Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
"I don't get it," remarked a middle-aged man passing a row of Scion cars parked on the street. And that's just the point more than likely, that same man walked back to his Camry in his "loose fit" acid wash jeans, drove home and gave his teenage son yet another lecture on how raking leaves builds "character" and how System of a Down doesn't play real music but rather "just a bunch of noise." And at the same time, that middle-aged man could probably tell you all about the quality, value and reliability of his Camry (and other Toyota products). There lies the dilemma, Toyota (parent company to Scion) realizes that quality, value, safety and reliability are good things, but has struggled with how to wrap all those good qualities into a package that consumers under 30 would embrace. Enter Scion.
With the Scion brand, Toyota is making a credible and real effort to understand the Generation Y market and give it what it wants without pushing it down its throat. It would have been all too easy for Toyota to take a Corolla and give it a slightly reworked body, then bombard us with image driven print and TV ads telling us how it's "down" and "keeping it real." Surely that thought crossed the minds of some at Toyota, but the Scion approach is a genuine and authentic attempt to connect with a group of consumers that simply does not like to be pandered to or "sold" on anything.
The Scion brand will eventually grow to three models, but for now two are offered xA and xB. The vehicles are very similar mechanically, but each has its own unique look. The xB is a little larger as it uses a lengthened version of the platform it shares with the xA. Looking more like a miniature SUV, the xB has a more trucklike seating position and offers plenty of utility like a traditional SUV would.
Compared to the xB, the xA comes off more like a "normal" car with its rounder and softer look, closely resembling a small wagon or five-door hatch. Interior space is surprisingly ample, but the smaller xA lacks the vast rear-seat legroom and the serious cargo-hauling abilities of the xB. Both xA and xB come with the same 108-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine as the Toyota Echo.
These cars are clearly aimed at younger buyers, but Scion does not call either vehicle a "youth market" car. So serious is Toyota about connecting with the under-30 crowd that it has asked Scion dealers to sign a covenant to ensure the dealership and sales experience exactly mirrors the Scion style, image and promise. Similar to the Saturn approach, Scion dealers will adopt a purposefully low-key environment and each salesperson will be qualified to take the customer from beginning to end in the sales process no endless string of sales "managers" trying to confuse and complicate the process. Come to think of it, wouldn't this approach work for all age groups? Are there really some groups of people who prefer to visit a dealership with 12 salespeople hanging around out front all yelling "up" when a potential customer walks on the lot? Didn't think so.
This philosophy extends to pricing as well. Scion dealers will use a model they call a "Pure Pricing Solution." This simply means that Scion dealers will sell cars for the advertised price without any surprises. And speaking of price, the real clincher for anyone undecided about the viability of Scion products is the bottom line. The Scion xA's MSRP is $12,480 for a manual and $13,280 for an automatic, and the xB is priced at $13,680 for a manual transmission and $14,480 for an automatic (prices do not include destination charges). No, that is not a typo the base price for both cars is well under $15,000.
"Sure, that's probably for a stripped model with no features," you might be mumbling and you'd be wrong! The xA and xB five-speed manual come standard with air conditioning; antilock brakes; a six-speaker Pioneer stereo; power windows (with driver-side one-touch down), locks and mirrors; tilt wheel; rear wiper; first aid kit; plus headrests and three-point seatbelts in all five seating positions. The xB adds stability control, traction control, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and remote keyless entry at no additional cost.
Part of the Scion's appeal is its ability to be personalized through over 40 options. Both Scion xA and xB come with the same engine and each is available only as a four-door with a hatch type rear door (body style variants are not offered), the customer chooses the transmission type and body color (and optional side-airbags on the xA), everything else is added later. These options include such items as cold-air intake system, special body graphics, clear tail lamps, CD changer with color change illumination, subwoofer, satellite radio, remote keyless entry and many others. Clearly Scion is trying to sell options that they feel some customers will be adding anyway, but by opting for the ones sold by Scion, a customer won't have to worry about voiding the warranty.
None of this would be of even passing interest if the Scion vehicles looked or felt like cheap econoboxes on the road. While the "boxy" remarks will surely not stop here, the Scion cars do offer fit, finish and refinement befitting a Toyota. Double seals around door openings keep the noise out Scion acknowledges that by installing a thumpin' Pioneer stereo, the interior had to be made quieter good thinking, engineering dudes. In fact, both the xA and xB seem almost airtight, as the last door to be closed requires quite a push. The interiors are full of high-quality materials seats are comfortable in both cars, and the xB especially offers such vast amounts of rear-seat room you'd swear you were riding in a luxury car (or maybe one of those tall-looking London cabs).
Scion got the Pioneer audio system right; even without a subwoofer, the stereo delivers plenty of punch. The optional six-disc CD changer comes with a lighted display area that can change colors at the touch of a button, or choose the "Mixer" setting and the colors will continually change on their own. A satellite radio receiver is built in as well.
Although the xA and xB share a platform with the Toyota Echo, the xA seems to be a little more refined in terms of ride quality and interior noise, also edging out the xB with regard to handling perhaps because the lower center of gravity gives it a more tossable feel. The xA also weighs about 100 pounds less and therefore seems to be a little spunkier with regard to acceleration. Both cars seem well-suited to urban environments as each offers a spacious interior with compact exterior dimensions.
For a car with such a high center of gravity, the xB handles quite well. The optional front strut-tower brace adds some rigidity and seems to give the xB a noticeably stiffer feel. Power from the 1.5-liter engine is adequate but the Scion cold-air intake kit adds as much as 10 more ponies without the cold-air kit and with an automatic transmission the xB can seem sluggish. If, as Scion says, the intended market is younger men, it may need a bit of a power boost. However, with a manual transmission, the little four is much livelier.
As styling is subjective, we'll leave it to you to decide if the Scion look is cool or not. Driving through the streets of San Francisco, the Scion cars attracted their share of attention. The xB, with its noticeably boxy shape, stood out more, but both cars offer a different and slightly edgy look. Scion may be hoping to gain younger buyers, but the funky Scion xB got looks from young and old alike. From certain angles, the xA actually looks like a European micro car similar to a Peugeot 206 or Citroen C3. In fact, when people on the street commented on the xA, most assumed it was a European car. Love it or hate it, styling is what makes Scion unique the masses love the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, and that is just the kind of thing Scion is trying to avoid.
There is no question the xB and smaller xA have all the necessary ingredients to be an overwhelming success for Scion. The quality is there, the edgy and funky style is there and value is more than there. The Achilles' heel in this whole endeavor is the dealership experience. Will Toyota dealers be able to effectively adopt a low-key, no-pressure sales philosophy or will they grow impatient, lack long-term vision and resort to the kind of sales tactics that usually drive Gen Y shoppers directly into Saturn dealerships? Only time will tell. One thing is certain, Scion is the real deal and, based on product alone, it should be a runaway success. Scion cars will go on sale in California first beginning June of 2003, followed by states like Texas, Florida and New York. Scion products should be available nationally by June of 2004.
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