Def Cab for Cutie

Toyota’s subversive anti-car.

My excuse for the relative infrequency of“Gearbox”: There’s a war on, and it seems silly to be reviewing cars. The cease-fire in Najaf could break down at any moment! Even under the happiest political conditions, reviewing cars is time-consuming. Here are the typical steps: 1) Make nice to the car manufacturer’s press guy in order to get a vehicle to test. 2) Schlep to the carmaker’s distribution center in some industrial suburb halfway to Long Beach. 3) Drive it. 4) Wash it. 5) Schlep it back. 6) Let the press guy get mad at you for 30 minutes for the nasty things you said about the car so he’ll let you have another one. 7) Repeat.

It’s all too much! I admit that everybody I’ve dealt with at all the car manufacturers has been polite and professional—and the Chrysler guy had a legitimate beef with my excessive criticism of the PT Cruiser, a very good car if you can stomach the styling. It’s still too much! All that sucking up is a barrier to productivity, and a disincentive to honesty. It’s annoying that the carmakers can retaliate for a negative review by cutting off your car supply. Even if they never do, the implicit threat hovers over the keyboard.

Q: What’s a harried blogger to do? A: Rent! In Southern California outfits like Budget and Midway actually offer interesting cars—not just Kias, Cavaliers, and Buicks. You can rent a BMW. You can rent a Mercedes SL. You can rent a Ferrari (if you have $20,000 free on your credit card, I discovered). You can rent all sorts of vehicles I’ve always wanted to drive but have never driven. Hence the new, simplified Gearbox Guerrilla Car Reviewing Game Plan:

1) Before sucking up to another press fleet manager, drive all the interesting cars at the rental lots down the street; 2) Send the bill to Microsoft.

Less hassle, more integrity! By the time I’ve run through just the Budget lot, the car companies should be sucking up to me, showering me with junkets and zipless sneak previews the way the movie studios suck up to Harry Knowles of

That’s the plan, anyway.

Fake Panzer vs. Ghoul Box

The first car to catch my eye at Budget was Toyota’s youth-brand Scion xB. You’ve probably noticed this thing on the road—seemingly about as square as a vehicle can be, with a sinister giant-shaver front end. It looks like an electrogothic cab of death! Even its name and creepy logo appear to be those of the villainous organization in a James Bond movie. “We have reports that SCION is really a front for a madman bent on world domination.” It’s not cute. When I first saw one, I thought it was coming to ferry me across the river Styx. Room for one more inside, sir!

Now I love it. Why? First, it completes the deconstruction of the SUV that began with the “cute ute” Toyota RAV4. The RAV4 answered the question, “What if you kept the SUV’s tough, off-road image but subtracted the heavy chassis and gas-chugging V-8?” Then came the Honda Element, which (like the RAV4) had the guts of an economy car but (unlike the RAV4) managed to keep an SUV’s cavernous interior volume. Now comes the Scion, which subtracts two more factors in the traditional SUV equation—pointlessly high ground clearance and four-wheel drive.

Lose an inch, gain a niche

What’s left, you ask? The tall, boxy shape. The Scion is one size smaller than the Element—it’s the box that came inside the Element’s box, if you will—and its roof is a couple of inches lower to the ground. But the Scion’s floor plan also rides low, near the pavement, like a car’s—meaning that from floor to ceiling, the smaller Scion seems to match the Element, or an average SUV, for absurdly generous interior volume—and it kills conventional cars. (The Scion has 109 cubic feet of interior room. The suburban fave Volvo V70 wagon has only 98.3 cubic feet, according to Automobile.) Who needs a “tall” truck? You still sit high enough in a Scion to look down on cars—a function of upright seats—and I counted 4 extravagant inches between my head and the roof. Yet it gets 30 miles to the gallon. Happy now, Arianna?

You gain a lot by losing all that SUV. Like low mass, and a low center of gravity. My rental Scion handled shockingly well. You could throw it around corners as if you weren’t practically standing straight up like a tourist stuck to the wall at one of those whirling antigravity rides. And while the Element accelerates as if it were a subway during a work-to-rule slowdown, the Scion scoots. Plus the ride (criticized in some car mags) seemed almost creamy on my near-new sample. Brakes? Good. Turning circle? Lousy, but who cares.

Final selling point: a peculiar kind of authenticity, as an unadulterated example of  a weird, hybrid, previously nonexistent automotive genre. The Element is a fake Panzer, badly in need of a big, tough engine to match its big, tough looks. The Scion is exactly what it pretends to be: a polished, snazzy-looking carrier for you and your friends that does everything you need an urban car to do. It’s fast enough and more than roomy enough—a serotonin-elevating design statement, with its lip-gloss paint job, speckled seats and happy off-kilter speedometer. (Even the Vehicle ID plate is cool-looking.) You can carry practically anything and have about as much fun carrying it as you can have legally in a front-drive vehicle on public roads. You can give it to the valet at Michael’s and everyone will smile at you.

Did I mention that it costs about $14,000, including CD player? That’s what makes this box so deeply subversive of the automobile market. Why does anyone have to buy anything more? Do you need to pay $40,000 for a “near luxury” vehicle that makes you look like another climbing careerist and won’t get you the valet smile? What can a Jaguar X-type do again—legally, within the confines of Los Angeles—that the Scion can’t? It makes no sense to play the automotive one-upping game when for $14,000 you can look good while laughing at the game (thereby winning it). True, that’s always been possible by driving a cheap-chic used car (like an old 1960s GM creamboat). But it’s previously been impossible to pull off in a new vehicle.

The market Toyota is pursuing with the xB is the young—21-year-olds just out of college, skateboarders, etc. I don’t know if those people will go for it. But a market Scion has hit dead-on is the rich, the same people who eagerly buy Vuitton copy bags at house parties and then wink at each other. They have mansions. They don’t need to waste money on anything else. But they might need a second or third car to haul things.

Finally, the Scion makes other cars seem absurdly, pointlessly, tragically … round. What does all that swooping and carving and tumblehoming do again, other than rob you of the interior space that your footprint on the asphalt says is rightfully yours? Why would anyone want to spend, say, five grand extra on Toyota’s rounded, thick-walled Matrix when that $5,000 buys you a claustrophobic, egg-like interior with 12 fewer cubic feet of room? Drive a Scion for a few days and you’ll see other cars the way Humbert Humbert saw college girls—as repulsively over-ripe.

On a scale of 1-10 in the patented Gearbox Parking Lot Test—measuring how happy I was to come out of a movie and see it waiting for me—I give this anti-car an 8. That’s as high as I’m likely to give a front-driver. But before you run out and buy it, you should know a few things:

1) It lists for $14,000, but Scion dealers around L.A. are tacking on all sorts of pointless appearance options and getting about $20,000. The appearance add-ons allegedly allow you to “individualize” your Scion, but mainly they make it uglier (or “even uglier,” depending on your initial assessment). The $20,000 price makes it uglier, too. 2) It’s surprisingly tinny in a few spots, for a Toyota. The thin metal rear door in my rental vehicle buzzed, and the key fob stopped locking and unlocking the doors early on. In fact, the Scion brand came off shockingly poorly on a recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey, with 158 complaints per 100 vehicles—mainly relatively minor problems. (The industry average is 119.) Some Texas customers have groused that the Scion’s A.C. isn’t strong enough to handle the local climate.3) The xB may not look cool forever. My mother, who is either a lagging or leading indicator, said it looked like an English van that should be “hauling sides of beef.” The point of reference was lost on me. (Hauling sides of beef sounds pretty cool!) But it’s possible that if enough Scions—and soon-to-come competing cubes—populate the roads, they’ll stop looking fun and start to look dull, the way square “space container” buildings began to look dull once you’d seen enough of them. One way for Toyota to keep the Scion subversive would be to go Swatchy—keep the good cheap mechanicals but use computer technology to redo the styling every year, so $14,000 always buys you attention. They could even charge $15,000.

Stare at the Scion often enough, in fact, and one way to make it hipper-looking becomes glaringly obvious. You see, its lines are not completely straight. They could be straighter! There’s a slight backward rake to the front, and a non-trivial  2- or 3-inch “tumblehome” as the cabin rises to the roof. Its rear window is at maybe an 87 degree angle to the road. Even its straight lines are made by creases with rounded edges. You can’t help thinking: Wouldn’t it be neat if someone made a car thatreally was square? ….

P.S.: Memo to New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission: Why isn’t the Scion your new Yellow Cab?

Drive-By Sniping:

How to find Arianna’s: Speaking of Arianna Huffington, the California-based anti-SUV activist … a few months ago a friend of mine went to a book party at her house in the glamorous Brentwood section of West L.A. The area north of Sunset, where Huffington lives, is a confusing tangle of streets, hills, and canyons, and my friend was soon hopelessly lost and late.  He was about to give up and go home when off in the distance he saw a car drive by. It was … a Prius! His heart soared. “Take me home!,” he yelped to himself, giving chase. He was at Arianna’s within minutes. … P.S.: Within a month or two there will be so many Priuses and other hybrids on the road that this (true) story will no longer make sense. Actually, that’s probably the case already. …

Trend Watch: Cars with noses.  The sporty little Mercedes SLK now features an obnoxious central prong. And check out the schnozzles on the new Audi A6  and on the Mercedes/McLaren supercar. When girls at my high school had a nose like that, they got it fixed! … P.S.: See also the Alfa Visconti. If Ben Kingsley were a car, he’d look like this. …  Even the European version of the Toyota Corolla has an embryonic proboscis.  … 

Why Front-Drive Sucks II: Csaba Csere, engineer and editor of Car and Driver, adds a reason to hate front-drive  that I left out of my diatribe of a year ago. Call it Sudden Steering Death. In his July column, Csere notes:

In corners, particularly slow ones, many front-drive cars lose self-centering under power. The driver can’t easily tell whether this is a front-drive effect or an impending loss of grip.

P.S.: The big rear-drive Chrysler 300 seems to be an initial sales success, despite the tacky plastic-chrome details criticized earlier in this space. Or is it because of those tacky chrome details? That’s the horrifying possibility suggested by this New York Times piece on the car’s appeal to hip-hop stars, as well as the more ominous news that many 300 customers are paying dealers thousands extra to fit out their 300s with schlocky vinyl roofs  despite attempts by appalled Chrysler executives (including design chief Trevor Creed) to discourage the unsophisticated practice. … Live by the bling, die by the bling. Gearbox will persist in claiming that the 300 is selling because of its rear-drive rather than its tacky hip-hopularity until that becomes completely untenable. … P.P.S.: I hate the bling! My used Nissan 300ZX came with fashionable, shiny after-market chromed wheels, and my tire guy just told me that the chroming ruins the durability of the wheel. The wheels are essentially worthless, he said; if they hadn’t been chromed they’d last “forever.” Hey, at least they look cheesy. …

The Luxury Crisis: Pity the poor consumers of luxury sedans. They want to replace their 4-year-old Mercedeses and 7-series BMWs. They have a choice of a) the new Mercedes E-class, great but filled with glitches (see, e.g.,  this article  if you’re a WSJ subscriber); b) the BMW 7-series—same as Mercedes, except uglier (with 175 percent more problems than the average car, according to the latest Consumer Reports auto issue); c) the big Lexus, reliable and reliably boring, and d) the Audi A8—$70,000 for a bland-looking nose-heavy car with pig-in-poke longevity? … The rich are in deep trouble here, trapped with nowhere to turn. … P.S.: Here’s a great market opportunity for Detroit—if, say, Cadillac had a solid rear-drive luxury model ready. The wealthy people I know are no more brand loyal than anyone else. If they were that stupid, they probably wouldn’t be rich! Certainly they wouldn’t have flocked to Lexus when that marque was concocted by Toyota a few years ago. … A better description is that they flit from whatever brand is supposed to be good one minute to whatever brand is supposed to be good the next. They’re ready for something new. … Maybe Chrysler could build a high-end BMW-beater based on the 300. Or maybe Mercedes and BMW should bring out Special No-E Editions of their luxury vehicles without the balky, gratuitous German electronic gimmicks that cause them to spend so much time in the shop. They’re fine cars underneath, so why not offer, you know, just the car! I bet they’d sell like crazy. These rich people are desperate. … Update: Mercedes has actually admitted its errors and is removing useless electronic complications as fast as it can. But what to get in the meantime? …  

Money Can’t Buy Me Shine? Why does the paint job on the production $14,000 Scion xB look better than the paint job on the $40,000 Cadillac SRX  sport-utility vehicle or on either one of the $250,000 Ferarri 612 Scagliettis I’ve seen—or on the Chrysler 300, for that matter? Just asking! … (Cadillac made the mistake, at the recent L.A. Auto Show, of displaying the SRX next to the absurdly shiny and magnificent black Cadillac Sixteen show car. The purchasable SRXs looked like dishrags in comparison.) …

My love is bigger than a Saaburu: Usually when a car manufacturer tries to sell an ugly car, it takes a picture from road level about 5 feet in front of the thing, looking up. All cars look good from that angle. But Saab is apparently so embarrassed by its new 9-2x—which is really a dressed-up Subaru Impreza wagon and looks it—that its ads show the product upside down. … Too bad Saab’s so defensive. It’s probably a nice car. I wonder if Budget has any in stock.