If there is one car that I love unconditionally, it is the first generation Scion xB. Available in the US from 2004-2007, the little box is the perfect blend of affordability, reliability, and practicality.
First, some background: the xB started life in the US as the Toyota bB in Japan, a market where compact, boxy shapes and low power are common. It was brought to the US to kick off the Scion brand along with its platform-mate, the xA. Largely unchanged from the bB, the main differences are the xB is left-hand drive, has the bigger engine with a manual transmission option, doesn’t have an AWD option, and includes a spare tire. Standard features include power windows, mirrors, and door locks, remote entry, ABS, airbags, traction control, fold-flat rear seats, and Toyota’s reputation for reliability. With a starting price under $14k and few options to inflate the sticker, the vehicle was affordable to all new car buyers (and many used car buyers).
And that’s how I got introduced to the car. My parents needed to downsize from their Sienna minivan, and picked new a 2004 xB. They’ve put ~9ok miles on it. A few years ago, I bought a used 2005 xB and have put ~70k miles on it, for a total of ~150k. So, I have a lot of first-hand experience with the car and can speak comprehensively about its pros and cons.
Affordability is a huge pro. I already touched on this, but the xB was one of the cheapest new vehicles you could purchase. Despite its low price, it had a solid list of standard convenience and safety features. Low new price leads to low used price, so they are also relatively cheap on the used market (though the Toyota brand and lack of pricey option packages means depreciation wasn’t too bad). It looks like you can find used models for $3-5k, a good range for first cars and commuter-mobiles.
Beyond the upfront investment, ongoing costs are all extremely low. Being a small, non-sporty car without much power, insurance premiums are cheap. It gets close to 30 mpg on regular, so fuel is cheap. Scheduled maintenance is among the cheapest I’ve seen in a car. This is partially due to the cost of components (for example, the stock tires are small and unaggressive), and partially due to the low number of maintenance points (for example, there is no timing belt or differential to maintain). Repairs are also infrequent and non-critical- neither of my family’s xBs has left us stranded.
Lots of cars are cheap, but the xB stands out by providing quality. Everything feels super solid. The interior plastics aren’t the greatest, but far better than other econoboxes. The gauge is electroluminescent, which is a nice touch. Everything feels solidly built for the price segment, and you have to go looking to notice cost-cutting measures.
One particular point of quality is the chassis and running gear. The engine revs happily, the steering provides good feedback, the ride is pleasantly firm, and the gear shift snicks in and out with precision. Surprisingly, this is a bit of a driver’s car (at least when equipped with a manual). It is fun to wring out and toss into corners. The engine doesn’t have much, but power builds consistently and it is happy to play along. This vehicle is the poster child of “slow car fast.” You can drive it at 90% without being reckless or in danger of speeding tickets. It is a beast in the snow, especially with winter tires.
The final piece of the puzzle for this car is its incredible practicality. The big boxy shape carries over to the inside, where space is plentiful. With the rear seats up, you get a shallow-but tall cargo area and one of the roomiest back seats in any car (seriously, it is amazing how much leg room and head room there is). Four people have ample room, though trying to fit three across in the back is tight because the car is so narrow. Fold the rear seats down, and the car transforms into a mini cargo van. I’ve fit tables, futons, TVs, and countless Ikea trips in my xB. There isn’t room for both people and their stuff on a long trip, but a roof rack and cargo carrier easily remedies that. Add ski racks, and you’re ready for the mountain.
However, the car isn’t without its downsides. Because of its origins as a Japanese city-mobile, the xB isn’t the best freeway cruiser. The engine has to work hard for speeds above 70 mph, and there is no factory cruise control (our aftermarket cruise control kit has helped a lot). Trips of a few hours are fine, and we’ve tolerated trips in the 5-6 hour range, but the xB isn’t our first choice for highway slogs. Another point to consider is the xB isn’t the safest car on the road. This isn’t to say that it is unsafe, it is just a product of late 90’s design and our safety standards, technology, and materials have progressed.
So, that’s more than you ever wanted to know about the Scion xB. If you’re in the market for a good used car, you should check one out. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be looking at aftermarket Apple CarPlay head units for mine.