Big changes were afoot in the Scion back in the summer of 2007, as the brand’s pioneering crop of Yaris-based funkmobiles gave way to a second generation of models aimed at expanding the brand’s appeal to American consumers. Oddly enough, the biggest changes came for a new model with an unchanged name: in a single generation, the the tiny xB went from freaky, fuel-sipping urban runabout to a bloated, Camry-based beast. In contrast, the less-successful xA underwent a far less radical change as it morphed into the xD, saving it from the initial scorn of Scion purists and keeping the brand’s Yaris-based roots alive. Not that the xD has been in any way rewarded for staying (relatively) faithful to its brand’s mission: like the xA it replaced, the xD has never sold better than its larger, less brand-faithful stablemates. Which begs the question: is the xD a bad car, or was the original vision of a funky, urban micro-car brand a dead-end dream?
Surprisingly, this dichotomy isn’t as overly-reductive as you might imagine. After all, the changes made in the transition from the xA to the xD were well-modulated to give American consumers the positive elements of the Yaris platform with the upgrades that could have given the first generation of Scions a fighting chance.
The underlying platform was changed little from the xA, but crucially, the engine was upgraded from a 1.5 liter buzz-box to an altogether gruntier 1.8 liter Corolla unit. Though hard-core purists always enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with American traffic with a mere 103 horsepower, the tiny engines on the first generation of Scions practically required a manual transmission and careful planning to prevent moments of ass-clenching terror on freeway onramps and other high-power-demand driving scenarios. For jaded enthusiasts, these challenges were a revelation in the driving-a-slow-car-fast fun; for the mass-market, this meant popular automatic-transmission models could come across as downright dangerous, even on short test drives.
With an extra 25 horsepower on tap, the xD cures the first-generation’s power-deficit problems, feeling downright rorty in lower gears. The larger engine gives up some of the free-spinning refinement of the 1.5 liter unit, but the rough, raw grunt makes it far more accessible to American tastes. More importantly, the extra performance doesn’t come with the handling and fuel-economy penalties of the Camry-sourced 2.4 liter engine found in the tC and new xB. In fact, even with the very noticeable extra power and 300 lb weight penalty, the xD only gives up a single highway mpg to the xA, coming in at 27 city, 33 highway.
Indeed, if Scion had simply bunged this engine into the first-generation of xAs and xBs (or better yet, offered it as an option), there’s no telling where the brand might have gone. Especially since so much the first-generation’s charm remains intact. The interior is generally improved over the spartan xA, offering more style and higher-quality materials while losing none of the original’s functional simplicity. Sure, nobs wiggle, buttons jiggle, and the quality appears to be little better than what you can find in late-model Kias, but these are symptoms of the price point and overall an improvement on the first generation of Scions.
Handling is similarly well-preserved, offering crisp turn-in, and firm cornering after some initial lean-in. If the xD’s handling compares poorly to an xA’s, it’s probably because the extra power makes it easier to load up the car’s simple suspension and disturb its composure (a job that’s made easier by the xD’s Toyota-standard numb power steering). On the flip side, the extra power means you don’t have to plan corners out a week in advance in order to find the limits of the xD’s sufficient grip.
Absent any compromises in handling and ergonomics, the benefits of the xD’s power upgrade must be balanced against the its frustratingly unnecessary packaging compromises. Though the xD’s physical dimensions are marginally larger than the xA’s, the extra inches never translate into a noticeable improvement in interior space.
Front leg room is the only interior metric that’s much-improved on the xA, as pushed-forward A-pillars create a more spacious, crossover-like feel up front. Small reductions in headroom go unnoticed, but hip room is down by about 3.5 inches up front and in the second row. The second row’s legroom is also reduced to below 34 inches, eliminating any space advantage in this metric that the xD might have offered over a Yaris (let alone its competitors). Similarly, and despite a larger wheelbase and length, the xD fails to improve on the xA’s cargo capacity, offering only 10.5 cubic feet to the xA’s 11.7. Another non-improvement: the class-leading lack of visibility out of the rear quarters.
When compared to current competitors like the Fit, Soul and Cube, the xD’s packaging compares even less favorably. Though the xD’s extra power makes five-up motoring less terrifying, its compromised packaging eliminates the advantage. Ironically, then, the xD appears to suffer from the opposite problem as the redesigned xB: where the xB became overly bloated in search of PT Cruiser sales, the xA (always the problem child of the Scion lineup sales-wise) had nowhere to go as the designated smallest model of a small-car lineup.
Let’s be clear: unless you regularly roll five-deep, the xD’s packaging won’t be an immediately-obvious compromise. But if you are in the market for a small commuter, two grand less you can now buy a Toyota Yaris five-door that offers a slightly smaller facsimile of the xA experience (without 1.8 power). Or, for the same price as an xD, you buy a Kia Soul which offers first-gen xB-like MPV packaging and xD-like power. Which is exactly what the xD should have offered. Both the Soul and the xD are chuckable and punchy, offering nearly as much around-town fun and frugality and more freeway competence than their most popular competitor, the Honda Fit.
Sadly, more power is all the xD brings to the party. Well, other than the brand-standard dubious set of aesthetics and a now-questionable halo of “Toyota quality.” As just another compact car, the xD is nearly invisible in the market, lacking both the unabashed small-car appeal of the Fit and Yaris, and the practicality of the Soul. The lesson then, is that Scion’s first-generation genius wasn’t in the smallness of its offerings, but in the packaging options it opened in the subcompact class. With the xB swollen out of control and the xD not even trying to offer a distinctive package, it’s no wonder Scion has so badly lost its way.