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.

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.

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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 AintItCoolNews.com.

That's the plan, anyway.

Fake Panzer vs. Ghoul Box
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
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.

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