By on July 21, 2017

Scion xB, Image: Toyota

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]

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42 Comments on “Ask Jack: Bigger Than a Breadbox?...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Another vote for the Scion.

    And as a dark horse candidate why not a Pontiac Vibe? Depreciation due to its ‘orphan’ status, a little more ‘fun’ than the Scion but with almost comparable reliability. After all it is pretty much just a Toyota.

    • 0 avatar

      “Cockroaches durability-wise” has applied to all of my friends/co-workers who have owned Vibes and Matrices.

    • 0 avatar

      Orphan status hasn’t done anything to depreciate them around my area. Used Vibes seem to bring top dollar and sell quickly. Likely due to a large number of folks realizing that they are really Toyotas.

  • avatar

    There’s a 1st gen Scion xB running around the area. It has one of my favorite personalized plates of all time: MY XBOX.

    Get the Scion. Even assuming equal reliability the one with fewer miles has to have more life left in it than the one with more miles.

    Besides built in Japan vehicles imported to the US are dwindling even among Japanese manufacturers.

  • avatar

    Well, *I* would go for an HHR SS in your position.

    Of your two options though, I say Scion.

  • avatar

    Had a used Xa. Super reliable. So much so that I sold it to my pastor’s son.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the interesting article. But moreso for mentioning your split “car” personality. Few who comment here really notice the difference between cars as interesting industrial products and personal tools, and things being used as our surrogates based on conditioning by the industry’s storytellers. And yes, the manufacturers empty the disciples’ pockets for their oblivious addiction to the stories.

    Nothing like a visit to a car junkyard to see past the stories.

    • 0 avatar

      “Few who comment here really notice the difference between cars as interesting industrial products and personal tools, and things being used as our surrogates based on conditioning by the industry’s storytellers.”

      Here here, there’s nothing quite like taking your passion and boiling it down to meaningless nonsense, denying all of the joy and happiness it brought you, dismissing it as frivolous stories that mean nothing.

      Boomers didn’t run out and buy a early Mustang/Camaro/Cuda/etc and enjoy the hell out of it and develop a lifelong passion for automobiles, plastering smiles on their face for decades on after, leading them to comment here because they are still very interested in cars, even if they have accepted the fact that perhaps a pony/muscle car is no longer right for them, but a BMW/Giulia/Qwhatever/IS/Si/ST is and still provides them with an enjoyable experience while doing mundane tasks like running errands in a town that has a nice twisty road and long empty straights between you and it.

      It was just marketing fakeness.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @john: Have you forgotten that the original Mustang was just a gussied up Falcon? Do you remember how many Mustangs with the ‘small’ engine were sold? Do you remember just how bad they were to drive?

        Yes there was a lot of marketing fakeness.

        Then as JB wrote, we transferred our emotions to the vehicle. The experiences that we had in it, which could have occurred in pretty much any vehicle, were transformed to ‘my Mustang’ experiences.

        As they exposed on the derided TBBT, Indiana Jones had little to no actual bearing on the outcome of the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazis would have found the Ark and all died whether he was in the story or not.

        • 0 avatar

          I’d say there is a difference between liking a vehicle due to “marketing fakeness” and getting attached to your grandfather’s Lincoln because you loved him.

      • 0 avatar

        Go wander around a car wrecker. All the differentiating zoom zoom, sporty, safety, luxury, precision machinery, aggression etc. stories are gone and they all look the same. Trashed worn out transportation products.

        Do enjoy your fun with the stories, but try to remind yourself now and then its just a very expensive game.

  • avatar

    Get the EP3!

    I bought one for my 2nd car, first manual car, and I owned it for 7 years before finally selling it for someone else to enjoy. They’re rock solid and hold a hell of a lot of stuff, singlehandedly moving me into and out of college and all the way from NY to TX when I went to grad school. Easy to work on, fun to play with, and all your troubles regarding power are a simple K24A2 swap away(I did mine in one weekend).

  • avatar

    I looked into the second-gen xB for a friend. There’s one major fly in the ointment: Takata airbags. There’s no way to tell when they’ll even have the parts, and in the meantime you have the slightly unsettling feeling that you have a shotgun aimed at your head and chest. Frankly, it was enough to scare me away on my friend’s behalf.

    How about a Fit? More space, much better MPG than the Scion (which is much worse than you’d think), and decent scoot if you row your own.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought about the Fit but its not quite as much “scoot” as the other 2 options. I have the Insight for hypermiling. I am only looking for decent fuel economy in the new to me ride.

      • 0 avatar

        When car-shopping a year ago, I considered both a Honda Fit and a Scion xB, among others. Honestly, even with those “Magic Seats” in the back, the Fit just does not have as much room in it as the larger xB.

        What ruled out the Fit for me, though (as well as its larger HR-V brother) was the short & uncomfortable footwell. Just not enough legroom. I went with the cavernous xB.

        (Unfortunately, after a year of ownership, its cheap interior plastics now rattle like crazy and it’s driving me nuts.)

        My xB’s fuel economy definitely ain’t too good at around 24 mpg on average, mostly on highways.

        • 0 avatar

          I have an ’08 xB, not much rattling that I’ve noticed. But my other ride was an Element, so not a lot of quietude there either, maybe I’m just desensitized. I do find the xB to be a quieter highway ride.

          Besides the airbag issue, the ’08s burn oil. There’s a recall so Toyota will fix it for free. I’d rather buy a couple extra quarts per year than have the dealer tear into my engine, but YMMV.

  • avatar

    I’ll pick nits for a second…

    “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…”

    Well, technically, the “Si” was first introduced in 1986, and before that the “sport” Civic had the “S” badge. Your mom’s ’83 was indeed a pretty lame decal job, but the next-gen Civic S that came out in ’84 had meaningful performance upgrades over the base model (uprated tires, stiffened suspension, sport seats, full instrumentation). I liked that one enough to buy one.

    The next Civic S was the “Si”, which came out in ’86, and the “i” meant it was fuel injected. And it was a pretty tasty little car for its’ day.

    So, no, your mom never owned the worst Si ever. Take comfort from that.

    (And actually, I’d go with the 2004 Si as worst ever.

    • 0 avatar

      I had an ’84 Civic 1500 S hatch too! LOVED that car and drove it throughout high school and college.

      Random info: they only came in 3 colors – all two tones over a grey bottom. White, red and another grey. Yes there was a grey-over-grey two tone since the bottom had a different shade. Now my brother had the DX model. The main differences was it didn’t have a passenger side mirror, tach, center console and the rear seats folded down as one since it was kind of bench vs split buckets (with headrests no less) on my up-speced S version. The S had an all black interior where the DX came in various colors like blue and tan. The Si versions were all one color with bumpers and mirrors painted to match while the DX (and LX?) had just black plastic bits. I believe the Si came in red, white and black only and similar to the S the interiors were only black.

      After the Civic S I moved up to a yellow ’89 Prelude Si and my brother got an ’88(?) red CRX Si. Further down the road after moving in with my bride-to-be I quickly got her out of a horrible Chevy Caviler an into a ’94 Civic Si sedan. Then the Honda love in our family died.

    • 0 avatar

      Reading that review by ‘admin’ (I’m guessing Farago based on the innuendo and Britishisms) has reminded me how much the quality of the writing here at TTAC – present company excluded – has degraded since the founder left the building.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I completely agree, but the first two gens of the 1500S are direct ancestors and I wanted to make the joke so THERE YOU GO!

  • avatar

    “…It’s why we no longer fear thunder and why people will cheerfully take food prepared for them by strangers…”

    I have no opinion of the cars in this story due to unfamiliarity with either, but I loved this line. Made me laugh out loud!

  • avatar

    At first I was appalled by getting rid of the 535xi manual wagon. This is the pinnacle of motoring for many! Twin turbo v6, stick and awd? Its’ like a WRX grew up and got a better suit.

    But then I recall my own BMW ownership and after having suffered at it’s many failings, I can totally see why one would cut it loose. Shame they’re not durable. Honda sure doesn’t make a fast wagon with AWD that scoots. Maybe a TL-SH AWD with a 6MT but sadly, no wagon. If only they stuffed that powertrain into a TSX wagon. Hm, that might be a fun project!

  • avatar

    I somewhat disagree with the premise of the article. The crux of enthusiasm is not “to appliance or not to appliance?”. The relevant question is “to multitool or not to multitool?”. All of my vehicles are just appliances to me, but I’m enthusiastic about each one. What kills the automarket and enthusiasm is the people who buy vehicles that need to be sporty, fun to drive, go offroad, carry 7 people, and make 30mpg on the hwy. The resulting vehicle is bad at everything.

    Anyway, the information about the xB was a revelation. I had no idea it had any performance credentials, but showing strongly against an older Civic Si proves the xB is not intolerable if you need to hustle.

    Between the two of these vehicles, I’d go with the Toyota. Both engines are chain driven and fairly reliable, but the owner profile of the xB means an unmolested car has probably been gently driven. The xB is also more useful in everyday life, and it’s more likely to have accessories related to active lifestyle, since the xB exists (in Toyota’s mind) to serve younger demographics.

    • 0 avatar

      “Anyway, the information about the xB was a revelation. I had no idea it had any performance credentials, but showing strongly against an older Civic Si proves the xB is not intolerable if you need to hustle.”

      It’s more of an indictment of how not-sporty our 160hp Si was in the US, missing out on the 200hp version of the K20 motor. There are a ton plebian of manual-transmission equipped compact cars on sale now that would easily keep up with either of the cars in this article. Including my ho-hum 2012 Civic LX or something like an Accent, a new Jetta with the 1.4 TSi would mop the floor with all of them.

  • avatar

    I’ll also echo tossing the Vibe/Matrix. The 1st gen GT/XRS seems to straddle the form/function between the EP3 and xB perfectly.

    I’ve occasionally seen the seemingly odd comparison test in Japanese rags in the past, but they make points similar to those here in justifying the odd comparos.

  • avatar

    some early model 2gen xb’s are known for burning oil. apparently a batch of the engines had the rings incorrectly installed. my brother has one, and they FINALLY did a secret TSB which basically meant taking the pistons out, changing the rings, reinstalling. probably from the bottom if possible.

  • avatar

    I too considered the Civic Si in the past.Then I looked inside and saw that gear lever.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    I’d warn you about the xB’s wonky cheap-Toyota driving position, but it looks like you’ve been on longer trips in one and find it OK. The cushions are too short for me and the wheel is too far away when I’m comfortable with the pedals, leading to an outstretched-arm driving position that makes me nucking futs after about 30 minutes. Otherwise, incredibly roomy and capable vehicle for the money, and who doesn’t find charm in a dashboard-mounted manual shift knob in a little vanlet like this? I didn’t think they were this quick, either. With a 0-60 in just over 7 seconds and the direct power delivery of a manual gearbox, this will scoot around nicely.

    • 0 avatar

      Hmm – Mptorweek (for an automatic) says 9.4 seconds. C/D says 7.8 for a manual but I’m skeptical.

      Mine was not a quick car – felt way slower than my previous car, a 2004 BMW 325i but the Scion was better for hauling furniture.

      • 0 avatar

        The Toyota 2.4L hooked up to a stick shift in not-too-horribly-heavy of a car makes that time sound spot on. Nice and torquey units, the manual transmission really lets you get more out of them and appreciate the powerplant more. They still made a few Camries with this motor and a stick shift to boot.

  • avatar

    Come to think, I’ve never really cared about any car I’ve own. Did enjoy my 1996 4runner/manual, that 22R worked well and a K/N filter replacement got me up the Sonol grade one gear higher.

    Now my truck is different, making coin with work. Truck Camper for payload(home for weeks at a time). Deep dive the spec’s and all will be revealed.

    • 0 avatar

      For what it’s worth, your ’96 4Runner would have had the 3RZ-FE 2.7L engine if it was a 4 cylinder. Great motors, arguably better than the 22RE. Or else you had a ’95 4Runner titled as a ’96?

  • avatar

    Makes me kind of wish I had looked a little harder to find a manual 2nd gen xB versus the ’14 Escape S I bought. Not that I mind the Escape, but it doesn’t come with a manual and not remotely close to having that kind of acceleration.

  • avatar

    With all the hate showered on the Gen 2 XB, I’m still really liking its ability to haul lots of cargo with the rear hatch shut.

    Right now there are 70 1 X 8 x 5 foot redwood fence boards sitting in mine with room to spare.

    And as for the airbags, spare parts are in and the warranty work was done. It’s an ’09 and does not use any oil.

  • avatar

    Have any of you guys (Including Mike) actually ever driven a Manual 2nd gen XB?

    If not stop what your doing, and drive one.

    On paper it should be great. Tried a true large 4 cylinder used in many models, in production for 14 years, where at the very end Toyota finally fixed the head bolt snap issue and oil consumption. Bolted to an old school 5 speed in the world of 6 speeds that was used in several Toyota models as the last row your own option before auto became mandatory.

    In reality??? It is on of the most terrible manual transmission vehicles I’ve ever driven, and is borderline undriveable without significant modifications (detailed below). I bought my 2015 5mt with 2 miles on it for reference.

    Problems related to it’s transmission:
    1) From first test drive, shifter vibrates when in motion. This was the case for all others I’ve driven. Deemed normal for this transmission.

    2) Clutch pedal mounted 2 inches HIGHER than the brake pedal from the factory, producing monumentally long throw combined with zero pedal feel (see below). I had to pull the lower dash panel and adjust the clutch master cylinder rod and clutch pedal stop nut. It’s normal now.

    3) Toyota uses a 7/8 bore clutch slave cylinder on the 2nd gen XB. Every other 2.4/5mt Toyota uses a 13/16. As a result there is zero pedal feel and the tip in point is completely unable to be felt. To fix this, I purchased a Genuine Toyota Aisin clutch slave for a 2005 Rav4. Same part but smaller 13/16 bore. Now I have a normal clutch with better feel, except…:

    4) *HOWEVER* When the vehicle is very warm, such as completing an extended highway drive, the pedal again begins to loose feel and the tip in point looses crispness and changes position! Toyota puts a clutch dampener on this car, and stupidly mounts it on the transmission to absorb heat. The clutch slave is also right near the exhaust manifold. Everything heats up and the clutch becomes weak. Which brings us to when it’s cold…

    5) The transmission from day 1 shifts terribly when cold. I followed forums and went to Eneos MTL I which improved it immensely but it’s still piss poor for a brand new car. Shifting into second semi grinds until warm. Shifting into first is essentially unsyncronized. Rolling up to a stop sign and wanna stick her into 1st…nope. Not going to happen. Sometimes just getting into 1st stopped is a challenge.

    6) Toyota won’t come out and say this but there is no way to get them to warranty your manual transmission without going to arbitration. Thus I haven’t tried. They actually pay a tech 12hrs book time to pull and remove, and 100% tear down all manuals to try to find a worn part to blame on “customer abuse” Of course if the transmission doesn’t shift properly it will be worn…once they find something, your car is torn appart in the bay and they demand $4k for a new tranny or $900 to reassemble. You can’t move the car so you have to pay the $900 and fight it in arbitration. The only way to prevail in arbitration is to bring an ASE certified mechanic to prove that your transmission may have been damaged by manufacturer error. Otherwise they will tell you to pound sand. This is all detailed in numerous consumer complaints about Toyota transmissions. And these issues aren’t just me. They are endemic to all 2nd gen XB manuals. Read the forums. Some guys have gone through 3 transmissions, but only because they knew the dealer personally.

    Just buy the Honda. They actually know how to make a manual.

  • avatar

    I quickly learned to hate my 2008 xB – I’m 6’2″ and the driving position was terrible for long distance driving. I could never get comfortable no matter what seat position I tried. Tilting the seat back was the was the best option but still didn’t give me any more leg room.

    Also: room for the left foot was uh, not there.

    The 2.4L engine – at least with an auto – didn’t like to rev. I couldn’t tell the difference between WOT and mid-throttle when accelerating. The engine just got thrashier.

    Also the cheapness of the car was really apparent on the highway. NVH was bad and it grew tiresome for longer drives.

    Likes: It was good in the snow, even with standard bog tires. Good room for a small family, and also the ability to haul stuff. Not quite pickup or Honda Element room but not bad. I also liked the funky exterior looks but I’m also a MINI fan so that with a grain of salt ;)

    Also – my car got totaled in an accident – it took a 55mph hit on the side and the structure stayed intact.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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