2004: Dan Neil, Los Angeles Times
3/1/2004
ASNE Staff
Award for Community/Column writing
Monday, March 1, 2004
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Commentary/Column writing


Dan Neil

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BMW's bigger, better Rolls

Sept. 17, 2003

2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom

Wheelbase: 140.6 inches

Length: 229.7 inches

Width: 66.3 inches front, 59.4 rear

Curb weight: 5,577 pounds

Powertrain: 6.75-liter V-12, six-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 453 at 5,350 rpm

Torque: 531 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds

EPA rating: 14 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway

Price, base: $320,000

Price, as tested: $324,000. Includes $3,000 gas-guzzler tax and $1,000 destination fee

Competitor: DaimlerChrysler's Maybach 57

Final thoughts: Return of the King

Source: Rolls-Royce

Not since torch-wielding peasants chased Frankenstein's monster through the town square has such a noble spirit been so mercilessly taunted. One critic compared the new $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom to a coffin maker's "Executive Slumber Series"; another called it the world's most majestic air conditioner.

Allow me to pile on.

Man, this thing is ugly.

Yet from the driver's seat, the Phantom is a sensational automobile. There's magic and mystery here, fistfuls of romantic motoring. I could drive it to the crack of doom.

Like Shelley's maledicted hero, the styling of the 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom is something of a cut-and-stitch job. Rolls-Royce's chief stylist for exterior design, Marek Djordjevic, scoured the company's picture books for design cues and proportions that he considered elemental to the marque -- a visual vivisection, if you will. The long hood, the short rear deck, a rising sill line, the convergent hood lines, all poised over a long wheelbase and fronted by a chrome rictus of a grille. These elements he sewed together to form the Phantom, the first new Roller produced under BMW's ownership.

For example, Djordjevic lifted the massive "blind quarter" of the new Phantom -- the broad sheet-metal pillar aft of the rear window -- from the Hooper-bodied Phantom limousines of yore (in the glory days of Rolls-Royce, buyers would send the bare chassis to coach builders such as Hooper to be fitted with a custom body).

Djordjevic also decided that the new car needed classic coach doors, hinged at the rear. The blind quarters and coach doors combine to create one of the new car's signature pleasures: Open a rear door, which feels as heavy as one of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, and step easily into the spacious rear compartment, barely ducking your head, then settle back in the leather banquette, secluded in aristocratic privacy behind the blind pillar. So, point to Rolls-Royce. Jolly good show on the coach doors.

Other quintessential double-R design elements in the Phantom are the blade edge of the front fenders; the headlight assembly set high in the "catwalk" between the Greek temple grille and the fenders; and the round fog lights situated just above bumper level (the simulacra of polished Lucas lamps).

But certainly the features that have most thrown viewers are the car's oppressive bulk and its crazy face. This new slab-sided Phantom is more than 19 feet long (longer than a Ford Excursion) and well above 5 feet tall, possessing something of the visual grace of a container ship. Djordjevic based his design, and its scale, on Rolls-Royces pre-1972. These were some awfully big cars, and in the current context, the Phantom reads almost comically big.

And then there's the car's front. It looks like the face of one of those robotic pet dogs they sell in Japan.

What could have possessed Djordjevic? I spent an evening with the young designer in Santa Barbara some months ago, and he seemed to have had all his marbles. What gives?

To begin, ask what exactly did BMW buy when it purchased the rights to the Rolls-Royce name from Vickers (the parent company of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.)? Rolls-Royce was a shambles by the time BMW came along in 1998. The Museum-of-the-Industrial-Age Rolls factory in Crewe, England, was dirty and dim. The cars were awful. The only thing in the pipeline was soot.

Rolls-Royce's single salable asset was its history, its book of myths and legends lavishly illustrated with gorgeous cars dating to Edward VII. For the Phantom, BMW built a brand-new factory in Sussex, on the Earl of March's Goodwood property, and started from scratch. In fact, there is no "Rolls-Royce" in the sense of a continuous business enterprise started by Hank Royce and Chuck Rolls. To think of the new Rolls-Royce as anything other than the high-tech, super-luxury brand adjunct to the Bayerische Motoren Werke is to willfully suspend disbelief.

But some fictions are fun, even necessary. And for the fiction of Rolls-Royce to remain operable, BMW needed to make the car more British than King Arthur Pendragon, more aristocratic than Lord Mountbatten, more Rolls than Henry's dear old dad.

My guess is that the styling was driven over the top by the design team's anxiety over authenticity. What began as a paean to the past wound up looking like it had bolts in its neck.

What's it like to drive? I'm tempted to say it drives like a Rolls-Royce, but that too may be a sort of wishful back formation, a trick of memory. No Rolls-Royce of the former regime was half so luscious or so purely seductive.

The pleasure begins with the way the car situates itself around you. The driver's seat is more like a driver's throne, with a commanding view outward, the long reach of the hood stretching into the scenery. The eye position is as high as in many SUVs. The central console between the seats pairs with the door bolsters to create armchair-like support at the elbows -- though it is easy to inadvertently pop open the console's compartments. Also, the power-seat controls are secreted in the console, so adjusting the seat position takes some attention.

One of the direct drafts from parent BMW is the Rolls "Command" panel, a dumbed-down version of the notorious I-Drive system operating the navigation, DVD and telephone systems. The rotary controller deploys from a compartment at the base of the seat console, while the white-face analog clock on the dash slips away to reveal the display panel. Mercifully, the basic climate and audio controls are available as rotary dials flanking the dash-mounted units.

The new Rolls carefully observes the tactile proprieties of tradition. The dashboard vents are opened and closed with sterling-silver organ stops, while the window controls are the classic violin key design. The large-diameter steering wheel is ultra-thin, like Brit cars of memory, and the steering wheel center has a glossy, piano-black roundel with the double-R emblem. The starter is a push- button affair. The woodwork is orchestra-instrument quality, with a buyer's choice of figured woods, from burr walnut to black tulip. Cabinet-style marquetry, inlays and crown-cut veneers are optional, but the lambs'-wool rugs and cashmere headliner are standard.

The rear compartment is likewise luxe, with lots of welcome extras, including adjustable ambient lighting, Jazz Era-style reading lamps and umbrellas hidden in compartments in the doors. Even so, the Rolls is not so thoroughly accessorized as the rear compartment in DaimlerChrysler's Maybach 62, which is nothing quite so much as a corporate jet.

No, the Rolls is definitely a car, a motorcar, with all the stately advance the word implies. Rolls has long invoked the term " waftability" to describe the cars' effortless, nearly levitating acceleration and deep reserves of power. The word dates to 1907, from a motor journalist's happy phrase about a Rolls "wafting" down the road. But this powertrain -- comprising a 60-degree, multi-valve, 6.75-liter V-12 buttoned to a six-speed ZF transmission with shift by wire -- has waft coming out its ears.

The stroked version of BMW's 6-liter V-12 features state-of-the art combustion technology, including direct injection, and infinitely variable valve timing and lift. Long gone are the days when an engine's inherent torque characteristics were fixed by metal parameters. The engine has been calibrated to produce an ocean liner-like 531 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm, but 75% of that grunt is available at a mere 1,000 rpm, lending the Phantom a tsunami-like surge upon acceleration. Horsepower tallies a considerable 453.

It's enough to launch the 5,600-pound Rolls to 60 mph in less than six seconds; meanwhile, the thrifty direct injection gives the car an impressive fuel mileage of 14/24 miles per gallon, city/highway.

Over the road, the Phantom has all the glycerin smoothness and cathedral quiet you could hope for. The body structure is a space frame built up of aluminum and magnesium castings, riveted and glued alloy panels and exotic steel sub-frames. It is one of the stiffest chassis in production. The Rolls uses air springs at all four corners, double wishbones up front and multi-link suspension in the rear, all fastened to steel sub-frames.

There is no denying that this is a big car, and it drives big, particularly if you push it on a country road. There's a fair amount of body movement before it acquires its stance in a corner, and it feels a little ungovernable at high speed. But for the most part, the ride-and-drive is phenomenal. The Michelin PAX run-flat tires are -- get this -- 31 inches tall, centered on 20-inch rims. That's 11 inches of sidewall, which makes for a pillowy soft, if predictably elastic, ride. The brakes are monsters, and then some, at all corners.

Rolls-Royce was once a kind of shorthand for excellence, for stately British cars with unsurpassed engineering, bespoke quality, craftsmanship and superb good taste. Now, in an odd quirk of fate, a big German company has rescued the marque -- reanimated it, if you will.

Skeptics, put down your pitchforks.


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Caught up in the Crossfire: A lighted fuse of polished elegance and high ambition, Chrysler's latest riff on the history of car design is bound to hold up well over time

October 1, 2003

2004 Chrysler Crossfire

Wheelbase: 94.5 inches

Length: 159.8 inches

Curb weight: 3,084 pounds (with automatic transmission)

Powertrain: 3.2-liter single-overhead-cam V-6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 215 hp @ 5,700 rpm

Torque: 229 pound-feet @ 3,000 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds (with manual transmission)

EPA rating: 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway

Price, base: $33,620

Price, as tested: $35,570 (adds $1,075 for automatic transmission, $875 delivery)

Competitors: Audi TT coupe, Nissan 350Z

Final thoughts: American beauty

Source: DaimlerChrysler, Road & Track magazine

Like many great beauties -- Marilyn Monroe, for instance -- the new Chrysler Crossfire has a faintly tragic air about it. And like many consumers of beauty -- Frank Sinatra, for instance -- I'm only too happy to exploit it.

The 2004 Crossfire ($35,570 as tested) joins Chrysler's recent portfolio of low-volume, high-zoot production cars -- including the PT Cruiser and the Prowler -- that riff on the history of car design. The PT Cruiser and the hot-rod-inspired Prowler are not really serious cars but fun and frothy exercises in nostalgic styling, rendered with a kind of Toontown exaggeration that gives the viewer a winking nudge in the ribs. Alas, one's ribs get sore pretty quickly. These days, the PT Cruiser strikes me as insufferably twee. Both it and the Prowler look destined for the nearest Shriners parade.

The Crossfire, on the other hand, is deadly serious, a lighted fuse of polished elegance and high ambition. It's a small car, only 159.8 inches long sitting on a 94.5-inch wheelbase. But the Crossfire has tremendous visual presence, with its wide body raked over relatively huge 19-inch rear wheels and 18-inch front wheels. The glassed-in part of the car, the greenhouse, is low and narrowed, giving the car a sloe-eyed allure.

The most distinctive part of the Crossfire profile is its boat-tail hatchback, formed as the edges of the roof converge into a kind of teardrop shape, leaving the rear fenders to flare out over the rear wheels. It's a wonderfully organized form -- romantic and rational at the same time. But what makes the Crossfire work is its surface detailing: the Art Deco fluting, polished strakes, raised spine and sculpted surfaces, which make the car look like a piece of precision-milled machinery.

This is the kind of car that makes you set your alarm clock early so you can go stare at it in the driveway. It's gorgeous.

As a "halo" product, the Crossfire is crucial to the Chrysler brand's effort to move upmarket, to be a premium brand in the same league as Lexus or Cadillac. This is not an easy thing to do. Consumers have a pretty definite idea of how much they are willing to spend on a Chrysler, no matter how swell it is. The Crossfire argues its case well.

So what's so tragic? Only that it's not really a Chrysler. Under the artful skin of the Crossfire is the running gear of a Mercedes-Benz SLK, right down to the crankshaft in its 3.2-liter V-6 (the car is assembled by Karmann in Germany). This is the first car to come from the DaimlerChrysler merger that gene-splices Chrysler design and Mercedes engineering.

Although few could complain about the results, I confess to a little wounded nationalism; it would have been great for such a wonderful car to be American to the bone. Chrysler, more than any other American car company, could justify a revival of streamlined, Deco- flavored styling. Chrysler's Airflow sedan in the 1930s was America's first streamlined mass-production car, and what it lacked in functional aerodynamics it made up for in the expressive, streaking styling of the Machine Age. The most exciting car of the year is made of leftover Mercedes.

And there is a degree of insincerity to the Crossfire. In the same way that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is an elaborate titanium blossom surrounding more or less rectangular spaces, the Crossfire's exterior design, as beautiful as it is, isn't essential to the car.

Of course, a few laps around the neighborhood will wring such doubts from your mind. The Crossfire is wicked fun to drive. In the transition from the SLK's open top to a fixed roof, the chassis has become substantially stiffer. The car has all the flex of a cast-iron sink and that lovely feeling of deep soundness that Benzes, at their best, have. It feels as if you have a good leg under you at all times.

Commuters, be advised: The Crossfire's suspension tuning favors handling over comfort. The ride is pretty choppy in that short-wheelbase way, and there's a steady diet of zings transmitted through the steering wheel and seat from the huge Michelins.

On the other hand, the car handles far better than I expected, with a nice even balance in S-curves that gradually and gracefully transitions to understeer. Toss it from corner to corner and the Crossfire recomposes itself without fretting, with little body roll or ungainly rebound.

Thanks to the car's low weight and its yards of high-quality rubber, the Crossfire has lots of lateral grip. The car has anti-lock brakes and traction and stability control, but on dry pavement these systems allow enough slip and slide to have fun.

Our test car was equipped with Benz's five-speed automatic transmission mated to the 215-horsepower V-6 engine. A six-speed manual is available, though most Southern California commuters will shun it. The car was pretty quick, returning zero-to-60-mph times in the neighborhood of seven seconds, though adding more power would be a beautiful thing.

It's expected that Chrysler will avail itself of the supercharged version of this engine, which in the SLK produces 349 horsepower -- a lot of ponies, by anybody's reckoning. I just don't see where Chrysler will put the supercharger. The Crossfire's hood is practically on top of the engine cover.

One curiosity is the motorized spoiler that deploys from the cam-back at speeds above 60 mph. In mixed city driving, where one often goes above and below 60 mph, the spoiler cycles continually with a very low-tech-sounding motor whine. However, considering Audi's experience with the TT -- the humpback car was quietly redesigned to include a spoiler after some Autobahn accidents revealed that the rear was lifting at high speed -- the Crossfire's spoiler is probably a good idea.

Life inside the Crossfire would be cozy. Tall drivers may have a little trouble getting comfortable because the car has limited leg room and little recline available behind the deeply bolstered seats. Yet for a car so closed in, outward visibility is quite good (you are never far from a window in a small car), and the sculptured rear fenders create open sightlines through the side mirrors.

The car's instruments are sensibly arranged; indeed, given their vintage, they have a comforting simplicity: More fan? Turn the knob to the right. More volume? It's the knob on the left. Technophobes may like the car solely for its refreshing lack of digital interface. The central console and all the switch gear are coated with a shiny metallic finish, as in the less expensive Mercedes C-Series, a sort of acrylic that is strangely warm to the touch. The same material covers the shifter. The comforts of home include heated power seats, a 240-watt Infinity stereo with two subwoofers and six speakers, keyless entry and dual-zone climate control.

Composed and compelling, precise and polished, the Crossfire is a singularly appealing car. Unlike a lot of design-intensive cars, whose appeal is so perishable they ought to come with a " best-if-used-by" stamp, the Crossfire has a bearing that should hold up well over time.

The Shriners will have to look elsewhere.


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Toyota's spark of genius

October 13, 2003

2004 Toyota Prius

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Length: 175 inches

Curb weight: 2,890 pounds

Powertrain: gasoline engine and electric motor

Horsepower: gas engine, 76 hp; electric motor, 67 hp

Torque: gas, 82 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm; electric, 295 pound-feet at 1,200 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in about 10 seconds

EPA rating: 60 miles per gallon city, 51 mpg highway

Price, base: $19,995

Price, as tested: $20,510, including $515 delivery charge

Final thoughts: Fossil fuel minimalist

Source: Toyota Motor Sales USA

 

If you ever despair that the U.S. auto industry is whirling, slowly but with gathering momentum, down the tubes of history, the second-generation Toyota Prius will give you no comfort. This is a car Detroit assures us cannot be built. No way. No how. A spacious, safe and well-appointed mid-size four-door with practical performance while returning more than 60 miles per gallon? For $20,000? Are you, like, high?

Well, there it sits in my driveway, looking like a set piece from a Kubrick film but in other respects a straightforward piece of engineering. And it shames the domestic automakers and the Bush administration.

As recently as this summer, during the Big Three's annual assassination of higher mileage standards proposed in Congress, industry shills argued that the proposed increase for cars -- 40 mpg by the year 2015 -- would be impossible to meet. The technology would be far too expensive; the weight reductions needed would create flimsy death traps; consumers simply would not accept the anemic performance such high mileage requirements would impose.

Moreover, the automakers argued, requiring such increases would tie up capital, intellectual and otherwise, that Detroit needs to develop fuel-cell technology. The Bush administration and the Big Three are touting the Freedom CAR initiative -- a program to bring hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to market, which received $1.2 billion in the Energy Department's budget for 2003 -- as a visionary alternative to the dreary incrementalism of federal mileage standards.

Have faith, America, and take another toke off your asthma inhaler. On some as-yet-unspecified date, on the golden horizon of the hydrogen economy, Detroit will deliver the ideal car, clean and powerful, trailing only clouds of noblesse oblige.

Forgive me if I'm skeptical. The most optimistic estimates put the mass marketing of fuel cells more than a decade away. It makes zero sense to give Detroit a pass on improving emissions and fuel economy now for some promised land of milk and money in the future.

Freedom CAR replaced the Clinton administration's fig leaf of hypocrisy, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which doled out $1.5 billion to a consortium of automakers, universities and suppliers for nearly a decade and likewise was used to stall efforts to increase mileage standards. The Bush administration pulled the plug on the partnership last year, citing its failure to reach its goal: developing an affordable family sedan that gets 80 mpg.

Well, the Prius (pronounced PREE-us) gets 60 mpg -- the highest fuel mileage of any mass-production car sold in the United States -- and Toyota did it without subsidies from the federal government and much less posturing than the Big Three's promising to save the world when they get around to it.

I can live with the scandal embodied in a national energy policy that is actually reducing tax benefits for clean-fuel cars (Prius buyers can claim a $2,000 tax deduction on cars placed in service before Dec. 31) while offering tens of thousands of dollars in tax credits to "small business" buyers of H2 Hummers.

What boggles my mind is the wasted business opportunity. Consumers want high-mileage cars. In Los Angeles, the entertainment industry's pretty young things are lining up for the Prius. The first generation of the Prius sold a modest 5,600 units in the United States in 2000. Toyota already has taken more than 10,000 orders for the second-generation Prius ahead of its launch this month and is adding capacity to meet demand of 36,000 units in the States and 76,000 units worldwide. If the Prius doesn't outsell Pontiac's new GTO in the 2005 model year, I'll eat a box of General Motors product guru Bob Lutz's Partagas Robustos.

Anybody who has ever turned a wrench will marvel at this car. Even before you look under the hybrid's hood, consider the body structure: a four-door hatchback on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, with interior room only slightly less than that of the Toyota Camry and a huge trunk (16.1 cubic feet) made all the more usable by the hatch and folding rear seats. Its coolly futuristic, maglev-like styling accounts for its slippery aerodynamics, 0.26 coefficient of drag, among the lowest on the market. And the car weighs only 2,890 pounds, 300 pounds less than a four-cylinder Camry automatic.

The Prius is spacious and comfortable in both front and back seats. I'm 6-foot-1 and I had no trouble getting comfortable in the car. Outward visibility is excellent; the car's hatch features lower glass panels to improve rearward sightlines. Toyota's use of lightweight materials for upholstery, door panels and other surfaces gives the car the feel of expensive, lightweight camping equipment. When you close the door you notice it doesn't have the thudding authority of upscale Toyota products, and the seat cushions and armrests are thin, but overall the car has nice tactility and warmth.

What makes it a "hybrid" is its powertrain -- the Hybrid Synergy Drive System -- that tandems a small and high-tech 1.5-liter gasoline engine (76 horsepower) with an electric motor with peak output of 50 kilowatts (67 horsepower) and a whopping 295 pound-feet of torque.

The system's computers and controllers blend the output of both power sources for optimum efficiency so that, for instance, in stop-and-go traffic the car often runs on electric power stored in its 202-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery. At cruising speeds, the engine output does double duty, driving the front wheels while also turning a generator, whose voltage then powers the electric assist motor. Under heavy acceleration, power from the battery comes online too. The total output of 143 horsepower is enough to accelerate the Prius from zero to 60 mph in about 10 seconds.

The Prius employs a continuously variable transmission -- no stepped gearing -- so that a foot-on-the-floor maneuver produces only a supple and drama-free gathering of speed and a whirring tenor engine note. I drove the car for a week in freeway traffic and it was quite willing until about 75 mph, above which I had to go to the whip to accelerate.

Dynamically, the car is about what you'd expect from an economy car on 15-inch tires. Competent and agile enough to get out of its own way -- independent strut suspension is used up front, while a torsion beam holds up the rear -- the Prius has a light and reactive feel in its power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and secure assurance in the front-disc/rear-drum brakes with ABS assist. But this is an earnest commuting appliance, albeit one with more than 370 engineering patents to its credit.

You never plug in the Prius. During braking, the electric motor becomes a generator that recharges the battery, thereby recovering kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost as heat in the brakes. If the battery levels get low, the gas engine is summoned to top off the electrons. You can keep up with all this activity on two dash-mounted LCD displays: one, a flowchart, the other, a bar graph indicating recovered kilowatts and other arcana of fuel efficiency.

Most consumers, I suspect, will watch the graphs for a day or so and then flip over to the audio or climate displays, with the peace of mind that comes with knowing they are part of the solution, not the problem.

In fact, it is not the Prius' stark differences -- its fetishizing of thermodynamics -- that make the car marketable, but its sameness, the transparency of the hybrid system. The car uses an electronic key -- a small plastic module that slips into a receptacle on the dash -- that activates the start button on the dash. Put your foot on the brake and press the button; it takes about a second for the car's computers to boot up the instrument display, located near the leading edge of the windshield. The gearshift is a joystick-like unit on the dash, behind and to the right of the steering wheel. Put it in drive or reverse. The park position is engaged by a push button above the gearshift.

There is very little to remind you that the Prius is different from any other economy family car, and quite a lot to suggest it is, in fact, a commuter with upscale aspirations. Standard equipment includes anti-skid brakes and traction control; keyless entry; power windows and locks; heated side mirrors; steering-wheel-mounted audio and climate controls; alloy wheels; CD player; and the multi-function LCD display.

The options list includes high-end blandishments like a navigation system; six-disc CD changer; stability control; and curtain and side-impact air bags. The Prius would be a nifty family ride even without the virtue-intensive powertrain.

But how's this for an incentive: The dead governor walking, Gray Davis, has asked the federal government to grant the Prius -- which is a super-ultra-low-emissions vehicle according to the California Air Resources Board -- an exemption allowing solo drivers to use the car pool lanes on California freeways. A decision from the Department of Transportation is pending.

Given that the world trembles on the edge of fossil-fueled disaster -- from the Mideast to the melting ice caps -- it's hard not to see the Prius as anything less than a manifesto (the term revolutionaries once used for a "vision statement"). Lamentably, even as Toyota leads the way in hybrid powertrains, it is increasing its production of gas-thirsty sport utility vehicles for the American market.

But Toyota is pouring marvelous amounts of its treasure into efficiency research, and its achievements in mass-production hybrid technology haven't precluded work in other directions. The company has a project with UC Davis and UC Irvine to develop fuel-cell technology and infrastructure. By year's end it will have leased six of its experimental fuel-cell vehicles to the universities and given millions to fund research just in California.

It is also true that GM, for one, has a robust advanced technology division, which will deliver "mild" hybrid vehicles to market early next year. GM also will soon roll out its displacement-on-demand system, which promises to significantly improve fuel consumption and emissions on the thirstiest and most popular of vehicles -- that is, pickups and SUVs. It also is making strides in diesel and injection technology.

But fully a third of GM's research budget goes toward the far-fetched future of fuel cells. As a matter of policy, the company regards hybrid powertrains as merely an interim solution. The company may yet be rewarded in the marketplace. As a matter of energy policy, Congress should not allow attainable gains to be held hostage to tomorrow.

Meantime, people are queuing up to buy the Prius today.


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Thinking inside the box The xB from Toyota's Scion brand is a kind of stereo on wheels, aimed squarely at Japanophile Gen-Y buyers barely old enough to drive. Parents won't get it, but that's the point.

November 5, 2003

2004 Scion xB

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 155.3 inches

Curb weight: 2,450 pounds

Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline-4 engine with variable-valve timing; four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 108 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 105 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 10.6 seconds

EPA rating: 30 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway

Price, base: $14,480 (with automatic transmission)

Price, as tested: $16,403 (adds alloy wheel upgrade and security system)

Competitor: Suzuki Aerio SX, or a year's tuition at UCLA

Final thoughts: It's hip to be square

Source: Toyota Motor Sales, Car and Driver magazine

After spending a week driving a Scion xB -- the ice-cube-shaped flagship of Toyota Motor Corp.'s new youth- directed brand Scion -- I would like to publicly apologize to Volvo for all the times I accused its products of being boxy. Clearly, I didn't know from boxy.

Styled with a T-square, a plumb bob and a cheese cutter, the Scion xB takes the concept of boxiness and sexes it up to new, almost platonic levels. You can well imagine somebody in Plato's cave seeing the xB's shadow on the wall and saying, "What the heck is that? ... Oh, silly me, it's just a box."

If for some reason you find the isometric design of the xB displeasing, Scion's under-25 demographic has a message for you: "Yo, old guy, get on home now, you're missing, like, 'Friends.' " This car is aimed squarely at the most subversive subset of Gen-Y, trendsetters who are abandoning the sport compact movement as it goes mainstream, a la "The Fast and the Furious."

The xB is to the sleek-and-low styling of sporty imports what chainsaw sculpture is to the Italian Renaissance.

The Scion brand was launched in California in June. (The brand will bow in the Southern and East Coast markets in February.) Thus far, the xB has outsold its more conventionally styled stablemate, the sport-hatch xA, by almost 2 to 1. And though the xB is the most radically styled, chunky monkeys including the Honda Element and the Suzuki Aerio SX also have found an audience.

So how did square get to be so dope?

It all started with the Japanese market kei mini-cars -- urban runabouts that are limited to 660-cubic-centimeter engines and narrow enough to squeeze through Japan's tiny streets. (The government encourages the use of kei cars by levying lower owner taxes and high fuel taxes.) The boxy shape -- called "tall wagon" in Japan -- was the natural result of seeking maximum cabin space over the cars' minimum footprint.

Kei-class cars constitute about half the Japanese vehicle market, and some of them -- the Honda Life, Nissan Cube and Suzuki Wagon R -- are wickedly clever little transportation gadgets. Besides being super-practical and dirt cheap, the cars appeal to the Japanese taste for a particular sort of goofy anti-styling, a kind of gothic cuteness and precious edginess.

The xB, built on the same platform as the 1.5-liter Toyota Echo, belongs to a larger class of vehicle, but the styling vocabulary is right out of the kei playbook. And considering how Asia-centric Gen-Y's tastes are -- whether for anime, electronics or "Kill Bill" -- perhaps it was just a matter of time before the mad-boxy style jumped the ocean to California.

"It's so ugly it's cute," my girlfriend, Tina, observed. (Almost makes you wonder how the Pontiac Aztek missed, doesn't it?)

The xB is, in fact, a warmed-over Japanese market car called the bB (for "Black Box"). There is talk already at Nissan Motor Co. that it might bring its Cube, scaled up by a factor of 1.2 or 1.5, to the U.S. market. If the xB hits, imitators won't be far behind.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" you understand the so-called Law of the Few: the select group of people who discover a new idea -- be it shoes or a band or a car -- and translate it in such a way that it becomes acceptable to a much wider audience. Old-school marketers call them "thought leaders." The existentially boxy xB is aimed right at this mandarin group inside Gen-Y, and the Scion brand rollout, first in California, reflects this staged assault on the command-and-control structure of Dub Nation.

Having grown up in a maelstrom of mass marketing, Gen-Y is naturally suspicious of ordinary advertising. Almost three years ago, Toyota approached the Los Angeles-based Rebel Organization (the marketing arm of URB magazine, the Rolling Stone of hip-hop, dub and underground music) to help the automaker connect with Scion's target audience.

"Peer-to-peer word of mouth is really key to these consumers," says Josh Levine, president of the Rebel Organization. "They are more interested in companies that they've heard about than those that get pushed on them from TV."

Rebel's under-the-radar marketing of Scion includes putting " street teams" at events like Hot Import Nights -- the Lollapalooza of the tuner world -- as well as supporting deejay contests, nightclub events, fringy art gallery showings and carwashes. The idea, Levine says, is to "put Scion where its audience wants to be."

The ironies abound, starting with the oxymoronic flavor of the name "Rebel Organization." And maybe it's just me, but there is something slightly sinister about an enormous corporation using underground music -- ever the secret-decoder ring of youth culture -- as a conduit to push its products. Imagine the Sex Pistols at CBGB, brought to you by Coca-Cola.

In any event, music is key to Scion's car-as-lifestyle message. The standard audio system is a Pioneer six-speaker AM-FM-CD-MP3 player pre-wired for satellite radio and sound-processing technology that will rattle your teeth with bass. A six-disc CD changer and a subwoofer system also are available. The cabin construction is extensively soundproofed.

The Scion is what they call "mono-spec," which is to say everything is included for the base price ($13,680 for models with a five-speed manual transmission, $14,480 for automatic-equipped models). Included are air conditioning; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; rear wiper- defroster; anti-lock brakes with traction and stability control as well as brake assist; halogen headlamps; remote keyless entry; privacy window tinting; full "ground effects"-style body valances; and that monster sound system.

Our test car -- with automatic transmission, security system and an alloy wheel upgrade -- went out the dealer's door at $16,403. As part of Scion's effort to build an emotional bond with Gen-Y, there will be no haggling on price.

Scion does offer nearly 40 aftermarket-style accessories so that buyers can personalize their vehicles: three styles of alloy wheels, carbon-fiber-style body trim, clear tail lamps, Yakima roof rack, rear spoiler, aluminum cross-drilled sport pedals, LED interior light kit and lots more.

For those furious few who want to slam the xB, Scion has a one-stop solution: a Toyota Racing Development performance package, including 18- or 19-inch Hart wheels; Pirelli P-Zero tires; lowering springs kit with struts and shocks; front strut brace; sport muffler and quick-shift kit with performance clutch; and cold-air intake. All supported by the factory's 36-month warranty.

Meanwhile, the aftermarket elves have been hard at work too. Toyota provided designs of the xB to members of the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., whose sprawling trade show is taking place in Las Vegas this week.

What with all the context, it's easy to overlook what the Scion xB is actually like to drive. The answer: It's OK. The interior has all the spatial nuance of a handball court, with the nearly vertical windshield pretty far away. The techy-looking instruments are centrally located, leaving the area behind the steering wheel as a kind of catchall shelf.

I'll say one thing for it. It's got headroom. I wonder whether the xB might presage the return of, maybe, stovepipe hats. Also, because the car is so narrow and the sides are so high, it's initially hard to judge where the curb is when parking. The first few times I parked, I was a foot or more away.

The doors are big and swing wide for easy access. The rear cargo hatch swings neatly out of the way to reveal a pretty good storage area of 21.2 cubic feet. With the 60/40-split rear seat folded, the number climbs to 43.4 cubic feet -- about the size of a comfy loveseat. Oh, right, sorry, I'm showing my age. I mean, about the size of a double turntable and mad PA system.

The least interesting part of the xB -- at least when it comes with the automatic transmission -- is the driving. The 1.5-liter, 108-horsepower inline-4, with variable-valve timing, is certainly a competent engine and clean too (low-emission vehicle status with Environmental Protection Agency-rated mileage of 30 miles per gallon in the city, 34 on the highway).

Unfortunately, the automatic transmission smothers torque. The car is lively around town, but it labors at L.A. freeway speeds. Otherwise, it handles pretty much as you'd expect, with crisp but by-no-means- razor-sharp reactions to inputs in the steering; firm and insistent brakes (front disc, rear drum); and stable posture in corners but with a front-driver's modest appetite for hard cornering.

Aftermarket performance parts are often a waste of time, actually making factory- developed cars slower and dodgier in reliability. But the xB -- which tips the scales at a bantamweight 2,450 pounds -- just screams for kit.

Cheap, stuffed with content, the xB is a perfect starter-kit car for 16-to-24-year-olds. Naturally, many of these kids will need Mom and Dad's help to buy a car, and it's an open question whether parents will look at the xB and say, "I'm not buying you that, that thing! It's hideous!" Parents are not likely to get it, and that's the point.

But I suspect there are a lot of boomers out there who will buy the xB too. You can't beat it for value and practicality, and there's no law saying you have to use it to go clubbing with your friends. That the Scion might reach across demographic boundaries will no doubt strike Toyota as exceedingly dope.

Stories copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.


Article list

What would Gulliver drive? Nissan's super-sized Pathfinder Armada is aimed squarely at Detroit's most profitable piece of the SUV segment. But do bigger ends justify bigger means?

November 23, 2003

2004 Pathfinder Armada LE 4x2

Wheelbase: 123.2 inches

Length: 206.9 inches

Curb weight: 5,274 pounds

Powertrain: 5.6-liter V-8 engine with dual-overhead cams; five-speed automatic transmission; two-wheel drive

Horsepower: 305 at 4,900 rpm

Torque: 385 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds

EPA rating: 13 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway

Price, base: $37,800

Price, as tested: $41,550

Competitors: Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition

Final thoughts: Avast, ye maties!

Sources: Nissan North America, Car and Driver

It has taken years of analysis and reverse engineering, but the Japanese automakers are now able to build vehicles just as big and stupid as the Americans.

This is a troubling development for Detroit, which has long had a lock on big and stupid. Indeed, the popular big-stupid segment has been a godsend to General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.: Full-size sport utility vehicles, built on the same platforms as full-size pickups, offer the highest profit margins of any car or truck and represent about 853,000 in annual unit sales in North America.

Toyota Motor Corp. was the first Asian automaker to pan for gold in the big-ute stream when in 2000 it began selling the Sequoia, built on the Tundra pickup platform.

Now comes the 2004 Pathfinder Armada from Nissan Motor Co., another SUV built on a big-pickup platform (namely, the steel ladder-frame underpinnings of the forthcoming full-size Titan) in the United States. Both Toyota and Nissan breed their Brobdingnagians at American plants: Indiana and Mississippi, respectively.

The Armada is the Double Whopper with Cheese of SUVs. Excepting the Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon XL twins -- and the Hummer H2, which is big-stupid sui generis -- the Armada is longer (206.9 inches) and taller (77.8 inches) than anything else in its class, which includes luxury lorries like the Ford Expedition and Chevy Tahoe. It is as wide (78.8 inches) as the widest in the class (Tahoe) and has the longest wheelbase (123.2 inches) and highest ground clearance (10.7 inches) in its segment. The Armada's pricing is competitive with that of the domestic barges; our loaded-to-the-gunnels test vehicle priced out at $41,550 (a luxury LE edition with sunroof, power liftgate and DVD entertainment system).

But, clearly, Nissan's designers believed that gawdamighty size alone would not be enough to guile Americans away from their beloved domestics. It had to look scary. Thus the Armada's case-hardened styling -- vast slabs of steel and glass soaring above the wheel wells, with fender flares punched out at discontinuous angles to give it a muscular look, though it looks to me less muscular than glandular. The chrome bumper insets look as if somebody swiped the doors off a Vulcan gourmet oven.

This isn't design, it's pornography.

The dimensions give the Armada a distinctly bus-like gestalt. Grab hold of the chrome door lever and pull. The door swings open like that of a side-by-side refrigerator (how long before the Armada is cheekily nicknamed the "Amana"?). The seat height is a pants-splitting 34 inches from the ground, and once you hoist yourself aboard you find yourself dwarfed by the Armada. Well, at least I did. I'm over 6-feet-1 and 180 pounds, and I felt as if I was wearing Shaq's warm-up suit. I dropped a piece of paper on the floor ahead of the front-passenger seat, and I could not reach it from the driver's seat.

The Armada, a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle depending on configuration, has vast amounts of room allotted to second-row seating with a full three inches more legroom than any of its competitors. Armadas with the second-row bench can be quickly configured in such a way that, when the second and third rows are folded, the cargo floor is flat from the liftgate all the way to front seat backs, creating 97 cubic feet of space. Vehicles with the second-row captain's chairs require you to remove the console.

As in the Toyota Sequoia, the Armada's second-row seats flip forward for easy access to the third-row bench seat, which is raised stadium-style to improve sightlines and reduce the consumption of Dramamine.

As all this suggests, Nissan is pitching the Armada as a family vehicle. Consider the tag line: "Liberate your family." I bet that plays well in Utah.

Consider, also, the various means available to distract the kids on the long drive from Provo to Orem. The LE model test vehicle was equipped with dual-media playback that allows the front-seat passengers -- the adults -- to listen to the stereo through the 10-speaker Bose premium sound system, while the kids tune to whatever CD-DVD-MP3 they desire with wireless headsets. A flip-down LCD monitor is situated in the ceiling for watching or video gaming.

In addition, the Armada is awash with cup holders, cubbies and bins, including an overhead console for reading lights, air vents and yet more storage.

The other thing the Armada has in abundance is power. Under the broad hood is a 5.6-liter V-8 with dual-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder -- the same engine in the Titan pickup -- producing 305 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm. That is sufficient to give the Armada class-leading towing (9,011 pounds) and payload (1,949 pounds) capacity. My test model had two-wheel drive; a four-wheel drive model also is available.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Armada's five-speed automatic transmission -- the only one in its class -- the vehicle has unholy acceleration. Car and Driver magazine clocked an Armada from zero to 60 mph in seven seconds flat. The nearest class competitor is more than a second slower. A Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan requires three-tenths longer to reach 60.

So then, the ideal customer for this vehicle would be ... who? A family of Masai warriors towing their 30-foot cabin cruiser to Lake Victoria for the weekend?

Unfortunately, this vehicle will find its way into the hands of too many suburban moms and dads who will use it as a short-range commuter and mall runner, tasks for which it is excessive. Even setting aside fuel economy (13/19 miles per gallon city/highway, according to the EPA), there is the Armada's sheer unfriendly bulk. You need the ground crew from Lakehurst, N.J., to park this thing. And every mall parking deck threatens to skim the roof racks right off it. The center of the Armada's headlamps is approximately 38 inches from the ground, which puts them at a perfect height to fuse the retinas of drivers ahead of you.

This is where SUV enthusiasts and I have irreconcilable differences: If you need such a vehicle -- and that means you have five kids, live in Idaho and tow a boat the size of a Spanish galleon -- fine, by all means. If you don't need one, what, pray tell, is the upside? And if you live in the Los Angeles area, may I mildly suggest you get out of my way?

It's not as if the Armada offers thrilling handling or a luxurious ride to compensate for these inconveniences. I found the ride quality over anything but smooth pavement to be fretful, with lots of jostling over surface imperfections and fairly uncontrolled body movement as it thundered over uneven concrete and asphalt patches.

On California 2 heading north to Glendale, the Armada fairly bounded over the evenly spaced expansion joints in the highway. Over jolts big and small, the interior fittings rattled lustily. The central dash panel twittered. The rear bench shook. When I went looking for the source of the rattles, I instead discovered lots of shoddy upholstery stitching.

Sales of full-size SUVs are down 17% from a year ago, and this is anything but a growth market. In part that reflects automakers' offering crossover vehicles more finely tuned to the real-world needs of urban and suburban customers. Nissan's Murano and Infiniti FX45 are excellent examples.

It further reflects the rate at which people are abandoning full-sizers because of their wearying nuisances.

The Armada, as vainglorious as its name, is inanely bigger, when what the world needs now is better.


Article list

Thinking inside the box The xB from Toyota's Scion brand is a kind of stereo on wheels, aimed squarely at Japanophile Gen-Y buyers barely old enough to drive. Parents won't get it, but that's the point.

November 5, 2003

2004 Scion xB

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 155.3 inches

Curb weight: 2,450 pounds

Powertrain: 1.5-liter inline-4 engine with variable-valve timing; four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 108 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 105 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in 10.6 seconds

EPA rating: 30 miles per gallon city, 34 mpg highway

Price, base: $14,480 (with automatic transmission)

Price, as tested: $16,403 (adds alloy wheel upgrade and security system)

Competitor: Suzuki Aerio SX, or a year's tuition at UCLA

Final thoughts: It's hip to be square

Source: Toyota Motor Sales, Car and Driver magazine

By Dan Neil
Los Angeles Times

After spending a week driving a Scion xB -- the ice-cube-shaped flagship of Toyota Motor Corp.'s new youth- directed brand Scion -- I would like to publicly apologize to Volvo for all the times I accused its products of being boxy. Clearly, I didn't know from boxy.

Styled with a T-square, a plumb bob and a cheese cutter, the Scion xB takes the concept of boxiness and sexes it up to new, almost platonic levels. You can well imagine somebody in Plato's cave seeing the xB's shadow on the wall and saying, "What the heck is that? ... Oh, silly me, it's just a box."

If for some reason you find the isometric design of the xB displeasing, Scion's under-25 demographic has a message for you: "Yo, old guy, get on home now, you're missing, like, 'Friends.' " This car is aimed squarely at the most subversive subset of Gen-Y, trendsetters who are abandoning the sport compact movement as it goes mainstream, a la "The Fast and the Furious."

The xB is to the sleek-and-low styling of sporty imports what chainsaw sculpture is to the Italian Renaissance.

The Scion brand was launched in California in June. (The brand will bow in the Southern and East Coast markets in February.) Thus far, the xB has outsold its more conventionally styled stablemate, the sport-hatch xA, by almost 2 to 1. And though the xB is the most radically styled, chunky monkeys including the Honda Element and the Suzuki Aerio SX also have found an audience.

So how did square get to be so dope?

It all started with the Japanese market kei mini-cars -- urban runabouts that are limited to 660-cubic-centimeter engines and narrow enough to squeeze through Japan's tiny streets. (The government encourages the use of kei cars by levying lower owner taxes and high fuel taxes.) The boxy shape -- called "tall wagon" in Japan -- was the natural result of seeking maximum cabin space over the cars' minimum footprint.

Kei-class cars constitute about half the Japanese vehicle market, and some of them -- the Honda Life, Nissan Cube and Suzuki Wagon R -- are wickedly clever little transportation gadgets. Besides being super-practical and dirt cheap, the cars appeal to the Japanese taste for a particular sort of goofy anti-styling, a kind of gothic cuteness and precious edginess.

The xB, built on the same platform as the 1.5-liter Toyota Echo, belongs to a larger class of vehicle, but the styling vocabulary is right out of the kei playbook. And considering how Asia-centric Gen-Y's tastes are -- whether for anime, electronics or "Kill Bill" -- perhaps it was just a matter of time before the mad-boxy style jumped the ocean to California.

"It's so ugly it's cute," my girlfriend, Tina, observed. (Almost makes you wonder how the Pontiac Aztek missed, doesn't it?)

The xB is, in fact, a warmed-over Japanese market car called the bB (for "Black Box"). There is talk already at Nissan Motor Co. that it might bring its Cube, scaled up by a factor of 1.2 or 1.5, to the U.S. market. If the xB hits, imitators won't be far behind.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" you understand the so-called Law of the Few: the select group of people who discover a new idea -- be it shoes or a band or a car -- and translate it in such a way that it becomes acceptable to a much wider audience. Old-school marketers call them "thought leaders." The existentially boxy xB is aimed right at this mandarin group inside Gen-Y, and the Scion brand rollout, first in California, reflects this staged assault on the command-and-control structure of Dub Nation.

Having grown up in a maelstrom of mass marketing, Gen-Y is naturally suspicious of ordinary advertising. Almost three years ago, Toyota approached the Los Angeles-based Rebel Organization (the marketing arm of URB magazine, the Rolling Stone of hip-hop, dub and underground music) to help the automaker connect with Scion's target audience.

"Peer-to-peer word of mouth is really key to these consumers," says Josh Levine, president of the Rebel Organization. "They are more interested in companies that they've heard about than those that get pushed on them from TV."

Rebel's under-the-radar marketing of Scion includes putting " street teams" at events like Hot Import Nights -- the Lollapalooza of the tuner world -- as well as supporting deejay contests, nightclub events, fringy art gallery showings and carwashes. The idea, Levine says, is to "put Scion where its audience wants to be."

The ironies abound, starting with the oxymoronic flavor of the name "Rebel Organization." And maybe it's just me, but there is something slightly sinister about an enormous corporation using underground music -- ever the secret-decoder ring of youth culture -- as a conduit to push its products. Imagine the Sex Pistols at CBGB, brought to you by Coca-Cola.

In any event, music is key to Scion's car-as-lifestyle message. The standard audio system is a Pioneer six-speaker AM-FM-CD-MP3 player pre-wired for satellite radio and sound-processing technology that will rattle your teeth with bass. A six-disc CD changer and a subwoofer system also are available. The cabin construction is extensively soundproofed.

The Scion is what they call "mono-spec," which is to say everything is included for the base price ($13,680 for models with a five-speed manual transmission, $14,480 for automatic-equipped models). Included are air conditioning; power windows, door locks and outside mirrors; rear wiper- defroster; anti-lock brakes with traction and stability control as well as brake assist; halogen headlamps; remote keyless entry; privacy window tinting; full "ground effects"-style body valances; and that monster sound system.

Our test car -- with automatic transmission, security system and an alloy wheel upgrade -- went out the dealer's door at $16,403. As part of Scion's effort to build an emotional bond with Gen-Y, there will be no haggling on price.

Scion does offer nearly 40 aftermarket-style accessories so that buyers can personalize their vehicles: three styles of alloy wheels, carbon-fiber-style body trim, clear tail lamps, Yakima roof rack, rear spoiler, aluminum cross-drilled sport pedals, LED interior light kit and lots more.

For those furious few who want to slam the xB, Scion has a one-stop solution: a Toyota Racing Development performance package, including 18- or 19-inch Hart wheels; Pirelli P-Zero tires; lowering springs kit with struts and shocks; front strut brace; sport muffler and quick-shift kit with performance clutch; and cold-air intake. All supported by the factory's 36-month warranty.

Meanwhile, the aftermarket elves have been hard at work too. Toyota provided designs of the xB to members of the Specialty Equipment Market Assn., whose sprawling trade show is taking place in Las Vegas this week.

What with all the context, it's easy to overlook what the Scion xB is actually like to drive. The answer: It's OK. The interior has all the spatial nuance of a handball court, with the nearly vertical windshield pretty far away. The techy-looking instruments are centrally located, leaving the area behind the steering wheel as a kind of catchall shelf.

I'll say one thing for it. It's got headroom. I wonder whether the xB might presage the return of, maybe, stovepipe hats. Also, because the car is so narrow and the sides are so high, it's initially hard to judge where the curb is when parking. The first few times I parked, I was a foot or more away.

The doors are big and swing wide for easy access. The rear cargo hatch swings neatly out of the way to reveal a pretty good storage area of 21.2 cubic feet. With the 60/40-split rear seat folded, the number climbs to 43.4 cubic feet -- about the size of a comfy loveseat. Oh, right, sorry, I'm showing my age. I mean, about the size of a double turntable and mad PA system.

The least interesting part of the xB -- at least when it comes with the automatic transmission -- is the driving. The 1.5-liter, 108-horsepower inline-4, with variable-valve timing, is certainly a competent engine and clean too (low-emission vehicle status with Environmental Protection Agency-rated mileage of 30 miles per gallon in the city, 34 on the highway).

Unfortunately, the automatic transmission smothers torque. The car is lively around town, but it labors at L.A. freeway speeds. Otherwise, it handles pretty much as you'd expect, with crisp but by-no-means- razor-sharp reactions to inputs in the steering; firm and insistent brakes (front disc, rear drum); and stable posture in corners but with a front-driver's modest appetite for hard cornering.

Aftermarket performance parts are often a waste of time, actually making factory- developed cars slower and dodgier in reliability. But the xB -- which tips the scales at a bantamweight 2,450 pounds -- just screams for kit.

Cheap, stuffed with content, the xB is a perfect starter-kit car for 16-to-24-year-olds. Naturally, many of these kids will need Mom and Dad's help to buy a car, and it's an open question whether parents will look at the xB and say, "I'm not buying you that, that thing! It's hideous!" Parents are not likely to get it, and that's the point.

But I suspect there are a lot of boomers out there who will buy the xB too. You can't beat it for value and practicality, and there's no law saying you have to use it to go clubbing with your friends. That the Scion might reach across demographic boundaries will no doubt strike Toyota as exceedingly dope.

Stories copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.

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