You probably know that Scion is Toyota's experiment to market cars expressly to Gen-Y, the 18-34 crowd that constitutes what the company calls, "an emerging culture of new-car buyers." The plan has been the subject of much debate and op-ed wrangling (e.g., Todd Lassa's "Perspective," Motor Trend, February 2003) centering on the advisability of targeting an audience that resents being targeted and whether a big company can successfully make something these young consumers will deem cool.

The strategy makes an intriguing marketing story, and discussions about it will continue for years. But, for the moment, let's put that aside and do something we haven't been able to do until now: take a drive in the hardware at the center of this exercise. Because no matter how the marketing resonates with a particular audience, in the end, what customers will be paying for--or not--is a car, not a pitch.

So what's the deal on the xA and xB, the two products Scion will launch this year? Awfully good cars. Probably better than they need to be. And they're killer values at the prices being charged. A good product at a great price will find an audience, whether or not it's exactly the one the manufacturer envisioned. (You've noticed all the 40-somethings in Honda Elements?) We boldly predict the Scions will indeed sell. To whom? Well, to someone or other.

Both Scion models, the mini-sportwagon xA and the square-box xB, are derivatives of Japanese-market models (the ist and the bB, respectively) and are based on a Toyota Echo foundation. Wherever they go on sale (in California this June, the rest of the country over the next year), they will immediately remove any rationale for buying an Echo. Though clearly economy cars, the Scions are stylish (whether you like them or not is something else, but they are stylish), comfortable, and actually fun to drive. They come well equipped (essentially only one way, aside from a choice of transmission and dealer accessorization) for MSRPs of $12,480 (xA manual), $13,280 (xA automatic), $13,680 (xB manual), and $14,480 (xB automatic).

The xA, especially, is right down in base-strippo-Civic territory and not far out of the price basement where Kia Rios and Hyundai Accents trade. And for that, you get a Toyota-built product with air-conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt wheel, 60/40 split folding rear seat, and much more, including a powerful six-speaker audio system with MP3 capability and digitally processed ambiance settings. Aside from dress-up add-ons (shift knobs, steering wheels, decals, spoilers, wheel covers, roof racks, stereo upgrade, and the rest), the only option of note is the $650 side airbags in the xA. To whatever extent the standard-equipment list contributes to that cool quotient, the Scions are pretty chillin'.

The xA we tested showed clever strategic investing on the part of Scion engineers. Though costs are visibly controlled in most places, money has been lavished (relatively speaking) on the points where you contact the car. The wraparound seats are positively sporting in how firm and supportive they feel, the steering is taut, linear, and properly weighted, and the shifter has a smooth accuracy many pricier Toyotas lack. So the car imparts an immediate sense of quality and refinement, despite its humble pricing.

With only 108 horsepower on call, the xA's acceleration won't exactly knock your Skechers off. The firmly tuned chassis, however, does provide that happily tossable attitude that can make even low-power cars fun to tear about in. MacPherson struts in front and a torsion-beam rear axle promise cost and space efficiency over sheer handling prowess; yet, spring and damping rates have been set on the stiff side, and geometry and cornering toe control add stability and poise. Quick-ratio (17.5:1) power rack-and-pinion steering bends the little Scion into corners with delightful accuracy and feedback.

Not that the engine is a disappointment. The light and efficient 1.5-liter twin-cam four uses variable valve timing and a spring-loaded bypass valve in the muffler to boost and spread its output. It revs with such sweet abandon that, again, it offers driving enjoyment out of all proportion to its on-paper specs. It helps to have only 2340 pounds of mass to propel, and, at our test track, the xA scampered to 60 mph in a reasonable 9.4 seconds. For this CARB-certified Low Emission Vehicle, Toyota projects EPA mileage ratings of 31 city/37 highway; we saw 30 mpg winding the thing at a sustained 85 mph down Interstate 5, returning from the San Francisco launch.

A laudable 62-mph run through our slalom test (putting the Scion ahead of the Jaguar X-Type, Mazda Miata, and every Kia we've tested) confirms the impression of chuckability on the street. The firm chassis tune gives stability and communicates a clear sense of the road surface and combines with 185/60R15 tires (modestly aggressive for its weight and by Toyota standards) to invite a spirited go any time the road turns playful. Think Mini Cooper without the harshness or Civic Si in three-quarter scale.

We can't predict whether youngsters, in particular, will warm to the look of the Scions, but most people on the road seem to. The straight-sided xB is quite polarizing, but the xA has a distinctiveness that our informal research identified as broadly appealing. It has something of the same aero-breadvan shape that Toyota's Matrix uses to get a sporty look with great interior space efficiency. To our eyes, the Scion treatment is cleaned up as well as scaled down and looks notably more simple, honest, and handsome than the Matrix. The pronounced wheel arches suggest sportiness, the wedge nose is modern, and the gently falling roofline gives a subtle sense of forward motion. It looks good, which is especially hard to manage in a short (93.3-inch wheelbase) package that has to be roomy and flexible inside.

Tallish proportions with upright seating make the xA interior feel spacious and useable even though you know it's small. Generous window areas help. The quick-fold rear seat easily configures the cargo bay for substantial load accommodation, and this, combined with the upmarket comfort of the seating itself, makes for the highly flexible, adaptable interior useability of interest to young buyers--and to everyone else, too, we figure.

Which kind of sums up our overall response to Scion so far. The xA, and the mechanically identical xB, are excellent cars, offering great quality, and qualities, at aggressive prices. Sure, the spirited style, interior adaptability, sporty feel, and loud stereo will appeal to the younger consumers. But who doesn't like that stuff? Car shoppers of every age and outlook appreciate a vehicle that works, is enjoyable to drive, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg--whether or not there are tattoos on those limbs.

The Box: Scion xB
Under its startlingly square-cornered skin, the other Scion, the xB, is practically interchangeable with the xA. So everything we say about how the latter feels and works applies to the former.

But that unique skin does make for a different impression, inside and out. The wheels are pushed right out to the corners (wheelbase is over five inches longer than the xA's, though overall length is up just over one inch), and the flat sides, short nose, and big windows suggest something halfway between a Mini Cooper and a Chevy Astro van. There are strong reminders of the Mini from the driver's seat, as well, in the windshield shape especially. Stick a supercharger onto the engine's intake side, and the sweet-handling xB would make a darned entertaining 10-percent-oversize Mini alternative.

More interior space, including more room in the aft cargo area and a split-folding rear seat that also removes easily, makes the xB even more capable of taking the whole party along.--K.S.

2004 Scion xA Specifications
Base price $12,480
Price as tested $12,480
Vehicle layoutFront engine, fwd, 5-pass
EngineI-4, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, LEV
Displacement, ci/cc91.4 / 1497
Max horsepower @ rpm108 @ 6000
Max torque @ rpm105 @ 4200
Transmission5-speed manual
Curb weight, lb2340
0-60 mph, sec9.4
1/4 mile, sec @ mph16.9 @ 83.2
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft138
Skidpad, g0.74
600-ft slalom, mph62.0
EPA mpg, city/hwy31/37 (preliminary)
On sale in U.S.Currently (CA only)
2004 Scion xB Specifications
Base price$14,480
Price as tested$16,304
Vehicle layoutFront engine, fwd, 5-pass
EngineI-4, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, LEV
Displacement, ci/cc91.4 / 1497
Max horsepower @ rpm108 @ 6000
Max torque @ rpm105 @ 4200
Transmission4-speed automatic
Curb weight, lb2425
EPA mpg, city/hwy30/33 (preliminary)
On sale in U.S.Currently (CA only)
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