Rukus - Toyota's odd-ball urban fashionomobile

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Hand a crayon to a three year old, ask them to draw a car and you are likely to end up with something that looks like the Rukus. This is how Toyota describes the new Scion xB derivative that's just been launched into the Australian market. With the footprint of a Corolla hatch, the engine of a RAV4, loads of interior space and plenty of scope for customization, the Rukus is designed as an alternative to sports utility vehicles and compact wagons that will appeal to "urban trendsetters" and young families who want a combination of small footprint and space, but don't need to go offroad. The boxy shape is sure to polarize opinions on the street, but even if you think it's downright ugly - and apparently some of the company's senior executives agree - there's still a few surprises underneath the skin of this unconventional fashionomobile.

The Rukus story began almost 10 years ago in Japan with the introduction of the Black Box (bB), and U.S. readers would be familiar with the shape in the form of the ScionxB which first appeared in 2004. The 2010 model xB is pretty much the same as the car being introduced in Australia as the Rukus with some tweaks - particularly in the suspension and steering - added to suit conditions down under.

Calling it the most un-Toyota vehicle it has ever introduced, the car giant is well aware of the polarizing nature of the Rukus - but that's the point. It's hoped the car will attract a new, younger demographic in a market where most Toyota owners are around the age of 50. Once hooked, Toyota hopes to retain these customers under its brand.

What's in the box

The Rukus is an undoubtedly an urban vehicle. Its 2,600 mm wheelbase is equal to a Corolla hatch aside from an extra 40 mm overhang at the rear, but its 2.4 liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, VVT-i engine provides more zip than the Corolla's 1.8 liter powerplant, producing 123kW @ 6,000 rpm and 224Nm of torque @ 4,000 rpm... 23 and 28 percent more than the Corolla respectively. Despite the box shape, the car achieves a drag coefficient of 0.32 (the 2010 Prius is 0.25) with the help of under-body covers and delivers fuel economy of 8.8l/100 km.

The transmission is a sequential-shift electronic 4-speed auto and suspension is made up of independent, barrel-shaped coil springs, low-pressure gas filled dampers and multi-leaf damper valves, with McPherson struts and wide-based L-shaped lower arms at the front. Body roll is reduced in the suspension design by a ball-jointed linkage stabilizer bar which connects directly to the strut body.

Braking is provided by 275 x 25 mm ventilated discs at the front and 279 x 10 mm solid discs at the rear. ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control and vehicle stability control are standard. Further safety features include six airbags and a hollow safety area inside the bonnet that protects pedestrians in the event of a collision.

There's also electronic power assisted rack-and-pinion steering, keyless entry and ignition, engine immobilizer, cruise control and a one-touch feature for the four power windows.

Interior space aplenty

The box-on-wheels shape delivers more than just unconventional looks. There's plenty of leg and headroom in the back and enough space for five adults plus 310 liters of cargo in the back, or a whopping 1,331 liters with the 60/40 split rear seats folded down. The rear cargo area is 855 mm high and includes four tie down hooks plus an under floor storage compartment.

The vehicle also sits quite high, which makes strapping baby in easier and with this in mind, child restraint anchorage points are integrated into the rear seatbacks. The interior design is notable for the offset instrument panel which sets towards the center of the dash and the elevated gearshift and dash controls.

The audio system - 6 speakers on the base model - delivers clean sound, though some vibration creeps in at the front if you really pump up the volume. It includes joystick control, USB and 3.5 mm inputs, Bluetooth and the clever tweeter enclosure design in the rear protects the speakers from bumps and scrapes. Build 2 and 3 (see below) also get climate-control and a six-CD stacker and 4.3-inch color LCD screen, while the base model has just the one CD and a monochromatic screen.

First impressions from behind the wheel

Though you would hardly describe the driving exercises we put the Rukus through this week at the press launch in Sydney, Australia, as comprehensive, it was enough to shift my opinion about the car into a positive gear.

Given that I've never been accused of being an urban trendsetter, it's probably not surprising that the look of the Rukus didn't get my heart racing, but the thing handles! Just a few minutes behind the wheel negotiating a tight obstacle course in the wet was enough to convince me that the car is definitely a cut above your average four cylinder runabout. The steering is firm and responsive, it's zippy out of the blocks, sure-footed through corners and there's very little body roll. Despite the "thin glasshouse" design, vision from the elevated drivers' seat is also good and the high-set shifter and readily accessible controls make this a very easy car to drive.

Pimp your ride

If the Scion Xb is anything to go by there is definitely a market out there for those who want to put their own stamp on this fashionomobile. Toyota knows this from its experience in the Japanese and US markets and is offering customization options including body decals in flame, brick or stripe and a protective strip for the rear step. Customers are likely to go way beyond these offerings though, and Toyota had some examples of just how far you can go with customization (legalities aside) on show at the launch.

Pricing and options

The Rukus is available out of the showroom in three different variations and seven colors. The baseline Build 1 has a six-speaker audio system, fabric seat trim and costs AUD27,490. Build 2 gets leather accents, audio and cruise control switches on the steering wheel, climate control and three additional speakers including a sub-woofer. Build 2 costs $29,990. The main difference with Build 3 is the addition of a power tilt and slide sunroof which adds $1,800 to the price.

Toyota says the Rukus will be the first in a series of vehicles and a model dubbed the J Cruiser will be next off the rank.

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