Riding the Boxcar

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2004

My Big Boss is used to seeing all manner of $100,000 vehicles in his parking lot and he knows immediately that I'm test driving them. No one in his employ is likely to spring for a $100,000 car. He's top dog, and he drives an older Cadillac. But it was a $15,000 car that really grabbed his attention recently.

"That would be a perfect business vehicle," he said with obvious delight. "What is it?" "It's a Scion xB," I replied. "Kids seem to like these box cars."

"Think of it," he continued. "It makes maximum use of its interior space and those flat sides could carry banner advertising."

Hmmm. Logical. Practical. He was right, of course, which is why he's Big Boss and I write about cars.

Right now, the most popular vehicles to carry company advertising are Volkswagen's New Beetle and DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser. Each stands out from the crowd and it's not unusual to see them festooned with vinyl wraps that carry corporate ads. The Scion xB, my boss is certain, could become a player in this new game.

He's thinking of it as a newspaper carrier's dream car, with plentiful interior space to stack the night's deliveries. But it would also work, we agreed, for plumbers and other workers who tote tools about.

I assured him that despite what my aging eyes saw as a bulldog-ugly design, the Scion xB-one of three Scion cars offered by the newest Toyota division-was darn good. It proved thoroughly enjoyable to drive in a week behind its wheel.

But not everyone approved of its design.

"Don't park there," a rent-a-cop with a less-than-attractive shaved head told me at a disaster scene, "and, besides, your car is ugly."

Well, just as the standard for feminine beauty went from plump Renoir nudes to anorexic models with knobby knees, car design has gone from swoopy curves to squared-off boxes. We've been that route before, of course. Indeed, the Scion xB looks like an old milk wagon or ice delivery truck. It also looks like it should pull into a circus center ring and 12 clowns will pop out.

It's funky, squared.

Some other manufacturers saw this styling trend coming and have produced their own box cars. Most notable is the Honda Element, a suicide-door box car that looks like the military ordered it. Other cars in this genre include the hunchbacked Pontiac Aztec, the Toyota Matrix and the Suzuki Aerio.

Our tester began life at $14,480, a real bargain. It added a number of options no Big Boss would ever purchase, including a light and sound system that turned it into a rolling jukebox. A subwoofer to thump out pounding bass notes-and rattle windows and give headaches to drivers of nearby vehicles-occupied too much space in the rear cargo bay. But lift over is very low back there, so dump the subwoofer and this is an easy-load work wagon.

That subwoofer, called the Bazooka, coupled with a radio and CD system, added $774 to the base price. Bathing the interior in red light at night was another unneeded option at $879. Both the foot wells and the cup holders display this light, but it's a bit distracting, like leaving an overhead light on while you drive. I'd opt out of that one.

But let's say a bit more about that sound system, which is so attractive to young buyers. You have six speakers and that Bazooka subwoofer in this tiny car. You set the amount of bass desired with controls below the radio/CD. There are three choices: Neutral, Hear and Feel. They mean what they say.

Set on "Neutral", with the bass turned down, the system is excellent. "Hear" adds more thumping bass and proved irritating to me. But "Feel" is something I've never Felt before. Crank up the volume with "Feel" selected and bolts begin to rattle in the car. You can literally hear rattles.

The first thing you notice, however, is that the inside rear view mirror turns to Jell-O. It shakes so badly that you can discern nothing in it. Even at reasonable volume, the sound hurt.hurt the ears, hurt the chest, drew shaking fists from other motorists. This was the nuisance we all hate on the road, the thump-thump boombox car usually driven by some young idiot who will be fitted for his first hearing aid about the same time he needs reading glasses.

I felt guilty, the same way I do when I take the last serving of pudding because I eat fastest. But, no, I didn't like feeling my music, and the pudding usually makes me ill.

Also not needed among our tester's options was a body-side graphic and rear spoiler at $578. Or alloy wheels that look like mini-spares for $665.

When you eliminate the kiddie-car items and get down to what you, Mr. or Ms. Business Person need as a company car, the Scion xB can be yours at about $15,000.

So what do you get besides head-turning looks and functional usage of interior space?

You get a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that accelerates fine around town and cruises thriftily at highway speed. That 108-horsepower engine and the four-speed automatic transmission return 30 miles per gallon in town and 34 on the highway. Excellent if you're buying the expensive gasoline these days.

You get both front and side air bags for driver and passenger. You get halogen headlights that do a good job. There's even a standard rear-window wiper.

The interior has cloth upholstery that looks like a New York taxicab after several fares lost their alcohol and pizza. The instruments are center-mounted. A driver quickly adjusts to the new location, which Toyota says is safer. There's standard air conditioning, remote keyless entry and a one-touch down window for the driver.

The only problem worth noting that has arisen with the Scion xB is its behavior in crosswinds. Its slab sides present a sail to winds. And it's light enough to be a handful to steer if winds are strong. But I've found this just as bad with much bigger sport utilities, which can be moved around when a semi passes and require "tacking" maneuvers in crosswinds.

Overall, the Scion xB comes from a company with a superb reputation for quality, reliability and durability, Toyota, which also makes Lexus. Its unique styling draws attention, and that could be good for business if ads are placed on its slab sides. Its fuel efficiency is excellent.

Whether your business involves delivery of a product or an interior with 12-clown capacity, this new little boxcar could be a good choice.

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