Def cab for cutie.

Reviews of cars, trucks, and other autos.
July 2 2004 7:48 AM

Def Cab for Cutie

Toyota's subversive anti-car.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.  ... 

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