Recently I had the opportunity to try out a 2011 Scion xB while my car, a 2003 Toyota Matrix, was being serviced overnight.
One’s assessment of a vehicle is subjective by nature- we all have different body proportions for the vehicle to satisfy if we are to be comfortable, and each of us asks something different from our vehicles. So bear in mind, I’m not going to give a sweeping statement pronouncing the xB as good nor bad, but whether or not it would be a good fit for me and my needs. Also, I’m not in the market for a new car in any way, but I do know a few friends of mine would be curious for some feedback.
Scions are basically rebadged Toyotas that rely on style and price to attract younger buyers. The car I was loaned, the xB, is a five-passenger wagon that, along with the Honda Element, has largely phased-out station wagons. When I purchased my car, the Toyota Matrix, all Scion models either were just being launched or had yet to debut, and it is unwise to buy an early run of any car (best to wait for the kinks to be worked out for a year or so, in my opinion). The Matrix is the wagon version of the Toyota Corolla, which has been around for decades and at the time boasted an impeccable record for reliability. It will serve as the primary comparison for the Scion xB.
When I bought my Matrix, my priorities were price, reliability, versatility, fuel economy, part availability, handling, cargo capacity, comfort, and styling. Other vehicles I looked at in 2003 were the Volkswagon Golf, Ford Focus, Honda Element, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Pontiac Vibe (which is a Pontiac-badged Matrix), and Subaru Impresa WRX. The Matrix satisfied more criteria than the others.
The xB is most similar to the 2011 Honda Element, Kia Soul, and Nissan Cube. I’ve taken a curious look inside an Element, but I’m still driving my Matrix until it dies. The xB overall is adequate- any day that you can drive a new, clean car with less than 4,000 miles on it is a good day- but it was rather bland, if not slightly annoying the longer I spent with it. It isn’t a great fit for me, but then again, it could be just what you’re looking for, so I will do my best to explain my preferences as I go.
I drove the four-speed auto, which had a sticker price around $17,500 and delivers a fuel economy of ~22/28. So far, this is identical to my Matrix. I am fairly sure the engine is the same size, a modest 1.8L. However, my Matrix is AWD, an option not available on the xB. In the dead of New England winter, I have come to like this feature.
Both cars are manufactured by Toyota, so you would expect a similar driving experience and layout. The shifter, air conditioning controls, lights, and wiper controls were all in comparable spots. The shifter and air conditioning controls functioned differently, and the instrument clusters were markedly different- more on that later.
On the Outside
Here is an external shot of the xB:
Compared to the Matrix I’m used to, it has a shorter ground clearance. This makes it slightly easier to enter and exit the vehicle, but this would not serve well on a snowy road. Unlike some of the newer Toyotas, such as the Corolla and Camry, the head and tail lights are flush with the body, which I prefer. The newer Corollas with the bulging lights look like an accident waiting to happen.
With the vehicle low-slung, the roofline is slightly shorter than my Matrix, which would make washing and clearing snow from the top easier. I did not drive in strong wind, so I can’t comment on whether or not its boxy shape is a severe detriment to its handling.
Styling is all a matter of personal taste, and I happen to think it’s fairly futuristic and agreeable. It has improved from earlier versions, in my opinion:
Both versions recall this image from my childhood:
For reference, here is what I’m used to:
The ground clearance of the Matrix is slightly higher, which is nice for the winter weather and speed bumps.
It’s What’s On the Inside That Counts
Both vehicles offer excellent forward view, and the Scion’s forward field of vision was expansive and felt panoramic. The Matrix has better rear view, though, with more glass and non-tinted windows. Both have a rear wiper. The Matrix wiper nearly clears a 180 degree swath, while the Scion’s wiper stops just after 90 degrees, roughly at 110 by eye. The Scion thus has decreased rear visibility.
Here is what the interior for the xB looks like:
Here is what I’m used to:
So in terms of fit and finish, we have a draw. The materials used are identical as far as I can tell. However, the longer I drove the xB, the less I liked its cabin. Allow me to explain.
Both vehicles had ample headroom, and I should hope so- I’m only 5’7″, so if I feel I have to crouch to fit, something is terribly awry. The air vents for both were extremely adjustable. Both used three controls for the system- the combination of vents on the left, the strength of the air in the center, and the temperature on the right. For reasons unbeknownst to me the Scion requires you to push the knobs in and then rotate, while the Matrix is a simple click to the left or right. Making anything more complex is a bad idea, as it draws further attention away from the road while driving.
The obvious difference is the instrument cluster location- the Matrix is traditional, where the Scion is centered like the old Toyota Echo or a MINI Cooper. It took a little getting used to, but why you’d move the instrument cluster to the center of the dash is a little puzzling. It’s great if the car is going to be used by a driving school, as it lets the instructor see just what’s going on. I found it pulled my attention to the right of the car, rather than what was directly ahead when I’m driving alone. It also seems like it would give ammunition to anyone who wants to be a backseat driver, and whether that’s good or bad is another discussion altogether.
The Matrix has four analog gauges, telling (from L-R) RPM, speed, gas level, and engine temp. There is a digital gauge for the odometer and the outside temperature. There is also a dial that allows you to adjust their brightness, which also activates the general cabin/map light.
The Scion has (from L-R) a key-shaped digital gauge telling range left on the tank and the odometer, a digital speed gauge, an analog RPM gauge, an analog gas gauge, and then a digital clock and external temp gauge. I thought it was rather silly to have the mixture of digital and analog, and I’ve never been a fan of range gauges-that’s what the gas gauge and odometer are for. Given the fact that the Scion would be ripped to pieces should it leave the pavement, its further silly to think you’d need a range gauge given the distribution of gas stations in the US.
Unlike the Matrix, the Scion has two independent cabin lights, one for the driver and one for the passenger. You have to push on the light itself to turn it on. This is in the Scion’s favor if you are a passenger, as in the Matrix you have to ask the driver to turn the light on should you need it during a night trip.
The radio is one of the things most easily and commonly changed in cars, but for the curious, I found the Pioneer in the xB wanting compared to the stock radio of the Matrix. The latter easily allowed changes to bass, tremble, and reverb levels, while the Pioneer left you stuck with one of three preset configurations with no apparent way to alter it. The dealer didn’t leave the owner’s manual in the glove compartment, so I let it go.
The shifter in the Scion is staggered compared to the straight line of the Matrix. I’ve knocked my Matrix into Neutral exactly once in the eight years I’ve had it, so this is a little unnecessary. The shifter console is of significant difference. In the Scion, it is easily twice as wide as the Matrix, for no reason- my AWD Matrix has a more compex transmission, and all this serves in the Scion is to take up room. In the Matrix, there is a clever compartment just under the shifter, which I use to store a pair of sunglasses, a pen or two, and a small flashlight. Level with the shifter is a storage box which I use to hold my nametags for work and a pack of gum, sometimes my phone or iPod. The Scion’s shifter console has no such storage, thus it wastes space.
To the left of the steering wheel in my Matrix is a compartment just large enough for a small notebook, which I use to record repairs, gas fillups, and other quick little notes, like phone numbers or directions. My phone fits in here as well. In the Scion, there’s a open recessed compartment, slightly smaller. I don’t like the open compartments, as it allows things to go flying if you stop short.
On the passenger side the glove box is very low on the Scion, practically impossible to access should someone be riding shotgun. There’s another open compartment the width of the glovebox in the dash, but evidently whomever designed this did not take into account whatever you put in there would slide out and onto the floor the second you take a turn. The Matrix has a simple, traditional glovebox.
The Scion, like the Matrix, has two cupholders in the center console, and a center box. This center box is one compartment in my Matrix, with a cigarette lighter-style charger in the bottom that I use to charge my phone while driving. Speaking of which, the Matrix has two- one I use for the phone, and one to power an FM transmitter/charger for my iPod. In the Scion, this compartment has a flimsy plastic divider, with a USB input at the bottom. Very convenient to empty the whole compartment out each time to plug in the iPod for a trip. There’s only one cigarette-style light in the Scion, so I suppose it’s a wash. However, this makes it impossible to use a car charger for a cell phone and a GPS at the same time, unless you have a phone that charges via USB.
The real disappointment for me came when I popped the rear hatch. In the rear of my Matrix, someone thought ahead and made a nice heavy-duty plastic floor. I appreciate this as I stuff my bike into the rear rather than use an external carrier. It looks like this:
It’s very easy to clean and the tracks you see on the right allow you to screw in little tie-down anchors. The front seat also folds down and has a hard plastic back, so I could stuff a ladder in here if I wanted without damaging anything. The cargo floor is heavy plastic and has a built-in hook that grabs on to the outside, like so:
I carry a few things like jumper cables and general tools underneath, and this little touch is nice while rummaging around down there.
The Scion in comparison has a cheap cardboard/carpet that pulls out to reveal the same getup underneath. Yuck. Groceries will eventually wreck that, nevermind my drums* or bicycle.
* I did come across a silly Motortrend article while looking for pictures of the Matrix cargo area that you may read here: http://www.motortrend.com/roadtests/wagons/112_0205_sport_wagons/index.html
Only fools would load musical equipment without at the very least wrapping it in blankets.
Here’s someone else’s comparable shot of the cargo floor and spare tire arrangement. Notice how thin the material is, and how that’s staying up in the photo is a mystery- the whole thing can be simply pulled out and is in no way durable.
So while it was fun to try another car for a day, I’m not eager to trade my ride just yet. It’s a good fit and I’m sure I’ll be looking for something similar the day it has to be retired. The Scion xB I wouldn’t recommend for stuffing a dirty bicycle into the rear, or a large dog, or for driving in the snow. But for moving five people around comfortably in a fairly warm climate, this would be a sensible alternative to an SUV.