Burt: NY Show Heartburn

March 31, 2002

2002 New York Auto Show (3/31/2002)

NEW YORK--At last week’s New York Auto Show, it was the best of times for Toyota and the worst of times for Ford.

First Toyota. For weeks, I had been hearing about Toyota’s plan to market a line of vehicles to “youth” called Scion. And I was thinking it was a silly strategy. Youth, Generation Y and Generation X before them, hates to be so obviously marketed to. Also, I thought, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi manage the youngest average buyer (38) in the business, and neither needs a special youth brand. It just takes engaging products and imaginative advertising.

Having seen the product that Scion will start with, and talking it over with Toyota COO Jim Press, though, I’m coming around to the idea.

Here’s why. Toyota’s average age buyer is around 46. That has a lot to do with the fact that Toyota has to sell Avalons, Camrys, Land Cruisers, Sequoias and Tundras, and the age of those buyers tends to be over 40. Volkswagen and Mitsubishi, Press sharply pointed out, don’t have that breadth of product that attracts 45-60 year olds in droves.

Is Scion a ham-fisted idea to be “cool,” the equivalent of seeing Dick Cheney in leather pants and Rollerblades? It might be. But it’s worth the try. The investment for Toyota is minimal. Mostly, it is going to round up the many products it has around the world, tweak and tuck them for the U.S. market, and make them accessory ready.

Catchy Scion

The first of these is the bbx, a bread truck-like beast that Toyota already sells to anxious Japanese youngsters in Tokyo. Among those intrigued is Ford design chief J Mays, who says it resembles the 24.7 concept he showed previously to showcase electronic and communication gear. “We just used a box body as a showpiece to show off the stuff inside, but I guess some people thought we were serious.”

“I honestly don’t know if the box design will catch on here or not,” said Mays.

One of the young product planners (27 years old) on Scion says he is sure the bbx will catch on. “Young people like something that is unique, that looks like nothing else, and they like it to be versatile.” The only thing as boxy as the bbx on the road today is a Mercedes G500 or perhaps a 1980s Isuzu Trooper.

Honda’s Dick Colliver, who showed the equally boxy and youth-directed Element last week says the design appeals, Honda hopes, in the same way that young people in the 1950s and ‘60s took to the Volkswagen Microbus.

Toyota tried a “hip” strategy with the Echo, which was hailed as a product of the company’s Genesis group. In reality, the Echo was a done deal before Genesis got its legs under it. The dowdy styling had nothing to do with information gathered by the Genesis “listening post.” The only thing learned from the Echo experience is that Toyota should not build first and ask questions later.

So Toyota will get its wealthy dealers to splurge a little on a cooler showroom environment for Scion that is away from the Avalons and Camrys, advertise it differently than Toyota, market the heck out of it over the Internet, and bring in products from Asia and Europe that American youth may think are worth having.

As bulletproof and affordable as the Corolla is, it is as boring to look at and drive as their Mother’s Camry.

AutoPacific’s Jim Halls says the strategy strikes him as just fine. “The investment is tiny for Toyota, but the possible payoff is huge. Generation Y makes the Baby Boom look like the dregs of Shake n’ Bake at the bottom of a bag after preparing a platter of chicken.”

Genesis, says Hall, was a case of Toyota putting the PR cart before the horse. “They touted that they were going after youth with this special task force without having proper product.”

Toyota has never been very adept at marketing. Its marketing plan is tonnage of advertising dollars and the steadiest metal in the business riding on four tires.

Young, first-time buyers will appreciate that. Now, let’s see if they are interested in an $18,000 van that looks like an air conditioner on wheels.

The new land of Lincoln

Lincoln Mercury is quickly becoming a truck business, if you look at the new Navigator, Aviator, Mountaineer and new minivan coming down the road soon. But how well will these aviation-inspired ute brutes fly?

2003 Lincoln Navigator

2003 Lincoln Navigator

The Navigator, a Ford Expedition in a tuxedo, is a serious piece of work, just like its country cousin. In fact, these SUVs are the best minivans Ford has ever turned out. A hatch that opens from the key fob, a disappearing third-row seat that goes up and down with the flick of a button…the list of goodies for soccer Moms goes on. The nifty second-row baby seat that slides up behind the front-seat center console is a nice touch too. The hydraulic running board and kneeler making egress easier should be appreciated not only by women, but by the arthritic geezers like me that would hate to resort to carrying a Rubbermaid stepstool around to get in and out of such beasts.

I continue to be taken aback, though, as I sat through a three-hour deep dive on both the Navigator and Aviator, as Ford’s Brits, Scots and Aussies talked about how these vehicles need to be and are uniquely “American.”

The Lincoln folks went to great lengths to show us media types how they are able to measure with computers and slide rules how far adrift the ride of the old Navigator was from benchmark vehicles like Lexus and BMW, and how the all new Navigator has steering as crisp and clean as a Bimmer X5, but with the unique comfort and quiet that Lincoln buyers expect.

One could only snicker, and wonder what any Helmut or Hans from Munich or Stuttgart would say gazing upon Lincoln’s graphs and charts showing how their engineers can measure how close to an X5 steering they can get. We can only reserve judgment until we drive them, preferably back- to- back on the same road as the vehicles Ford has been benchmarking.

Quality feel

Lincoln is also after “perceived” quality that Lexus and BMW master with both the new SUVs, going so far as to duplicate the interior design and materials in both the Navigator’s and Aviator’s cockpits. The looks were clean and uncluttered, but made extensive use of a quality of plastic that leaves much to be desired. Cheap plastic painted silver still comes across as cheap plastic.

But with the seemingly unstoppable growth of SUVs, especially in the luxury segment, Lincoln will probably sell its 40,000 Navigators a year, and perhaps 60,000 Aviators. That’s good profit, but Lincoln’s projection that it will draw 75 percent from buyers who have never shopped Lincoln before seems like a stretch.

The advertising that Lincoln showed is looking better. One spot shown by marketing chief Richard Beattie shows a young woman using the running board and kneeler feature even after her beau has laid down his jacket over a pedal crowding the driver door. Another spot shows a goofy guy making all the gadgets, mirrors and doors working in unison with the jazz track that Lincoln will now use as signature music.

It wasn’t as breakthrough as Beattie led us to believe during the introductions. But it was a decent start to getting Lincoln back on track.

Lincoln has clearly been studying Lexus and BMW. In the way those companies execute SUVs and cars to behave remarkably similarly on the road and track, Lincoln execs said they are striving for a uniformity of ride, performance and behavior, whether the vehicle is an LS or a Navigator or Town Car.

It will take years to make that come together, and years more for people to respond. And that’s if they get it right.

Good luck, Lincoln. You aren’t on any shopping lists of the people I know. But you get an A for trying, and at least getting the plan right. It will be good for Ford if you can execute it. It may take twenty years to gain credible comparison to Lexus. And by that time, I’ll be right in your wheelhouse as I begin collecting Social Security.

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