The largest Scion is a miniature wagon, with room for five people and a small amount of baggage in back. It hugs the ground, exchanging the popular “tall wagon” look for better cornering and gas mileage. Thanks partly to the low-slung body, the Scion provides that fun, go-kart feel which every small car should have — but which many, including the similar-chassis Yaris, don’t.
The body is similar in shape to the retired Scion xB, but it is more aerodynamic, with less focus on the “boxes within boxes” look. There are few areas of aerodynamic puzzlement, the main one being the oddly shaped headlight/turn signal housings.
The xD is short and narrow, making parking easy; headroom is good though parcel space is strictly limited. It feels large inside, thanks to expanses of glass in every direction and a boxy design that doesn’t impinge on passenger space.
Toyota no longer insists on using the Yaris engine in all Scions, and they now use either the Toyota 1.8 or Camry 2.4 (the latter is also in one Corolla model). The xD uses the Corolla’s 1.8 liter engine, boosting power from the xB’s 103 hp to 128 horsepower; torque gets a welcome boost from 101 to 125 pound-feet. The additional power is welcome, and now, when you really need power, you get it. That is, if you’re in the right gear. At low engine speeds and medium to high loads (that is, over 30 mph or on an incline), the Scion is sluggish, a situation not helped by the four-speed automatic transmission. A downshift gets the engine into its power band, and then it becomes a little pocket rocket.
Those with manual transmissions may have an advantage, both in having more gears with which to exploit the engine’s narrow power band, and in being able to make quicker downshifts (that, of course, depends on the driver.) The driver can, thanks to a gated shifter, also make the automatic downshift on demand; it requires a quick knock to the left to go from fourth to third, a quick pull back to go down to second. One must be careful in the third-to-second not to go that next step down to first.
The automatic can feel spongy and indecisive; part of that is the tuning of the throttle. The gas pedal seems to have a little band in which practically nothing happens, then a sudden step-up, then more relatively unresponsive area. The sudden tip-in might make the Scion seem more powerful in test drives, but it also makes it a little touchy when starting out or parking.
The Scion is frisky in city driving, though, again, if you catch it off guard, you need to wait for (or cause, by flooring the pedal) a downshift; it feels sluggish once under way with the automatic and the engine below 3,500 rpm. In contrast, 0-30 sprints are quick and feel fine. The engine is loud and snarly under acceleration, which might be desirable by the target market.
Gas mileage is fairly good, albeit not up to the level we’d expect. The Toyota Corolla actually does better, despite its larger interior, with an estimated 27/35 mpg versus the four-speed-automatic Scion’s 27/33. That is probably due to the Corolla’s five-speed automatic (which gets the same mileage as the manual-transmission Corolla). We averaged around 30 mpg, coincidentally the same mileage we used to get in our 1979 Rabbit. It’s pretty good for a modern car with all that safety and audio equipment. You can monitor your gas mileage from the standard trip computer.
The Scion has surprisingly good handling, with tight steering and a good grip on the road. Stability is good at highway speeds. The ride is fairly refined; the suspension is firm but has considerable cushioning built in, so you stay well connected with the road and feel all the bumps and imperfections, but they are all cushioned and moderated. It’s a good compromise between the “no shocks” feel of some performance cars and the floaty-comfort typical-Toyota ride. On the other hand, at highway speeds, every bump is felt — harshly. The xD is much happier as a city car.
The xD feels very nimble, and likes to turn sharp corners with nary a care, largely to the low stance, suspension design, and stability control. Standard traction control helps – as do standard four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution. Also in the name of safety are prosaic but useful adjustable headrests for each passenger, and standard mirror-mounted turn signals so everyone knows where you’re going. Yes, a car without a temperature gauge or a standard gas gauge has mirror-mounted turn signals, a standard stereo USB port, and a standard tachometer. The Scion people know their target market and don’t seem to have any major allegiances to old priorities.
Cargo room is fairly minimal but it is easy to access, and protected by a well-designed cargo net. You can quickly expand the cargo bay by taking advantage of the fold-flat seats, and extra-long objects will fit if the front passenger seat is reclined all the way – which makes that seat relatively (though not completely) flat as well.
The dashboard is dominated by a single-dial-plus-idiot-lights instrument panel. The large, round pod is now right in front of the driver; it contains just two analog gauges (speed and tachometer) in a pleasant arrangement, with white backlighting for the speedometer and amber for the tachometer, and two big idiot-light pods. The gas gauge is a nine-element LCD, with amber backlighting, next to the gear indicator; there is no heat gauge, but Toyota provided idiot lights for “cold engine” and “hot engine.” When in reverse, a box blinks around the “R” of the gear indicator.
The interior continues its clever and efficient round vents, which are easy to shut off, and a stereo system with very good sound, using a Pioneer receiver/CD player. Adjustments must be done with buttons (except volume), and the layout isn’t intuitive. The tiny power button has at least been relocated to the top left; lettering is hard to read throughout. (Scions are apparently marketed to people with better than average vision.) It is very easy to adjust the sound processing, which has three modes – none, hear (similar to loudness), and feel (which heavily emphasizes bass response). We actually found feel worked best for most music, but missed a “talk” setting which would minimize bass and raise treble.
One unusual feature in a car of this price is a standard USB iPod interface, sensibly placed at the bottom of the center stack, next to a power outlet, and right by the cupholders. The Scion comes with a cupholder fill-in which incorporates an iPod holder and coin holder for a limited number of nickels, dimes, and quarters. The cupholder includes a place for a cable to go so you can have your iPod connected by either USB and audio cable.
We had some problems with the stereo. It took a while to discover that settings have to be changed by holding down the SSP button until hearing a beep; then the big knob can be used (the instructions neglected to include this tidbit). Changing settings was clunky, particularly bass, treble, balance, and fade, which should be the easiest to alter. On the lighter side, people can personalize the startup message (from “Scion”) and can adjust the subwoofer, shutting it off entirely or changing its nature; they can also alter the dynamic volume and loudness controls, preferably while parked. We never did get our iPod Classic working with the system, though the manual claimed it was as easy as attaching the USB cable (it’s possible that a special car adapting cable is needed). There is an aux input so we could listen to the iPod, but could not control it — dangerous for anyone not just shuffling songs.
Controls were simple and fairly logical. The climate control had oversized knobs for easy use; the rear defroster and air conditioning both had large buttons centered in the knobs.
Visibility is excellent, with the barest of blind spots, strong, well-focused headlights, and a standard rear wiper/washer with a defroster. The under-windshield material is a matte plastic which avoids reflections in the windshield. Windshield wipers are large and cover a good area, up front at least; the rear window has a short, stubby wiper which covers around a third of the area. As with just about any Toyota, the headlights are powerful and well-focused.
Storage is moderately limited up front, with Big Gulp type cupholders molded into the doors where map pockets would usually be, a pair of normal cupholders under the center stack along with a small space for toll devices or sunglasses (not both), Toyota’s usual tiny bin by the steering wheel, and dual glove compartments, one of which comes filled up with documentation and instructions. The upper glove compartment is convenient and has a rubberized, anti-movement/anti-rattle interior. Another slide-out cupholder is hidden underneath the passenger-side air vent, making it easier to permanently use the cupholder-coin slot adapter.
Rear seats are fairly comfortable, with surprisingly good legroom and headroom. There are now cupholders molded into the doors and one in the rear of the center console (which has no other storage). The view is good from every seat thanks to a low beltline and high seats.
The Scion xD comes standard at $16,670 with a four-speed automatic transmission, electronic power steering, front disc brakes with rear drums, a torsion-beam rear suspension, and P195/60R16 all-season radials. Those big tires (for such a small car) really help the grip; not long ago, only big cars and sports cars got sixteen-inch rims and low-profile tires, but wheels have been getting bigger across the board, and tires have been getting lower profile as well. The wheels are steel, and should be more bend-resistant than most alloys.
Safety features include four-wheel ABS with brake force distribution (for straight stops), stability and traction control, side airbags (both curtain and seat mounted) for the front passengers and curtain airbags for the rear, as well as a first aid kit and tire pressure monitors.
Surprisingly standard features include the LED turn signal indicators built into the outside mirrors, trip computer, rear wiper/washer, air conditioning, a Pioneer 160 watt stereo with iPod connectivity (including control from the stereo itself), tachometer, power locks, mirrors, and windows, and tilt wheel with audio controls. Some of that was paid for with fewer gauges, a fairly bare-bones interior, a four-speed instead of the now-common five-speed automatic, and fewer indicator lights at night. Oddly, while backlighting is not provided for some controls, Toyota saw fit to put in a light that warns you if your headlights are on — presumably a concession to former NUMMI partner General Motors.
Our test vehicle had carpeted floor and cargo mats, adding $155 to the price; the cargo net was an extra $65, and the rear bumper applique with the word Scion cut out was another $69. All told, with destination, our car ended up at $16,559.
The Scion xD gets four-star safety ratings for driver and passenger in frontal crashes, five stars for side crashes, and four stars for rollover.
While the Scion xD not huge, it can hold the shopping bags from a moderate trip to the grocery, and the seats fold in for more space; the small size is quite helpful in fitting into garages and parking spaces, as well as providing a nimble feel. In short, the xD isn’t just a good alternative to a small car; it’s a worthy competitor to “cute-utes,” and even mid-sized crossovers that aren’t being fully used. After all, most people only need a lot of space on rare occasions; it makes more sense to spend less on a more thrifty, environmentally and oil-dependency-wise more sensible, less expensive, and more fun vehicle, and to rent or borrow something larger when it’s needed. The xD, particularly with the stick, is indeed a fun city car, and it’s certainly a responsible and economical purchase. It doesn’t feel bad on the highway, either, as long as you’re willing to knock it down from fourth to third before passing.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.