The Dangers of Sciontology

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

With great size comes great stupidity. General Motors' fall from grace– from world's largest and most profitable company to bailout bait– illustrates the point perfectly. And while it's about thirty years too early to suggest that GM's replacement will fall victim to the same size-related atrophy, there are already hints that the profits powerhouse known as Toyota is capable of massive miscalculations. I speak here not of the full-size Tundra pickup, but of Scion, the brand that should have never made it out of a focus group.

In June, after a staggering three month rise, Scion sales suddenly slipped by 5.3 percent (11,870 units sold). This despite offering two new models: the redesigned xB (down 10.9 percent) and the all-new xD (replaces the xA). While ToMoCo's "youth brand" is up eight percent on the year, the timing of its surge and the overall trend indicates a dead cat bounce, due to rising gas prices. Prior to this uptick, from last September through January, Scion's sales declined for 17 straight months.

Searching for clues to Scion's struggle, their not-so-entirely-wonderful products may have a little something to do with it. The super-sized gangsta xB is thirstier and way uglier than the car it replaces. The xD is only marginally more exciting than the now-extinct xA (a.k.a. fish-faced Echo)– and that's saying something (or, perhaps, nothing). The tC has gone from a fixer-upper to a blot of the automotive landscape, dragging Scion down with a 36.2 percent drop in June (off 29.3 percent year-to-date).

Speaking to Automotive News, Scion's manager of sales and promotions addressed the brand's struggle and talked about… sales and promotion. "We have to refresh our message," Jeri Yoshizu asserts. "And move our picture to the new 18- to 24-year-olds." In other words, the buzz within Toyota is that Scion's problem is that it's not cool with the kids anymore; clever marketing can sort that shit out.

That's worrying stuff. You'd think that Toyota, of all automobile manufacturers, would know that great advertising starts with great products. And that great products transcend demographics, or, if you prefer, find their own fans. But then Scion has always been an ass-backwards endeavor: a brand born of marketing aspirations and birthed via stylized badge-engineering, rather than formed in the crucible of a relentless pursuit of engineering excellence.

Clearly, remarkably, Toyota has not yet learned its lesson on this one. Just as Scion's supposed target market is a moving target, so is the automaker's justification for prolonging Scion's time on this earth. Jack Hollis, the brand's vice president, tells AN that his measure of Scion's success is "not sales numbers but whether Scion is luring new, young customers to Toyota." If so… they're fucked. The number of 18- to 34-year-olds shopping the brand has declined sharply.

Perhaps Hollis should have a word with his boss. On its fifth anniversary, ToMoCo Prez frames Scion's core mission without referring to its intended buyers' age. "The original Scion goal was all about transparency and reducing time to purchase cars and vehicle personalization," Jim Lenz told AN. "And none of that has changed. Scion still remains relevant today."

"How do we expand without making Scion into a traditional car company?" Hollis asks, relevantly. "Experimenting with an automotive brand is tricky in a down market because it magnifies the risk. But if you don't try anything, then you are just the same as the entire industry."

In other words, being different for difference sake is Scion's raison d'etre. Of course, anyone who's spent time inside a Scion xB or xD could take one look at the odd instrumentation and reach the same conclusion. Whether or not Scion's products fit the "quirky is cool" remit– in the metal or consumer's gray matter– it's not exactly a secure footing for a car brand.

Just as importantly, Hollis' query contains the bizarre and grandiose suggestion that Scion is a car company, not an automotive brand. The fact that Scion "dealers" live within Toyota showrooms ought to indicate that Scion is an extension of the Toyota brand; nothing more, nothing less. And a deeply misguided one, in the GM product overlap sense of the word. However you target them, however you personalize them, Scions compete with Toyota products both new and used in the same dealership.

Toyota's Lexus brand made perfect sense: Toyota reliability, distinct upmarket branding, big fat margins. Scion is a non-starter. At best, it can get people to buy Toyota's who wouldn't normally buy a Toyota– and won't even after they do (if you know what I mean). Alternatively, Toyota selling Scions is like those WASPs who wear lime green trousers at the golf course club house just to show they're not really as boring as everyone (including themselves) knows they really are.

If Toyota kills Scion, we'll know they're not General Motors. If ToMoCo persists in this, we'll know that they could well be doomed to repeat GM's history.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Cgd Cgd on Aug 10, 2008

    Speaking as a 40-something, my car decisions have nothing to do with trying to recapture lost youth or be seen as cool by 20-somethings. We have no wish to offend young people by liking the same car they like. I used to have a Honda Element, which I bought for the space, easy-to-clean inside, and fun-to-drive factor. (Of course, like the Scion, they marketed the E toward young folks, but missed the mark as we middle-agers and older people went for them). It was never my wish to, as a consequence upon buying the Element, to automatically inject a gross-out factor for America's youth for that particular model. Before I bought the Element, I looked at a Scion, but the one I drove had no power. Aesthetically, I like boxy shapes, which is subjective and for which, as in all taste (or in my case lack thereof), there is no accounting.

  • Anonymous Anonymous on Aug 11, 2008

    [...] what you will about the Scion line (I understand many are put off by the officialitude of the Scion factory mod parts) the fact [...]

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  • Lorenzo It looks like the curves are out and the boxy look is back. There's an upright windscreen, a decided lack of view obstructing swoop in the rear side panels, and you can even see out of the back window. Is Lexus borrowing from the G-Class Mercedes, or the Range Rover?