Scion at Five

Tim Marrs
#Scion

It was a pretty big deal and the verbiage was flying grandiosely when Toyota dropped the news at the 2002 New York auto show that it would launch the Scion brand the following year. Rising from the primordial hipster ooze of its Genesis marketing group, which Toyota had spent four years talking up, Scion was meant to show the automotive industry the way forward. Scion was also supposed to teach its parent corporation a thing or two about the new "wired" world. A branding hothouse, it would serve as a "proactive" experiment in connecting with the younger demographic, one the sixty-something Toyota felt drifting ever so subtly out of its gravitational pull.

Scion was going to help Toyota get its groove back or, viewed another way, get Toyota the groove it never had. Scion was going to stand for something beyond the traditional Toyota virtues of utter dependability and solid resale values. While obviously worthwhile, Toyota knew, these traits are dull in isolation and can't always close the deal with the young and image-conscious, no matter how impecunious.

Liftoff went well. Scion cars were decent and priced aggressively. The cartoon-cute xB in particular proved a funky favorite with the anticipated pool of first-time car buyers - enthusiasts into slamming their cars or installing potentially lethal car audio. More notable was that it struck an unexpected nerve with the shuffleboard fraternity, the xB's high and upright seating giving crusty hips and elderly knees a break, its miserly consumption a welcome tonic for those motoring on a fixed income.

These, then, were the key Scion attributes - funkiness and frugality.

The original xB wasn't a smoky-burnout candidate, but it was a comfortable machine, with more room than you expected. It was fast enough, squeezed thirty miles from a gallon, and looked just plain friendly. It appealed to the green as well as the gray, street tuners as well as entry-level buyers, and cheapskates possessing a dominant wacky gene.

In building its base, Scion wrote the book, we were told, on the type of viral and "relationship" marketing meant to be keystones of the automobile business in the twenty-first century. The goal was to train decisive, fast-acting management that kept its collective ear to the street. And it seemed to work. Where vibe was concerned, Scion was second only to BMW's Mini among successful brands launched of late. Admittedly, there have been only two brands launched since 2001 - Mini and Scion, both successful, although Scion sells more cars. Most other manufacturers have been busy realizing that they're too confused trying to sort out the brands they already have. Which was right before they remembered that they were way too broke to do anything about it anyway, which brings us to now.

Toyota (like BMW after it dumped Rover and Land Rover) wasn't broke, and it didn't have anything if it didn't have focus. It had only two brands, but what a pair they were - Toyota, probably the world's most successful mainstream car brand, with a huge and perennially profitable model range, and Lexus, one of the planet's best luxury brands and rising.

I guess that's why I gave Scion a presumption of fitness for purpose, i.e., coolness. There was no denying that it was an exercise in marketing rather than engineering - just about every piece in a Scion is found in one lowly Toyota or another. The cars did nothing to reinvent the automobile. But here was a popular line of new cars, delivering what for America counted as extraordinary gas mileage. That was an achievement in itself, something to celebrate. Which is what makes Scion's evident decision to chuck its old image so consternating.

I speak of the new 2008 xB and xD, which - compared with their predecessors, the original xB and the xA - have been prescribed weight gains, reductions in highway mileage, and hikes in engine displacement.

What is up with that, Toyota? The company says it asked people what they wanted, and they wanted more size and power, but hadn't its customer base already spoken when they bought their Scions in the first place? Giant four-cylinder engines in place of small ones? That's not progress, that's not cool, that's not what Scion stood for. Who'd have thought that Toyota could lose the plot so quickly? A little less funky, not so frugal; is that the new message? Has good, old-fashioned mission creep set in? Is Toyota too busy building pickup trucks? Or is this the same confusion evinced in November, when one trade association Toyota belongs to in the nation's capital advocated a 35-mpg fuel-economy requirement, while the other lobbying group it's a member of opposed the measure?

Today, Scion is an emperor in need of some private words from a friend. Someone needs to tell him he's wearing too many clothes.

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