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2011 Scion xB

It’s useful, not hip, to be square Add to ...

Like the Honda Element and, to a lesser extent, the Nissan Cube, Toyota’s Scion xB was aimed at one specific group of buyers and seems to have struck a chord with another.

The idea, as I understand it, was to appeal to a younger market with a vehicle that, on the face of it, is so uncool and old-fashioned that they’d like it for precisely that reason. Much like the perplexing resurgent popularity of pork-pie hats, plaid shorts, and Betty Page hairdos.

Compared to other youth-oriented models like, oh, the Civic, Eclipse, Mini and even Scion’s own tC, the xB is a stodgy, slab-sided box on wheels that doesn’t offer much in the way of performance or handling, and definitely puts the emphasis on function over style.

Aside from the fact that it’s practical and reasonably good on gas, it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it to style-conscious hipsters and trend-following urbanites, who are picky about what they’re seen in and don’t necessarily like cars in the first place. When Toyota introduced its Scion brand to Canada last year, the company acknowledged that the Generation Y-ers they were going after are one of the hardest sells in the industry. Many don’t even like cars and still get around on skateboards and bicycles.

On the other hand, the xB is perfect for those budget-conscious boomers who like nothing better than throwing the dogs in the back and hitting weekend garage sales. With seating for five and some 328 litres of interior cargo capacity, the xB is as handy as it is homely and, unlike the Element, for example, you don’t have to open the front doors to get in the back. It’s also better looking – for what that’s worth – than the wonky and asymmetrical Nissan Cube.

Power is delivered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that is also found in the Matrix and Corolla. In this situation, it develops 158 horsepower and you can choose from a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The auto box will run you an additional $1,020, and fuel economy is exactly the same for either drivetrain combo.

My tester had the automatic and, while four speeds seem to be enough, the power transfer with this gearbox is kind of snatchy. It’s hard to ease away from a dead stop, for example, and sometimes you find yourself executing jackrabbit take-offs despite your best efforts. Annoying.

But the xB compensates for this by offering a lot of car for the money. Base price is just more than $18,000, and things like air conditioning, tilt-telescoping steering, power windows with one-touch driver’s side down feature, keyless entry and cruise control all come with the base model. There are other vehicles costing more than this that don’t offer this stuff as standard.

The xB also has four wheel disc brakes with ABS, a traction control system and brake force distribution. Options include leather interior, XM radio, heated front seats, glitzy wheels and tires, a block heater and, for those who want that extra bit of go-fast, a quick shift kit. Scion is labelling these extras as “accessories,” but I know options when I see them.

Don’t expect to set the roads on fire with the xB and, because of its bluff aerodynamics, it can be prone to crosswinds on the highway, but it does the job and is lively and responsive around town. It’s also dead easy to park and has a comparatively tight running circle of 10.5 metres.

As a non-Generation Y-er, I also like the xB for its roominess, headroom, rear legroom and, as much as anything else, its ease of operation.

Consumer Reports recently found that the new, ultra-modern and ultra-sophisticated controls and switchgear found in various Ford, Chrysler, Audi, and BMW products are baffling, hard to use, and distracting. “Technology is moving faster than common sense may dictate,” it opines in its latest study, and I couldn’t agree more. No such dilemma here, however.

Behind the wheel, the xB is simplicity itself, with easy-to-read gauges, nice big round HVAC controls, an understandable stereo and no complicated foolishness such as MyTouch or UConnect. That alone puts it in my good books.

But that’s not all. I like the way this little wagon feels on the road and its excellent peripheral visibility. It has a good stance, an easy-to-get-at rear storage area and is highly driveable. Despite the fact that it’s supposed to be aimed at younger drivers, I can understand why older buyers like it, too. I know I do.

My test car was a 2011 model, and the 2012s are just around the corner. But aside from interior refinements and enhanced electronics (uh-oh), there won’t be many differences between the two.

Tech specs

2011 Scion xB

Type: Compact four-door hatchback wagon

Base Price: $18,270; as tested: $20,815

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 158 hp/162 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 9.5 city/7.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Element, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Volkswagen Golf four-door, Kia Rondo, Toyota Matrix

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