FEATURES: The Rise of the Scion Nation

By Michael Jordan - March 30, 2004
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Scion finally went national in the beginning of February, launching car sales in the East, Southeast, and Gulf States. To celebrate, the Scion Nation gathered on a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles.
Some 350 xA and xB Scions and 1300 people showed up for a Scion-sponsored music festival that featured displays by the makers of aftermarket parts. The cars were parked and a photographer captured the moment from a tall crane. The sun sparkled on custom paint and trick wheels, while the rumble of maxed-out woofers could be heard across a half mile or more.
Scion has been selling cars in California since last June, and it was quite something to see the results as a long line of xAs and xBs filed onto the festival site at the former El Toro marine air station. For months, self-styled marketing experts have portrayed Scion as a contrived response to Toyota's aging owner body, and there have been doubts that a Scion-style audience of buyers even existed. And yet here was the counter-culture automotive crowd, just as Scion management had promised.
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The xB made up the bulk of the car count. The boxy Scion has accounted for 65 percent of Scion sales in California, much to the surprise of Toyota's corporate executives, who anticipated that the radical van-let would only make up only 35 percent of the mix. The xB clearly connects with car-audio enthusiasts, and most of these cars were dressed out as mobile acoustic environments with dark windows, sweet custom seats, and a meticulously selected array of audio equipment. The xB is like an Apple iPod on wheels, a reminder that the automobile is the primary venue for music listening in contemporary America.
Meanwhile, the snub-nose Scion xA appeals to car enthusiasts with a more traditional interest in fast driving. Many of the xAs on display from aftermarket suppliers were parked with their hoods open, a recognition that this Scion is all about the metal, not just the space inside. That said, most of the bits for the xA encompass little more than a front anti-roll bar, a polished valve cover, and big brakes, as supercharger kits and suspension modifications are still coming on-stream from various aftermarket manufacturers.
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In the six months following Scion's introduction in a limited number of Toyota dealerships in California, some 9,613 cars were sold in California. Jim Farley, the vice president of the Scion division, says that Scion's nearly invisible marketing campaign has worked much as expected. He says, "The no. 1 way the customer in California found Scion was by seeing the vehicle on the street. In-person discovery and the Internet are the keys to the purchase process."
Not everything has gone smoothly, though. One of Scion's strengths is its dedicated finance company, which attempts to streamline the purchase process for its untraditional clientele. Nevertheless, Scion discovered that its customers were even more skeptical of the finance process than anticipated, and it has made an effort to ensure both that the finance rate is posted in plain sight and the prices for all the purchase and service plans are itemized in a convenient menu.
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Scion also learned that the process of equipping its cars with accessories (the key ingredient in making these inexpensive cars a profitable proposition for Toyota dealers), must be left to the individual buyer. Scion owners are purchasing the cars with $1000 of accessories on average (three times more than Toyota's predictions), but they want to determine the mix of accessories themselves and usually steer clear of showroom cars already equipped with parts installed by the dealer.
For all the good news, it's clear that Scion continues to be a work in progress. For example, the rest of Toyota keeps getting in the way. Every time a new Scion takes the stage at a car show in front of the national press corps, there's always some aged, back-slapping Toyota executive standing in front of it and spinning another talk about corporate sales. As a result, it's too easy to think of Scion as simply a marketing initiative. And because Scion has been too timid to put a face on its customer base and show us what its people really look like, it's easy to believe that Scion people don't exist.
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For all this, it's clear that a group of young techno-hip car enthusiasts does exist, just as Scion predicted. There were there a number of years ago when Subaru put in place an advertising campaign to reach them, only to find that its management was too squeamish to follow through. Though these people are swimming far outside the kind of conventional culture that car companies understand, Scion has been apparently been able to make these people its own.
Much of the reason lies in the cars themselves, which embody the simplicity and reliability that lies at the core of what Toyota is all about. The combination of a Scion's affordable price and a relatively large selection of accessory equipment also makes it possible to truly personalize a car, the same magic that makes the Mini such a powerful commercial property.
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At the same time, Scion also offers a self-contained buying and finance process that is a key aspect to its success. This is a company that expects to see people who have already researched product benefits on the Internet. This is a company that sets no-haggle pricing. This is a company that has created its own financing arm to specialize in expediting leases and purchases by young, first-time buyers. As a matter of fact, Scion represents all the best things about Toyota. It has Toyota's best people, its most innovative and effective processes, and its most interesting cars.
For all Scion's apparent success in its California launch and nationwide roll-out, you still can't keep from wondering what this company is going to do next. It's true that Toyota has a worldwide portfolio of models from which to chose future Scion models, but boldness is not common among Toyota product planners and the selection of cutting-edge machinery isn't large. In Japan, the sales of snappy cars like the Vi, VS, and Opa seem to be languishing, and Toyota has abandoned its WiLL co-branding effort, which sought to connect a selection of youth-oriented cars with assorted other commercial products. Moreover, the forthcoming Scion tC coupe seems like a fairly conventional front-wheel drive car in a category that's looking for rear-wheel drive. And what happens when it's time to find a successor to the xB?
Well, we'll find out how it will work out soon enough as the Scion nation spreads across the country. Controversy is probably in its nature. After all, these are people who always ask, "Do you get it?"
It's a challenge, not a question.
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