The Thing Called Scion Turns Ten
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What do you do when you want to launch two incredibly successful products overseas but don’t
have an appropriate product line to put them in?
Simple. You make one. You hire a Los Angeles
based design firm to develop desire, anticipation, and excitement. And then, when you have your audience on the edge of their seats,
you give them what they want. And they go wild.
That’s exactly what Toyota Motor Corporation
did when it made the decision to export its popular “Ist” and “bB” models to the United States.
The Japanese market, not unlike the European market, likes small, compact, teeny-tiny little cars. It’s in part because their city
roads, also like those in Europe, are a lot smaller and parking in some places is incredibly hard to come by, but it’s also because
unlike the United States, the rest of the world doesn’t have an obsession with the whole “bigger is better” concept. This has been
true for decades now. The original BMC (British Motor Corporation, later British Leyland) Mini Cooper and original Fiat 500 are evidence
of that. And their modern day spiritual successors are living, breathing proof (no, not really) that nowadays, bigger is better.
Toyota for years has had models that have been sold only outside of the United States because of the Japanese market demand for smaller
vehicles. The Ist and bB were two of them. Others in the size class include the Vitz hatchback (brought in later as the Yaris hatchback)
and Platz sedan (later brought in as the Yaris sedan).
In the early 2000‘s, Toyota found
itself facing a problem it had faced once before. Like having beaten a cancer only to have it return, its once-shining image was fading.
Certain buyers were getting bored with its offerings. Although it made great cars and was always near the top of the charts in sales,
its economical, even cautious, styling was turning some buyers away. The automaker had faced a similar problem in the late 1980’s
and early 1990’s. In fact, both Toyota and Honda had faced the same problem when their customers started to turn away from the brands
in favor of upscale models. To bring back buyer attention (in a move that would also turn the auto industry in a whole new direction),
Honda launched Acura and Toyota launched Lexus, two of the most popular luxury brands on the market today.
So Toyota looked at its
wide range of options. It could go the way Honda did and spice up existing models (Honda introduced the Civic Si coupe and sedan around
this time) to entice buyers with something new and exciting although not standout, or take a risk and introduce buyers to something
totally new. And luckily for the world, it chose to do something totally new.
In the late nineties, Toyota Motor Corporation entered
talks with Los Angeles based design firm Fresh Machine to develop a completely new brand of vehicle, aimed squarely at Generation
Y. The project became known as Scion, the word “scion” meaning the descendant or heir of a family, applicable to both the vehicle
and the buyer. With a name, a logo, and now a face, in 2002, Toyota launched the Scion line.
And so Scion was born. Here was the solution
to fighting off vehicles like the Honda Element and Civic Si; its two closest rivals. Like the Element and Civic Si, the Scion brand
was aimed at the young, hip crowd. Scion was for those who wanted a car that had the reliability and quality of a Toyota without the
looks of a legacy car that mom, dad, grandma or grandpa would drive. Marketing campaigns were launched. Scion was the next big thing.
It caught the nation’s attention and has held it ever since.
Scion launched with two vehicles. The Toyota Ist hatchback was imported
and rebadged as the “xA” and the Toyota bB, imported and rebadged as the xB. Scion would also later introduce the tC coupe.
success was mainly found in the xB. The xB did what the Honda Element failed to do. Introduce a small SUV-ish vehicle that would apply
to a younger demographic and take off with everyone from casual drivers to hard-core modifiers. The Element was a fine car, sure,
but it never really screamed “Drive me, I’m cool!”. And soon, thanks to its more utilitarian, compact, and handy appeal, the majority
of Elements were sold to older buyers who wanted a car that they could use as a mini-truck or a second vehicle.
The xB, on the other
hand, became the next club-worthy-car. Soon, buyers of the xB were starting clubs to show off their handy work. Custom paint jobs,
custom rims, custom A/V decks, custom sound systems, custom lighting, custom everything became the thing for Scion and the xB. And
because the base MSRP on an xB was so low, the price of entry to this semi-elite club was incredibly low. If you wanted to be a part
of a car club but couldn’t afford a Porsche, here was the way to do it.
And unlike some other automakers who frowned upon modification
(looking at you, Mercedes), Toyota/Scion embraced it. As models were updated, the automaker made sure that modification was as easy
as possible with industry-standard dashboard fixtures and easy to access wiring. It was a win/win, really. Because almost half of
those that bought Scions were going to modify them in some way, Toyota didn’t have to put much thought into the sophistication of
factory technologies. It still included quality workings, but made it so that an after-market unit would be a no-brainer.
forgetting something here. Young people like to go fast. They like ego-driven cars. Cars that rode low to the ground and made a lot
of noise. Cars that got your attention on the road. Sports cars. But most young people can’t afford an SLK, 911, or even a Z350. So
they turn to budget-friendly sports cars like the Civic Si and Hyundai Tiburon.
But Scion wasn’t without plans for one. When it unveiled
the brand back in 2002, it had shown two concept models. The bbX which became the xB, and the ccX which hadn’t yet shown its mass-produced
face. Yet. In 2004, with the nationwide release of the Scion brand, Scion unveiled the Scion tC, a sports car to beat them all. Like
the Honda Civic Si, it was a coupe that had the design of a sports coupe, but with internals to keep costs down. And in true Scion
form, many tC owners customized their cars with after-market accessories and parts anyway to amp up performance (in most cases, that
only means noise).
But nonetheless, the tC was a hit. The xA had sold well, but not as well as the xB, and soon Scion dropped it from
its line, replacing it with the xD in 2007. In 2011, Toyota imported the Toyota iQ as the Scion iQ (interestingly enough, the iQ is
also sold as the Aston Martin Cygnet). And, announced in late 2011 for the 2013 model year, the FR-S sports coupe will slot in above
the tC as the brand’s high end sports coupe, also the most expensive Scion, starting at $24,930.
Ten years later and Scion is still
going strong with a bright future and millions of fans. And here’s to another ten.
I’m not a Scion driver and I don’t think I ever
will be, but from experience, the xB is one of the most fun cars to drive, even if only because you feel like you’re rolling along
in a little toaster.