It's not as nimble as the Kia Soul and its quirky looks have been outweirded by the Nissan Cube, but there's something about the 2011 Scion xB that merits a second look. Maybe it's the crazy paint on our Release Series 8.0 tester, maybe it's finally been around long enough to distance itself from the first-generation Scion xB in my mind, but the second-generation xB is starting to grow on me; I think that I'm starting to like it.
Where the xB wins hands down is in spaciousness. Where the Scion tC feels claustrophobic compared with its nearest competitor, the xB treats its driver and passengers to a high roof, lots of leg room, and tons of shoulder space--a rarity in vehicles in the xB's price range. However, as spacious as the xB is, there's a lot of wasted space in its cabin. This is particularly true behind the driver's seat where something like the Honda Fit's Magic Seats or a sliding second row would take the xB from being merely cavernous to being genuinely flexible and fun.
The Scion xB's performance specs are nothing to get excited about--which is probably why the automaker all but hides them on its extremely busy Web site. We all scowled at the xB's four-speed automatic transmission and rolled our eyes at the horsepower. (Fortunately, a manual gearbox is available.) Trying to drive the xB like it's not a lunchbox on wheels is asking to be disappointed. That said, while there's not a ton of power to be had, the torque curve seems to place it exactly where you need it. I liked the low- to midspeed pickup that the xB's 2.4-liter engine supplies--it's not what you'd call a fun drive, but at the speed limit, it's very capable. Start thinking "0 to 35" rather than "0 to 60" and the xB's performance makes a lot more sense.
Since you won't be getting anywhere quickly, you should at least enjoy the journey. Cabin technology, however, is an area where the xB wins by failing. Bluetooth hands-free and "premium" audio are offered a la carte as a bit of a formality, but I can't really think that Toyota/Scion expects anyone to actually buy that crap. I know this because Scion makes it stupidly easy to install your own aftermarket gear. After spending three days in the trenches of CES 2009 installing three or four receivers per day in a donor xB's dashboard, I could probably yank that hideous Alpine-branded Scion receiver out in about 10 minutes and have a proper Alpine receiver in within 30.
Of course, I have to comment on the Release Series exclusive additions. The Kenstyle kit and electric-blue color of the RS 8.0 package are pretty awesome, but what I really like is that LED-backlit identifier plate on the dashboard. It's the little things that count and I've already got an idea for how to mod one of these into our Chevy Aveo's dashboard! Back to the point, if you're not into modding your car but value a custom look, the Release Series special edition is a nice way to get a unique xB--well, unique to you and the other 1,999 RS 8.0 buyers. On the other hand, if you aren't into modding your ride, you may be missing out on the best part of owning an xB.
Given the choice between the boxy xB and the boxy Nissan Cube with my own buying dollars at stake, I'd say the xB wins hands down. The cars are equally spacious, but I prefer the xB's power train. Add the Kia Soul to the mix and it becomes a tougher decision to make. Off the lot, the Soul has better tech at a better price. The Kia's driving dynamics are a bit better than Scion's big blue Xbox, as well. However, performance isn't really a priority for me in this segment, while comfort is. Knowing that there's nothing I'd enjoy more than spending my weekends installing my own car audio components and bolting on body kit panels, my snap judgement would give the edge to the Scion xB for its superior power, space, and ease of modification.
As always, your mileage may vary.