Toyota’s Scion division knows its ABC’s

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Car companies are continually striving to lower the age of their customer base by attracting younger buyers with new, hip products. It’s a tricky proposition because at the same time they don’t want to lose their older, more affluent and established customers with a lineup heavily aimed at the under 40 market.

Toyota is attacking this problem with a new brand called Scion - aimed at a group called Generation Y and younger, which basically is comprised of people 30 years old and under. Some of Scion’s marketing is even being aimed at future drivers between 12 and 16 years old. Somewhat frightening isn’t it?

The Scion xA and xB have been sold on the West Coast for more than a year, and now for 2004 coming this spring and summer the new division will start selling its cars in a planned rollout across the country. Consumers will find Scions in specially designed sections of Toyota showrooms set aside just for the new brand. The Scion display area will be a low-key no-pressure zone of sorts.

If all this reminds you somewhat of the short lived Chevrolet/GEO marriage that GM tried a number of years ago you’re not mistaken. Hopefully Toyota’s plan and product line-up for Scion is more effective than the GEO plan, product and execution.

Toyota’s strategy is to keep its popular best-selling lineup including the Camry, Avalon, Corolla and Matrix intact while giving younger people a clear choice. If it works, don’t be surprised if other manufacturers follow suit with their own youth-oriented brands. GM might even try it again.

The Scion currently comes in two shapes; the xB, which looks like a miniature box on wheels, and the xA, which has the appearance of a typical, but strange four-door hatchback. A third sporty model and much more conventional looking is the tC, which is in the wings and waiting introduction later this year after making its debut at the recent Detroit Auto Show.

The xA is the less expensive of the two on sale models, starting at $12,965. The xB automatic begins at $14,480. Both are very similar mechanically. Both are powered by Toyota’s small 108-horsepower 1.5-liter inline 4-cylinder engine.

Both cars are endowed with Toyota’s exceptional build quality. Fit and finish are first class and the interior materials are as good as it gets in vehicles for less than 20 grand. There’s nothing-cheap feeling about these cars.

But there is a distinct difference in personality between A and B. And Toyota may, indeed, find that the xB will actually appeal to an older group of buyers who value huge amounts of storage space in a small package, an affordable price and with great gas mileage ratings of 30-mpg city and 34-mpg highway with a 4-speed automatic and 32 and 38 with a 5-speed manual.

The xB, as noted, is basically a box on small wheels, is the epitome of space efficiency. It can seat four adults comfortably with limousine stretch-out room in back. The high ceiling gives the cabin an airy feeling. Some of the colors that come off the dash give it an eerie feeling, but it’s cool for all ages.

The xA feels cramped by comparison with minimal leg and knee room in back and a diminutive storage space behind the second seat. The xA is actually more suited for a two-person family or a family with one or two small children. The back seats can be folded forward in two sections.

We found during our week with the xB, the car intrigued adults of all ages.

The xA was another story. The only people turned on by its rounded wedge-shaped look were a couple of pre-teens. “This is cool,” one noted. So some of Scion’s marketing plan does work.

No wonder the xB is outselling the xA at a two-to-one ratio. Even the highly unusual box-on-wheels styling didn’t seem to be a deterrent for those who viewed our test vehicle.

Performance is rather sedate, but we never felt endangered by a lack of power. The xB with an automatic actually felt sprightly off the line although merging and passing situations, while they can be safely handled, have to be well planned at times.

The xA, with the manual shifter, had the edge in performance, but the transmission had rubbery shifts that left something to be desired. In this case, even with the small engine we would opt for the automatic.

Published times of the automatic xB, which is slightly heavier than the xA, included a leisurely 0 to 60 run in 10.6 seconds and a quarter mile in 18.2 seconds at 75 miles per hour. Not a world-beater but on a par with a handful of the other small cars on the market. Honestly, the cars are horribly underpowered, put price, function and build quality mitigate most of its inadequacies.

Both cars handle well. You might think the high center of gravity of the xB would compromise handling, but we found that it can eat up the twists and turns as well as any sport utility or other high-riding vehicle on the road driven properly.

Ride quality was good in both cars, a bit firmer in the xB.

Visibility in both cars is good, slightly better in the xB. The seats are comfortable. In fact, we could envision either car a comfortable long-distance hauler, but only for those in the front in the xA. One downside to interstate cruising is that cruise control, inexplicably, is not offered. Perhaps Toyota found that the under-30 crowd does not take long trips.

The funky design theme is not limited to the exterior. It’s carried over inside with the center pod theme used by several other brands including the Toyota Echo and Saturn Ion and Nissan Quest.

Even here, the xB featured a better, more attractive rendition of this styling theme than the xA. A pod on top of the dash over the center console of the xB housed the speedometer, tachometer and gas gauge.  Perhaps in deference to complaints of having to look too far to the right to view the gauges, the pod has been situated a bit closer to the driver than those found in the Echo and Saturn.

The xA’s center display was farther to the right and in a heart-shaped enclosure that was not as attractive as the xB’s pod.

We are still not convinced that gauges to the right of the driver are more effective than traditional gauges situated in front of the driver. To us, the off-center gauges are distracting and driving at night is like driving through a black hole – very discomforting even for us.

As you might expect in cars aimed at the youth market, audio equipment including an MP3 player and a giant subwoofer are available. A $774 sound package was included in our xB test car. It included a subwoofer, called the Bazooka tube. It took up a big chunk of room behind the second seat.

We expected big, booming bass from the setup, but were disappointed with a muddy bass response, not the clean and crisp bass you expect from a good audio system. We recommend the standard Pioneer 160-watt system with six speakers and a six-disc CD changer as found in our xA test vehicle.

It provided solid sound including excellent bass response. Put the $774 Bazooka money in something else such as side curtain airbags.

These small cars may be the bargains of the year. They are loaded with standard equipment including antilock brakes, vehicle stability control (xB), air conditioning, power windows and doorlocks and remote keyless entry.
Extras in our xB included the upgraded audio system, alloy wheels and an exterior package. Those extras brought the bottom line to $18,895 (all of a sudden no so inexpensive). The xA also had a handful of options including alloy wheels, exterior package and side and side curtain airbags that brought its final price to $16,995.

It is our consensus feeling that as many 40-somethings as 20-somethings may visit the Scion corner of the Toyota store and as many Scion xBs will be loaded with grass seed and gardening equipment as stuffed with surfboards and beach towels.

It remains to be seen if the store within a store will have lasting power.