Not typically a risk-taker, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. is taking a pretty big risk with Scion, its new youth-oriented brand.
But it’s a calculated one. About three years ago, a few within Toyota realized that the brand had a stodgy image with young Americans, and they were missing out on a significant portion of the youth market. A company official said that informal market research kept showing this opinion of Toyota: “They make good reliable cars, but I wouldn’t buy one.”
So Scion was born as a means to focus on the youth market without upsetting Toyota’s stronghold on mainstream American buyers. Begin the marketing!
What they’re aiming at
Toyota is aiming Scion products at a smaller subset of youth buyers it calls “trend leaders.” This group makes up about fifteen percent of total youth buyers, but as the name implies they’re more daring than others and set the trends that others come to follow. “Scion doesn’t have to be for everybody,” added Brian Bolain, Scion’s national sales manager. Scion buyers will be much more individualistic, which is why there is such an emphasis on customization and “building your own Scion.”
But while Scion will go for the “trend leaders,” Toyota will stay focused on the mainstream markets. “Toyota is not walking away from the youth business with the Scion brand,” said Bolain, who added that Scion will appeal to “…those who view Toyota as a sort of corporate monolith.” Scion will stay away from traditional SUV models, though, and focus on cars and segment-crossovers.
Most Scion franchises will share showroom space with Toyota, but in a dedicated area. To cater to younger buyers, the purchase process has been revamped and is different than for Toyota. Buyers will be able to go into a dealership and deal with the same person through the entire sale, from the information stage through financing and delivery, rather than going through several different people. There’s also no-haggle pricing, and special financing options for recent college graduates and people with poor credit histories, offered through Toyota Financial Services.
Ads revolve around a sort of short-attention-span theater that aims to attract that fifteen-percent “trendsetting” segment of Gen Y. The ads say little about the merits of the product, but emphasize customization and include the catch phrase, “What moves you.”
Customization is indeed an important part of the Scion franchise. Hoping to catch the interest of the “tuner crowd,” Scion already has a line of accessories for these models, available at dealerships. Fashionable shift knobs, colorful pedals, and add-on interior lighting are only a few examples of what’s available. Serious performance hardware will be available, too. For instance, an 18-inch wheel-and-tire package is already offered through TRD, along with several other performance mods. To accommodate all the options and variations available, Scion has a special system that will enable dealerships to swap vehicles quickly between each other.
In a presentation of the vehicles, Scion officials were, in fact, much more eager to talk about the sales and marketing approach than the vehicles. “We feel the product will pretty much sell itself,” said Ming Jou Chen, Scion’s public relations administrator.
Turning the wheels
What about this product? So to cut to the chase, there are two Scion models, the xA and the xB. The xA has a familiar ovoid hatchback silhouette that fits in nicely next to the larger, similarly shaped Toyota Matrix. The xB is a different story: shaped like, well, a box, it’s about as sharp and angular as a vehicle shape can get. From some angles the xB looks influenced by old-style American vans, which isn’t surprising as the Chevy Astro has seen a cult following in Japan. Both models are on the same basic underpinnings, but the xB rides on a wheelbase that’s been extended by five inches. In Japan, the xA has been sold as the Toyota ist, while the xB is the Toyota bB.
Both of these are small vehicles were not originally intended for the North American market, but they’ve been adapted very nicely. The “Yankification” wasn’t difficult, but in the conversion to left-hand-drive the catalytic converter had to be relocated and the exhaust system was redesigned. Also, some of the engine controls were tweaked, more sound insulation was also added, and the suspension was completely recalibrated.
As part of a very strategic rollout, Scion models are currently only available in California. They will, though, soon be available for the southern and East Coast regions. A third Scion model — a coupe with cues borrowed from the CCX concept originally shown at the ’02 Detroit auto show — will go on sale in June 2004, the same time Scion is finally rolled out for the rest of the country. Look for that model’s first official introduction at January’s Detroit show.
We were also told, because the youth market changes so quickly, to expect a “non-linear evolution” with Scion products — meaning that the xA and xB might not be here to stay, and future Scion models won’t necessarily follow suit.
But back to these first two Scion models, the xA and the xB. How do they measure up?
When you first see these cars in person, it’s quite surprising just how small they are. The larger xB is only 155 inches long. But their packaging efficiency is amazing. Considering their very compact outside dimensions, both Scion models are small wonders with an amazing amount of usable space inside. They come from a market where space is not wasted the way it is in many vehicles designed specifically for the North American market.
At 6’ 6”, with long legs to boot, I had no problem fitting in the front seats of either model, though the short cushions didn’t provide much support. The driving position in both vehicles is rather high and upright, allowing good visibility. Between the xA and xB, both models have very similar seating space and arrangements in the front, but in the back the xB is much roomier (due to the extra wheelbase). It’s quite impressive; full-size adults can sit comfortably in the back, with plenty of headroom, and they don’t have to wedge their feet under the seat ahead either.
Cargo space in either model is rather smallish with the back seats up, but there’s plenty of space for large things when the seats are folded forward (though the loading floor isn’t completely flat).
Both the xA and xB are powered by a 108-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, feeding power to the front wheels through a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. It’s the same powerplant that’s used in the Toyota Echo, incorporating the VVT-i variable valve-timing system, and in fact the xA/xB ride on the same basic platform as the Echo. By today’s standards 108 hp isn’t much power, but at around 2400 pounds, there’s not a lot of excess weight to haul around. The Scions actually boast a better power-to-weight ratio than the base MINI Cooper or Volkswagen Golf.
The engine is smooth and economical, but it suffers from a pronounced lack of torque in the low revs. In our test drive on the hilly streets of San Francisco, we learned that keeping the revs up is the only way to extract its power. The engine feels short of breath below 2500 rpm, then comes to life just under 3000 rpm, but by 4000 rpm it becomes slightly boomy. So it’s important to keep the revs up in the right range. It seems happy lugging at the lower revs, but any acceleration demands a downshift.
The standard five-speed-manual gearbox has short throws, but it feels (and sounds) quite notchy. Clutch take-up is very easy. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a loss in real-world performance with the automatic, and we found the four-speed auto box (which includes Grade Logic and has been recalibrated to delay upshifts longer for North American driving) to be very agreeable in most types of driving. These cars are rated with the same, if not better, fuel economy with the automatic. (31/37 city/highway for the xA; 30/33 for the xB manual; 30/34 for the xB automatic).
Both vehicles have a firm but well damped ride. Underneath, the Scions have the same basic suspension as the Echo, with struts in the front and torsion beam/trailing arms in the rear. However the Scions add a stabilizer bar in the back, which the Echo doesn’t have. Handling is crisp and responsive — perfect for maneuvering quickly around parking lots and city streets. They track well at highway speeds, too. But beware, they aren’t performance vehicles. The handling in a test xA felt less certain near the limits of adhesion, where we found some excessive body lean and mild wheel hop, perhaps the suspension unable to cope with the sticky tires. The xB’s rear suspension has a considerably stiffer spring rate, so it might actually handle better.
Engine noise is what would be expected from a car in this class, while road and wind noise are very well isolated. Even the boxy xB is a comfortable, quiet highway cruiser.
To sum up the on-road experience, the new Scion models performs well in nearly all ways, and they’re fun to drive (and of course a joy to park), but they just don’t feel especially athletic. Luring in the tuner crowd may take a more serious performance upgrade.
The Scions insist on putting the speedometer near the middle of the dash, away from the driver’s normal line of vision — in this writer’s opinion an annoying (yet somehow fashionable) trend in the industry. All other controls and switchgear are in their right place, and unmistakably Toyota, and the materials inside seem just as nice as any Toyota, with some added colors and textures.
While the Scion models don’t especially stand out for their performance, they do stand out as serious bargains. They’re a steal, too. The xA starts at $12,480, while the xB starts at $13,680.
Many of the items normally optional on cars with such a low entry price are in fact standard on the Scions. Standard features on both models include air conditioning, a CD player (compatible with MP3 files!), anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. The xB also includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Brake Assist.
Side airbags are a $650 option, and only available on the xB. And curiously, cruise control is not offered at all—an obvious oversight. Young people do tend to take their cars on long road trips, after all.
Scion had originally expected the xA to garner the larger portion of Scion sales, yet now they’re noticing more interest in the xB. To us, the xB’s success seems a no-brainer. The xA is more of a traditional small car, so it will rely more on traditional impressions of how well it performs, how roomy it is, and how economical it is to run. But the long feature list will lure in buyers, too. Officials hinted that with the xA they’re aspiring to provide a product that rivals upscale European models like the Peugeot 206. For young people who want something different, the xB’s funky, overly angular profile might very well be the ticket.
Scion officials don’t view any current U.S.-market models as direct competitors, but they do hope to attract Honda Civic and VW Golf buyers.
But we couldn’t help but wonder about cross-shopping, that is, across the Toyota showroom. If the cars are actually in the same showroom as Toyota products (and they will be in many cases), what’s to say a shopper won’t be comparing an xB to a Matrix? They’re similarly sized (on the inside), priced, and equipped.
These two new Scions aren’t performance standouts, but they’re spacious, inexpensive, and stylish, which fits most of the needs of the Gen Y crowd they’re going after. And by setting the base prices low, Scion is hoping buyers won’t hesitate to dig a little deeper and customize their cars. With Saturn’s mistakes fresh in mind, Scion is already understanding (we hope) that offering competitive, class-leading products is just as important as the marketing.
2004 Scion xA/xB
Base price: $12,480/$13,680 base, xA/xB
Engine: 1.5-liter in-line four, 108 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 154.1 x 66.7 x 60.2 in xA; 155.3 x 66.5 x 64.6 in xB
Wheelbase: 93.3/98.4 in, xA/xB
Curb weight: 2340/2395 lb, xA/xB
EPA (city/hwy): 31/37 mpg xA; 30/33 xB
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, stability control system (xB only), Brake Assist (xB only)
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, six-speaker MP3-compatible CD sound system, rear wiper, remote keyless entry (xB only)
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; six years/60,000 miles powertrain