2008 Scion XB

I like soft seats.

Whether I’m at home watching the game, at the game, or sitting in traffic on the way to the game, soft is good.

American cars excel in this area. No surprise there, most people would roll their La-Z-Boy out to the driveway and prop it behind the steering wheel if that was an available option. (Don’t even think about it, I totally have dibs on that idea.)

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Oddly, French vehicles tend to be on the cushy side as well. This is probably to make up for the painful rattan chairs they force you to sit in at their cafes.

The Japanese, however, invented the futon, and are the richest people in the world that think sitting on the floor to eat is a good idea, rather than something you do because you can’t afford a chair.

They also find it necessary to have as many massage parlors as we have McDonald’s, and don’t think that it’s at all awkward to pay someone to walk barefoot on your back.

This culture of comfort is embodied in the seats of their cars, which are typically as stiff as the Tokyo businessmen who drive them to work. Compared to every other surface in Japan, however, they must feel like they are filled with tofu.

Even in the United States, I often hear friends talking about how much they love the firm and supportive seats they have in their import. These people are often on the way to the chiropractor.

With all of this in mind, I instinctively braced for impact as I got into my Scion XB test vehicle, expecting the familiar crunch of seating foam that often accompanies this maneuver, particularly in an economy car.

Instead, what I heard was an audible, “aaah.” It took a moment to realize that it came from me, not the car. The fabric seat wasn’t just soft, it was pillowy, like a pile of clothes in a laundry detergent advertisement.

It was an unexpected delight, and possibly part of a conspiracy, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Like it or not, all impressions of the XB start on the outside. While the 2008 model isn’t quite the box the old one was, it’s still the squarest, funkiest car you can buy. Wherever I went, people either asked about it, or stared. It makes a statement like few cars at any price.

My wife hates it. She thinks it is the most ridiculous looking thing on the road. She’s right, of course, but where she sees only form, I see function.

Function is good.

All you need to do to be convinced of this is slide those comfortable front seats as far back as they go, which is pretty far, and then sit in the back. You can, or I should say ‘I can,’ and I’m 6’ 1”. There are plenty of midsized sedans and SUVs that have less useable legroom than the XB.

The rear seat doesn’t slide and recline like the one in the old XB, but it’s plenty comfy like the fronts and does fold flat 60/40 to expand the cargo area.

Simply put, it doesn’t matter how small or large your car is, if it doesn’t look exactly like the XB, it’s a waste of space and you should be burned at the stake for driving it.

Which presents an interesting dilemma, because with all the room, comes a few drawbacks.

Minimal sound-deadening material and acres of window glass mean lots of noise gets in from the outside. You can hear people talking on the sidewalk as if they were in your lap, and the engines of nearby vehicles might as well be in the glove compartment. The cavernous shape of the interior amplifies the sound and creates so much resonance that driving through a tunnel at highway speed reminded me of being on a regional jet.

Conversations with passengers in the back seat are just as difficult as they would be with someone sitting in seat 12A on a small plane, too, and you have to crank the audio system way up to hear it on the move. It’s a good one, though, from Pioneer, with inputs for an iPod or MP3 player, and available XM satellite radio.

Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to use. With the instrument panel located high in the center of the dashboard, one of the air vents is down low to the right of the steering wheel where the radio normally is. Instead, it’s been shunted toward the passenger seat making it a stretch to reach. It looks out of place and tacked-on, like someone just picked a spot where there was room in the dash to cut a hole to install it. This could be a tip of the hat to the young kids Scion encourages to buy and customize XBs until they’re unrecognizable. To a geezer in training like me, it looks like an afterthought.

The XB has a strong engine - 50 percent more powerful than the model it replaces, which helps make up for a 600-pound weight gain - but it’s grumpy, adding to the noise in the cabin. My test vehicle idled like a lawnmower, despite, or possibly because of the fact that it was equipped with an optional sport exhaust system.

In either case, while the car feels quick enough for getting around town, it makes the kind of racket that causes older folks to use the word “whippersnapper.” Unless you meet that description, you should save the $80 and stick with the stock exhaust. You won’t be inspired to drive quickly, but that’s probably a good thing.

Remember those comfy seats? Apparently they have a purpose other than making me all dreamy… which they still do. They also cover up one of the roughest, sloppiest suspensions you can find, even in a bargain basement car.

Every bump makes a bang. A bunch of bumps rock it back and forth like an angry mob trying to tip it over. For a car that’s targeted at urban youth, it’s a real handful on heaving, potholed inner city streets.

Along with being soft, the seats also have large side bolsters, which are typically meant to hold you in place during spirited drives. In the XB, they just hold you in place, and you’ll be glad for that.

Perhaps it’s just my jury-rigged mindset, but if the designers at Scion didn’t intentionally choose these seats to make up for the vehicle’s dynamics, they lucked out.

It’s a real shame, because the steering feels good, the standard traction control and anti-lock brakes work well in the wet, and the XB just plain looks like a fun car to drive.

Unfortunately, it’s not. But it is safe, with four star front and five star side impact ratings, airbags left, right and center, and features like Vehicle Stability Control and Brake Assist that do their best to help keep the car on the road when things get messy and the driver isn’t up to the task.

That’s good stuff for a car in this price class. At $16,600 for the automatic, you could get a lot less for your money, but you can also get more where it counts.

A Volkswagen Rabbit has a much better ride and interior, and the Ford Focus is available with a voice activated multimedia center called Sync — something that would be a perfect fit for a youth-oriented car like the XB.

But while you won’t fit four of your friends in either of those cars - not if you want to stay friends with them - you will fit in.

You couldn’t do that in the XB, even if you tried.


2008 Scion XB

Base Price: $16,600

As Tested: $19,571

Engine: 2.4L inline-4 cylinder

Power: 158hp, 162 lb-ft torque.

Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive w/4-Speed automatic ransmission

MPG: 22 city/28 hwy