Automobiles

Toyota's new compact concept is for urbanites in need of utility

Compact, spacious, and flexible: the Toyota Urban Utility -- aka U Squared -- concept debuts in San Francisco.

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The Urban Utility concept is a compact car that's big on space. Toyota

It has the functionality of a compact truck, the spaciousness of a cargo van, and the size of a compact car. In a nutshell, that's how Toyota describes the newly revealed Urban Utility concept. I'd describe it as a highly configurable box on wheels.

The Urban Utility concept (U² or U Squared for short) was unveiled today at a private event hosted by Make Magazine in San Francisco and was developed by Toyota's Calty Design Research facility in Newport Beach, California. The concept was designed to be "a flexible, functional gadget that owners can customize according to individual on-the-go needs."

The concept's cabin is designed around its boxy cargo area. Seating can be added or removed to accommodate the driver and up to three passengers or long, tall, or bulky items. The rear glass can retract into the tailgate, which lowers all the way to the ground to form a loading ramp that gives the owner unfettered access to that large cargo area. If an item is still too tall to fit in the rear, the roof glass separates into segments and retracts to reveal an open, pickup truck-like bed.

The vehicle's proportions are nearly identical to those of the Scion xB, though in person it prints a bit taller than Toyota's original box. I think it's the emphasis on the squared-off shoulders that give the concept that impression.

Accessories and equipment can be added to the U Squared to hold gear such as bicycles, surfboards, and more in place while driving. This customization extends to the front of the concept where a rail system allows even more accessories such as baskets or even a small desk can be added to the dashboard area ahead of where the front passenger seat would normally sit. This rail system is mirrored on the sides and floor of the cargo area, giving the would-be driver more choices for customizing the concept.

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The tailgate lowers all the way to the ground, forming a loading ramp. Toyota

Ahead of the driver's seat is a minimalist digital instrument cluster and a uniquely styled steering wheel that mirrors the design of the dashboard mounting rail. To the driver's right is a unique center console and armrest combo that is capped off by an "intuitive" shifter switch that I can't make heads or tails of from the photos.

In place of the traditional infotainment stack, the U Squared makes use of a mounted iPad that displays information about the vehicle's fuel level, coolant temperature, fuel efficiency, and more. This is a concept car, so Toyota hasn't mentioned any details about the hypothetical power train, but the 48mpg indicated on the iPad's display seems to point to the concept being a hypothetical hybrid.

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The configurable interior is capped off with a digital dashboard and an iPad. Toyota

The concept has been ruggedized, not for off-roading, but for the rigors of city driving. Rubber pucks inset into the wheel spokes protect against curb rash when parking. And the bumpers are composed of resilient plastic that is resistant to bumps and can be replaced in four separate sections in the event of a fender bender.

The Urban Utility concept is likely little more than a styling exercise -- so don't expect to see the box-shaped compact coming to a corner near you -- but I'd love to see some of the flexible features find their way into a future Scion xB.