A couple of months ago, Aaron Robinson of Car & Driver wrote an expansive article about Scion.
This quote pretty much summarized his view on the brand.
“I have no doubt that Scion will eventually go the way of Plymouth.”
I’m sure he wasn’t implying that cheap Scions will someday morph their way into becoming Toyota equivalents that offer fake wood trim exterior panels and trombone case red interiors. As a long-time automotive writer and columnist, he was simply reading the proverbial writing on Scion’s firewall that has been ever deeper ingrained into their product line.
“Mediocrity… is killing the brand.” This inscription ought to be welded onto every frumpish inner panel of Scion’s soon to be defunct models, the Scion xB and Scion xD. Underpowered compact cars that look like SUV’s in 2012 sell about as well as two-seater cars that look like frogs. Or bland plain-jane sport coupes that try capriciously to do battle with the market leaders.
Heck, I recently saw a perfectly fine 2010 Scion Xb with only 28k miles sell for $10,000 at a well attended dealer auction. A near forty percent drop off the original MSRP over just a two year period. In my profit driven world, where nearly every Toyota model represents stiff price premiums and high demand finance fodder, nobody wants to buy these things.
The reason for this market failure is obvious.
If a product is inherently bad or terminally neglected, no name brand will save it. It’s that simple. Every brand out there has market failures. In the case of Scion, they are going from a 2 for 3 boom on their debut generation (xB and tC good, xA not so much) to a 1 for 5 second run (FR-S may likely be the sole survivor.)
Scion is on the ropes if you look at their current model line-up. But the same could have been said for Hyundai back in 1999, Subaru back in 1994, or even the 1st generation Infiniti models back in 1992. All of these brands suffered mortal market wounds of the debilitating type.
But that did not mean the brands could not fill a gaping void in the marketplace. All of them succeeded because they found several niches that no other brand could fully satisfy.
Which brings us to the dire need of the present day.
Right now Toyota and Honda are facing a market exodus in one broad segment that is largely a reflection of their own long-term successes. Where do you go after you have already owned the reliable family car? Or the commuter scooter that has taken you everywhere and back with low ownership costs?
In the old world the move was pretty simple. The automotive world was upwardly mobile and that Toyota or Honda buyer could be just as content in a Lexus or Acura. Unfortunately, something terrible happened to both of these prestige brands between the Clinton era and the modern day.
They became boring, generic, and a bit old fogey in their market reach. These days a middle-aged person generally does not aspire to own a Lexus or an Acura. If they have put in their dues of driving the family car, they are looking for that thrill. As is the younger guy who is not quite ready to settle down, but is finally making the big bucks.
These folks, if they are willing to spend their money, often want the anti-Toyota. The anti-Honda. The car that is more involving to drive… but… with this desire also comes a concern.
These buyers also want a car that is reliable and doesn’t represent a potential black hole in their annual budget. Like everyone else, they want to have their cake and eat it too.
Two potential options are out there. The first is testing out a sporty prestige brand. An Audi. A BMW. A sports oriented car that is heavily marketed as a lease vehicle and can provide them with that extra thrill that they certainly won’t get with another Camry or Accord.
My brother Paul is the poster child for this. Two new Toyotas and one new Honda for the family over the last 15 years. The oldest child is about to go to college. The money is in the bank. The sacrifice of ‘fun driving’ for ‘family driving’ has already been made.
Did he want another Toyota or Honda? No, Paul and his wife wanted something different. Something that was not already driven by their senior citizen parents. They bought a 2012 Audi A6 and a CPO Audi A4.
The second option is to get the fun affordable car. Not too long ago fun usually meant two doors and a possible slight engine and suspension upgrade over the plain four door model. This is one of the main reasons why the Toyota Camry remained so dominant during the late 1990′s and early 2000′s. Fun and four doors were few and far between.
These days an affordable four door model can be just as sporty without the past sacrifice at the altar of practicality. A car with an Accent, a Soul, a good Fit, or a Focus, can be every bit as enjoyable to drive as a Veloster, a Forte, a Civic, or dare I say it… a Mustang.
Whether prestigious or plain named, a slew of buyers want the option to buy a fun car that does not share the same emblem of the car that they have been driving ever since the kids were little. Or ever since they were struggling to get established.
It’s not because they are unhappy with that reliable car. Sometimes folks just want something that is ‘not’ what they have been driving. Even if it has been a good car.
I can see Scion becoming the fun side of Toyota. The sporty side of a company that can already register millions in annual sales by harvesting the fertile fields of those seeking the ‘family car’, the ‘retiree car’, the ‘keep my ownership costs low’ car.
Toyota is already losing that buyer who picks the Altima over the Camry. The Mazda 3 and Fiat 500, over a Matrix or a Corolla. The reality is that by attracting a more conservative and older audience, you sometimes have to make compromises in design and interior ergonomics that make a car less appealing to those seeking fun and sport. Or even just simply something different.
There is still a gaping void of ‘fun’ between $15,000 and $35,000 that Scion could define as their specific market. I have no doubt that a car with the Toyota halo of reliability, coupled with sharp looks and exceptional handling, could lead to a new era of success for Scion.
The question is whether Toyota will invest in a Scion worthy of that reputation. To me the FR-S is one of those models. Should there be others?