Camry sedan used to employ the same inline-4. Off the line, the xB really scoots, and the acceleration only tapers off once the bricklike exterior hits highway velocities.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic available at extra cost. Although they work well enough, these transmissions are down on speed relative to most rivals, and that shows in the xB's lackluster fuel economy: 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway, according to the EPA.

Safety

The 2012 Scion xB comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).

The government hasn't crash tested the xB using its new methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the xB its top rating of Good in all categories.

Driving Impressions

The xB experience is dominated by its driving position. Reaching forward for a compact steering wheel that's angled away from you, legs akimbo, you peer through a windshield that seems impossibly far away. It's memorable, to say the least. We admire the xB's responsive steering, although handling limits are ultimately quite low. The ride is firm and noisy at times. Not the last word in refinement, this xB.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Fit - The Fit is a perennial all-star in this class because of its amazingly versatile interior, but the xB can actually swallow considerably more stuff. The Honda gets better fuel economy, however.

Kia Soul - Perhaps the only competitor that rivals the xB's funkiness, the distinctively styled Soul boasts new engines that yield much better fuel economy and acceleration.

Nissan Cube - The Cube is much less of a serious utility vehicle than the xB, but its asymmetrical styling is arguably cuter, and don't tell us that cuteness doesn't matter.

AutoTrader Recommends

We're fans of Scion's 5.8-inch touchscreen, but otherwise, we think the trick with cars like this is to keep the price as low as possible. So give us a base xB with the five-speed manual, and we'll tack on the touchscreen stereo for $479. That'll be a lot of car for a reasonable price.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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