03/15/04 — Scion aimed at youth, but may hit older audience

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Scion aimed at youth, but may hit older audience

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.

Scion, 2004

Toyota is attacking this problem with a new brand — Scion — aimed at a group called Generation Y, which basically comprises people 30 years and under.

The Scion xA and xB have been sold on the West Coast for more than a year, and this spring and summer the cars will be marketed across the country in specially designed sections of Toyota showrooms set aside just for the Scion. The Scion display area will be a low-key no-pressure zone of sorts.

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, other manufacturers may follow suit with their own youth-oriented brands.

The Scion currently comes in two shapes — the xB, which looks like a miniature van, and the xA, which has the appearance of a typical four-door hatchback. A third sporty model, the tC, is in the wings.

The xA is the least expensive of the two 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. And 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 under 20 grand.

There’s nothing cheap feeling about these cars.

But there is a distinct difference in personality. And Toyota may, indeed, find that the xB will actually appeal to older folks who value huge amounts of storage space in a small package, great gas mileage and an affordable price.

The xB, 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.

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, adults of all ages were intrigued by the car.

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.

It’s probably no wonder than that the xB is outselling the xA at a two-to-one ratio. Why wouldn’t oldsters take a second look at a vehicle that offers unbelievable room for four people with gas mileage ratings of 30 city and 34 highway with a 4-speed automatic and 32, 38 with a 5-speed manual.

Well, one reason might be the highly unusual box-on-wheels styling. But that 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. 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. That’s on a par with the new hybrids and a handful of the other small cars on the market.

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.

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.

One downside to interstate cruising — 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.

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.

As you might expect in cars aimed at younger folks, 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 tester.

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 tester included the upgraded audio system, alloy wheels and an exterior package. They brought the bottom line to $18,895. The xA also had a handful of options including alloy wheels, exterior package and side and side curtain airbags which brought its final price to $16,995.

Both Scion models are well made, well designed and comfortable vehicles. But we have a feeling that the Scion corner of the Toyota store may be populated by as many 40-somethings as 20-somethings.

Before the year is out there may be as many Scion xBs loaded with grass seed as stuffed with surfboards and beach towels.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on March 15, 2004 3:22 PM