HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- A cutie little car -- conformed as a wild-style box on wheels with a blunt snout, slab sides and flat roof floating over a narrow ring of windows -- whips smoothly through compound chicanes on Mulholland Drive, the famous ridge route of the Hollywood Hills high over Tinseltown.
Actually, this crate car romps through Mulholland's curves, a beefed-up four-pack engine lighting a fire in the 17-inch optional radials rolling on shiny alloy wheels.
The tires prance independently over rippled pavement as the chassis, stretched for a wide track and longer wheelbase, maintains a flat stance through so many bends in the two-lane road.
And in the cockpit one driver strapped into the bolstered bucket maintains a firm hold on the sporty three-spoke steering wheel while plying the short stick of a five-speed manual transmission.
To pace this automotive action, a deep-beat rhythm throbs in the cab, thanks to tunes off our iPod tracked by the upgraded Pioneer audio kit through multiple speakers and subwoofer.
It scores major marks for style and substance, and, as we observe during a day of drive tests stretching across the Los Angeles Basin, also draws spectator attention on the streets due to that unusual box-cutter package, which seems like a contemporary homage to a California surfer's customized wagon in miniature.
This is the new souped-up, stretched and restyled Generation 2 iteration of xB the urban utility wagon by Scion.
That's Toyota's new line, sort of a brand within a brand to showcase custom-cool cars pitched to that 20-something market called Generation Y.
The original xB debuted in California in 2003 and quickly became The Cool One, the cube you love to drive, a mobile dorm room, a customizer's dreamboat with a head-swimming list of add-on body kits and after-market accessories, even (as spied in Phoenix, Ariz.) a wee taxi not much bigger than a steamer trunk.
And Scion the brand -- skewed to the youth market with internet marketing campaigns, low price points yet high content and non-negotiable MSRPs -- soared to success, selling more than 170,000 vehicles a year by 2006.
But a survey of xB owners revealed a wish list of changes for the box-car's make-over: "Small may be cute but bigger is better for cabin space as well as pedal power," they confided.
So xB stylists at Toyota's Calty design house in California and Kanto Auto Works in Japan went to work on supersizing the Scion box.
The result is Generation 2 for the xB of 2008.
It's notably larger than the Gen-1 xB, with a longer wheelbase and more cabin space, and the new engine delivers 50 percent more horsepower.
xB of 2008 still looks like a small box on wheels, but the package, with styling lines borrowed from the t2B concept car seen at the 2005 New York International Auto Show, shows softly rolled angles to separate the flat flanks and decks, a tall beltline with rather narrow windows, and pronounced fender bumps.
Most striking is the new face: It's monochromatic, entirely smooth and chrome-free with the fat lip of fascia set low and tinted to the body color and a narrow horizontal slit for a center grille filled with black mesh, as unusual shapes for the multi-lens headlamp clusters wrap around front corners.
Climb inside to discover that the cabin feels airy and spacious, despite overall dimensions which tie the xB to the eensy-weensy class.
The wheelbase length grows substantially -- some four inches -- and the overall length extends by a foot with the width expanding by three inches.
This sets up a larger platform not only to enhance the vehicle's stability and ride quality but create a greatly enlarged passenger compartment.
Driver and a companion sit on contoured buckets separated by a floor-mounted console and followed by a bench in back with room for three plus seatbacks which split and fold to expand the aft cargo bay.
The storage area is generous at 21.7 cubic feet but with rear seatbacks folded it grows to 69.3 cubic feet.
There are a number of stow spots -- like a convenience tray for the driver, a glove box, console box and front door bins. Then a tray concealed below the back bench houses out-of-sight items like a laptop or camera.
New xB feels fun to drive, particularly in an urban environment on city streets. It zips to speed with a quick run through the lower gears, while handling seems acute with responsive steering conducive to quick-cut maneuvers.
It packs a larger powertrain and high-tech electronic controls like electric power steering (EPS) and standard safety gear such as vehicle stability control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), and an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA).
xB's new zip stems from a thrifty but lively 2.4-liter four-in-line engine with dual cams and Toyota's valve wizardry under the label of VVTL-i for variable valve timing and lift with intelligent control.
The plant produces 158 hp at 6000 rpm and torque of 162 lb-ft at 4000 rpm through the standard manual five-speed or optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic transaxle with sequential shifting.
It qualifies for ULEV-II (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) status and delivers fuel economy numbers up to 28 mpg.
xB brings a lot of stock content, like air conditioning, a remote keyless entry fob, and power buttons for running windows and door locks and mirrors.
The standard 160-watt audio system by Pioneer has a mini-jack port for iPod linkage.
xB's optional premium audio system even shows digital images or video clips on a dashboard organic electroluminescent (OEL) screen. Also available is a subwoofer and satellite radio service by XM or Sirius.
The MSRP begins at $15,650 for Scion xB with a manual transmission. Add the automatic shifter and the figure rises to $16,600.
Description Subcompact 5-door CUV
Model options xB
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Overall length: 167.3 inches
Engine size: DOHC 2.4-L I4 VVT-i
Transmissions/speeds; Manual/5, Auto/4/ECT
Rear/front drive: Front
Steering: EPS/VGRS/rack and pinion
Braking: Power disc/drum, ABS/EBD/EBA/VSC/TRAC
Air bags: 2 (front), 2 (side), 4 (side curtain)
EPA mileage est. city/hwy. M/5: 22/28 mpg, A/4: 22/28 mpg
MSRP M/5: $ 15,650, A/4: $ 16,600