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.”

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