Ask Jack: Bigger Than a Breadbox?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

If you’ve read enough of my writing, then you know that I am a fervent believer in what I call the power of the story. Human beings rarely interact directly with reality; instead, we use stories to interpret what we are seeing in a way that makes sense. It’s why we no longer fear thunder and why people will cheerfully take food prepared for them by strangers.

Few aspects of our existence are as relentlessly story-driven as our interactions with the automobile. Without the power of story, we would see automobiles as nothing but machines for accomplishing a particular task, be it a commute, a vacation, or an SCCA race — and we would judge them solely on their ability to accomplish that task. Trust me, if we all did that it would be absolutely ruinous for the automaker profit margins out there. Imagine picking a car the way you’d pick a dishwasher or, um, a power supply. You would quickly forget about intangibles and focus on fitness for purpose.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve tried to shed my personal addiction to the automotive narrative and learn how to “understand the thing for itself,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote. This can lead to some surprising conclusions… and it looks like I’m not the only one who has acquired at least a little bit of this skill. Normally we wouldn’t do two Ask Jack columns in one week, but the fellow in this case says he’s going to make a choice this weekend, so let’s pull the trigger pronto and get right to the question.

Mike writes,

I am in the market for a new secondary car. About seven months ago I picked up a 2001 Honda insight as a second car — and something of a dream car for me, as odd as that may sound. I started do all of my commuting and most of my short weekend trips with the Insight, enjoying every bit of that 64 miles per gallon on regular fuel. My other car was a 2008 BMW 535xi wagon with manual transmission that I had owned for about 60,000 miles and 2.5 years. It was my main “do everything car” (long cruises, spirited driving, carry around my recreational equipment, etc.). Due to the high insurance and maintenance costs, high registration fees, the fear of a rapidly depreciating high-mileage (160k) BMW, and no actual need for a car as big of a 5 series (no family), it was time for it to go….

As much as I love my Insight, there are things it is not great at — mainly carrying much of anything, driving for an extended period of time, or any combination of the two. With the BMW sold I am in the market for a second car. Ideally, one that’s cheap to maintain and insure, is fine sitting and only being driven 1 out of 14 days, can carry a mountain bike or strap a kayak on top of, can be enjoyed during the occasional spirited drive/autox, and has the ability to comfortably carry enough stuff for week-long trips.

I have two main candidates picked out: a 2004 Civic Si with 154k miles, or a 2008 Scion xB with 95k miles. Both have manual transmissions and are listed for $4,500. I know the Scion is the practical choice: newer, fewer miles, rear doors, and more cargo space. One of my college friends had this era of xB, I have driven it, been on long road trips in it, experienced its rock-solid reliability, and on top of all of that I really like the center gauges and digital speedo. I know I like this car, the powertrain is surprisingly fun, it’s not as dull to drive as one might think, and I know I could be happy with it. Then we have the wild card — the EP3 civic. While I have never driven one, I have always loved the way these cars look (inside and out), the solid Honda reliability, and aftermarket support in case I get bored with the car in stock form. On paper both cars have the same 0-60 times, but I feel like the Civic will be the more fun car, and for that reason I think I might like it more. So what do I pick: the car I know I like or the car I think I will like more?

Let me start with the obvious: I’m not sure which tests Mike is using to assign a roughly similar 0-60 to both an ’04 Civic Si and an ’08 Scion xB, but there is no way in hell the Civic will not whip the Scion’s ass in any contest of speed of which you could reasonably conceive. Or at least that’s what I thought until I actually looked at C/D‘s numbers, which actually give the nod in both 0-60 and 0-100 to the Scion. Could that be right? Could the unloved successor to the real xB really have hustle to match the British-built EP3 hatch?

It gets worse. The more you look at these two cars, the more similar they are. Weight, approximate size, seating position… How is this the case? If you had asked me prior to this morning, I would have told you that the Civic Si hatch and the second-gen xB were totally different. Well, it turns out they’re not.

Let’s all take a moment to respect and admire Mike for seeing a similarity that has probably escaped 99 percent of the buying public. Then let’s slap his hand for his decision to turn away from this singular insight (with a lower-case “i”) and even consider the Honda. Why? Let’s see. Two cars, each alike in dignity. Except one of them is four years newer, has two-thirds the mileage, and is built in Japan by Toyota instead of in Swindon, UK by Honda. You can say what you like about the xB, but they are cockroaches durability-wise and are in use as taxis pretty much everywhere it’s permissible to use them as such, which is an unequivocal indicator of no-excuses reliability. It is also far less likely to have been abused or “performance” modified during its lifetime.

Will it be less fun to drive? I’m afraid that perception and reality might be slightly correlated here. Still, the EP3 hatch was not known for being a brilliant steer when it was new — I hate to use the phrase “worst Civic Si” in a world where my mother’s 1983 stripe-and-upholstery package Civic 1500 “S” existed, but this ain’t no bright-blue coupe or Energy Green turbo stunna. With the right modifications, the British Civic hatch can be made to perform, but all that does is send the owner down a rabbit hole where they eventually realize they should have saved up for a 2009 Si coupe instead.

Mike, I’m gonna score this one for the Scion by an overwhelming, unanimous decision. It might be the uglier of the two breadboxes, but it’s the right one for you. And congratulations, once again, for looking past the story and into the reality of the metal. May we all learn to do the same.

[Image: Toyota Motor Corporation]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Instant_Karma Instant_Karma on Jul 23, 2017

    How about an xB with a 2zz engine swap? That's pretty much what you get when you divide a Civic SI by an xB. A Matrix XRS is pretty much the same formula too.

  • Erikstrawn Erikstrawn on Jul 24, 2017

    I bought my wife a used first-gen Scion xB a few years back, and it was a tin can of a car with rock solid reliability and the ability to swallow huge amounts of cargo. Replacement parts are 1990s cheap. We drove the crap out of it, and a month ago passed it on to my son. Last weekend he got sideswiped on the highway rolled it. The interior of the car is nearly untouched while every body panel is trashed. If I needed another car, I wouldn't hesitate to buy another xB. You won't find many in the salvage yards - they get rebuilt and put back on the roads. They're the best kept secret of the cheap car world.

  • Ted Lulis Head gaskets and Toyota putting my kids through college👍️
  • Leonard Ostrander Plants don't unionize. People do, and yes, of course the workers should organize.
  • Jalop1991 Here's something EVangelists don't want to talk about, and why range is important: battery warranties, by industry standard, specify that nothing's wrong with the battery, and they won't replace it, as long as it is able to carry 70% or more of its specified capacity.So you need a lot of day 1 capacity so that down the road, when you're at 70% capacity with a "fully functioning, no problem" car, you're not stuck in used Nissan Leaf territory."Nothing to see here, move along."There's also the question of whether any factory battery warranty survives past the original new car owner. So it's prudent of any second owner to ask that question specifically, and absent any direct written warranty, assume that the second and subsequent owners own any battery problems that may arise.And given that the batteries are a HUGE expense, much more so than an ICE, such exposure is equally huge."Nothing to see here, move along."
  • Roger hopkins The car is in Poland??? It does look good tho...
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X The push for EV's is part of the increase in our premiums. Any damage near the battery pack and the car is a total loss.