Scion xB, Nissan cube, Kia Soul Comparison

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Not many new models create a separate category. Yet, that's what happened when Scion-Toyota's youth division-launched its boxy little first-generation xB for 2004. Squared-off vehicles had hit the market before, but few ever took off like this Scion. Four years later, Scion had a bigger, less boxy, second-generation xB at dealerships, keeping the market to itself a while longer. In spring 2009, though, a pair of competitors reached the youth-market scene, supplied by Kia and Nissan.

How do these three differ from the compact crossover-wagon pack, and from other compact-size cars? Mainly in appearance: None of them look like a mini-SUV or a tall station wagon. Each exhibits greater design flair than, say, a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V. Perhaps most important for youthful buyers, each is amenable to personalization. Their makers promote availability of factory-supplied accessories, and the aftermarket promises even more ways to customize every xB, Soul, or cube.

They're cute, they're clever-but they're also sensible. To the surprise of Scion's parent company Toyota, the boxy little first-generation xB attracted an audience that was not limited to young folks. Utility is what attracts a surprising number of older buyers-Baby Boomers and beyond. Getting in and out is easy. Visibility is unimpaired. Still, the intended audience is Generation-Y shoppers in their 20s, sometimes called "Echo Boomers," typically immersed in urban lifestyles.

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The Competition

Scion introduced the second-generation xB for 2008. Nissan launched its cube as a late 2009 model. Kia sent its Soul to dealerships as an early 2010 vehicle. Nissan had marketed two previous versions of the cube, but only in Japan.

Larger and more powerful, and considerably curvier, the current xB lost some quirkiness compared to the original. Though it looks a lot bigger, adding inches and rounding off the squared edges hasn't extracted the early xB's inherent charm, instead transforming it into a vehicle with more universal appeal. Scion leads the group in cargo space: 69.9 cubic feet with second-row seats folded, and 21.7 with all seats up.

Though the Soul's platform is unique, it's derived from Kia's subcompact Rio. Described as "edgy and confident," smaller than xB, the Soul features a rounded nose and flared-back headlamps. Kia needed "the ability to stand out in a sea of sameness," said marketing vice-president Michael Sprague. Suspension tuning aims squarely at an American audience.

Nissan has taken an especially adventurous path with the new cube (Nissan shuns the initial capital letter), which truly looks like nothing else on the road. Unlike nearly every passenger vehicle marketed in the U.S., the cube is asymmetrical: not identical on each side of its front-to-back center line. At the rear, a thick roof pillar is visible only on one side of the car.

Instead of a liftgate, cube has a side-opening rear door. Tall windows give the driver "city-friendly" visibility. Said to be inspired by the image of a "bulldog in sunglasses," cube styling is admittedly "polarizing," according to Nissan. Seats-up cargo space is smaller in the cube than the competition, at only 11.4 cubic feet.

Scion's xB has the longest wheelbase of the group at 102.4 inches, and at 167.3 inches, it's the longest overall. Measuring 156.7 inches long, on a 99.5-inch wheelbase, Nissan's cube is more than 10 inches shorter than the xB. Kia's Soul falls between the two. Kia notes that its Soul weighs more than 300 pounds less than a Scion xB. Nissan's cube is tallest at 65 inches-but Soul/xB come close.

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Engines, Transmissions, and Mileage

Kia gives buyers a choice of two four-cylinder engines. A 120-horsepower 1.6-liter, offered only with five-speed manual shift, goes into the base model. All other Soul models get a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 142 horsepower and 137 pound-feet of torque, working with either a manual gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission. Kia estimates fuel economy at 26 mpg city/31 mpg highway with the smaller engine. A 2.0-liter Soul with automatic earns a fuel-economy estimate of 24 mpg city/30 mpg highway.

Nissan's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine develops 122 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque. A cube may have Nissan's Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) as an alternative to the six-speed manual gearbox. With the CVT, Nissan claims a fuel-economy estimate of 28 mpg in city driving and 30 mpg on the highway-substantially beyond Scion's figures, especially in city driving. The EPA has not yet published official fuel-economy estimates for either the Soul or the cube.

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Interior Comfort

All three models seat five occupants. Not only is front-seat space plentiful all around, but second-row passenger room in the xB is enormous. Rear legroom is huge; and toe space greater yet. Center-mounted gauges don't suit everyone, but the digital speedometer is easy to read and others need not be consulted constantly. Storage space includes a large, wide glovebox, with a handy open compartment above. The only negative noted in an early model was a brake pedal that didn't feel quite linear.

Meant to provide a "social experience," the cube is "all about good vision; great vision." Design vice-president Bruce Campbell explained that the cube was "truly designed from the inside out." Nissan promotes the cube's "lounge" layout, said to result in a "spa-like interior."

Front occupants get immense headroom (more than in Soul or xB) and good elbowroom. Seats look basic, but are nicely cushioned. Rear side positions offer bountiful headroom and good leg/toe space, even though actual legroom is smaller than xB and Soul offer. Even the center position is tolerable. Behind the fold-down rear seats, a deep well holds luggage, but that storage area is modest.

Front occupants in the Soul enjoy tons of headroom and good elbow space. Leg space in the backseat is better than expected-an inch more than xB and 3.5 inches more than the cube. Seats aren't the classiest, but they're colorful and cushioned well. Side bolstering is moderate, and sizable mirrors help visibility.

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Safety

Each youthful crossover contains six airbags: front, side-impact, and curtain-type. Antilock braking also is standard, incorporating electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist, which can help in emergency stops. All include traction control. Electronic stability control (ESC) is standard on xB and Soul, and the cube comes standard with Nissan's (ESC version) Vehicle Dynamic Control system.

Only Scion's xB has been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The xB earned four-star ratings for each occupant in frontal crash testing, and five-star for front and rear occupants in side-impact testing. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the xB "Good" ratings for both frontal and side impacts.

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Trim Levels

Each manufacturer emphasizes availability of accessories, but the choice of trim levels differs substantially. Scion makes it easy, offering the xB in a single trim level, so the buyer needs to choose only a manual or automatic transmission.

Kia, in contrast, markets four trim levels: base Soul, Soul+ (Plus), Soul! (Exclaim), and Soul sport. Standard Soul equipment includes a tilt steering column, power locks/windows, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, air conditioning, and a CD/MP3 player. Soul Plus includes Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, power mirrors, and privacy glass. A moonroof and foglamps are installed on the Exclaim edition. Soul sport contains a sport-tuned suspension and rear spoiler, along with red/black interior trim.

Placed on sale in early May, the cube comes in three versions: Base 1.8, with manual shift only; 1.8 S, with either a manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT); or 1.8 SL, offered only with CVT and riding on 16-inch alloy wheels. Nissan also will offer a limited-production 1.8 Krom edition from its Specialty Vehicles Group, adding such features as integrated side sills, a unique rear spoiler, simulated rear diffuser, and 20-color interior illumination.

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Performance

Regardless of model, don't expect stirring performance. Naturally, the xB's higher horsepower rating gives it the edge on acceleration. Scion's engine works masterfully with the four-speed automatic transmission, which may be old-fashioned but is highly competent. Solidly assembled, the xB rides comfortably even over harsh urban pavement. Soaking up most bumps, the suspension transmits only moderate motion at hard spots.

Scion's steering feels light, but confident control is the byword. Lack of rear quarter pane doesn't impair views, which are impressive from the xB's driver's seat. Slipping inside is a snap.

One of the friendliest compact vehicles, Nissan's cube practically oozes personality and uniqueness. Stepping into and exiting from the starkly upright interior is fuss-free. Terrific visibility is enhanced by the tall windshield and side windows. A colorfully illuminated speedometer and tachometer are especially easy to read.

Maneuvering neatly, the cube yields a pleasant ride, easing over most bumps even if it doesn't quite smother the imperfections. Undulating surfaces elicit some lumpiness, but cube remains calm on smooth pavement. Steering effort is moderate. Nissan's continuously variable transmission (CVT) could hardly be more effective. Engine noise is minimal, and acceleration is ample for this class. Except for slight buzz while accelerating, the engine is quiet. Though easy-shifting, Nissan's manual gearbox is on the clunky side, emitting sporadic gear whine.

Easy to enter, Kia's Soul also has an easygoing nature, accompanied by appealing road manners and impressive agility. Yielding typical small-car feel and sound, this wagon is easy to drive and maneuver. Imperfect pavement isn't dealt with quite as effectively as might be hoped. In fact, a touch of harshness occurs at times, as the suspension appears to overreact to certain bumps. On relatively smooth surfaces, though, the Soul rides quite comfortably and is quite stable for a lightweight.

Even with Kia's bigger engine, power falls short of abundant. Soul responds with modest enthusiasm, though you may have to push harder on the pedal than expected.

Pricing

Because each model aims at the youth market, prices are on the moderate side. Still, they cost several thousand dollars more than a subcompact Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, or Kia Rio. Prices are more comparable to compact sedans from each manufacturer.

Scion's pricing structure is the simplest: $16,420 (including $670 destination charge) for a manual-shift xB, or $17,370 for one with an automatic transmission. Prices have not changed for the 2010 model year, but the xB gained new standard and optional audio systems. (www.scion.com)

Nissan takes the middle ground, beginning at $14,685 (including $695 destination charge) for the base cube. An S edition goes for $15,385 ($1,000 more with the CVT). Nissan's cube SL commands $17,485. The limited-production Krom will sticker for $19,995. Dealers can provide some 40 cube accessories. (www.nissanusa.com/cube)

About the Author

James M. Flammang is an auto journalist and author, and the editor of Tirekicking Today (www.tirekick.com).

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