Word came late yesterday that Toyota would kill the Scion brand. Toyota made it official this morning. For many reasons, that is a shame.
Scion was started with hopes that Toyota would lure young customers back to its stodgy, Camry-infested showrooms. Actually, that’s a lie. Toyota was hopeful it could convince those younger customers to part with their hard-earned money by selling quirky, entry-level cars in trendy showroom spaces with a no-haggle pricing model.
Naysayers are gonna say nay, and many of them pointed out this was the tack taken by Saturn long before. GM’s “Different Kind of Car Company” inspired fierce brand loyalty in those early days of its existence, and many people owned multiple Saturns in succession until the corporate mothership started diluting the brand.
Where Scion differed most appreciably from Saturn was in two things: It had quirky Japanese styling going for it with its launch lineup — everybody remembers the first-generation Scion xB, which still has a cult following years after it was replaced with a redesigned model. It also had a bead on tuner kids. You want your pick of rims? Scion would give you half a dozen factory-supplied, factory-warranted wheel options. There were TRD performance parts for just about everything from suspension to shift kits. The Fast and Furious-lite crowd should have loved it.
And for a while, they did. At least that’s how it seemed when I was attending rural Tennessee Tech Unviersity. There were lots of new Scions tooling around campus back then, circa 2005. The tC was a hit with frat boys and sorority girls. That square xB was a hit with just about everybody else.
Scion noticed something many pundits labeled disconcerting, however: Old folks loved the cars, too. And why wouldn’t they? These were, at their core, cheap little Japanese cars with character the likes of which Toyota had all but abandoned. Why put up with the cramped interior of the Toyota Corolla when you could spend your days antiquing in the cavernous confines of the xB? Why settle for a toady Yaris when you could have the bulldog charm of the xA?
Scion might have been concerned about that, but it really shouldn’t have been. There was plenty of time back in those days to develop more sporty options to draw those few younger buyers who might have been turned off by the fact their grandma drove an xB. The tC was a solid start — the Celica Toyota hadn’t had the guts to keep selling in its own showrooms, along with plenty of performance parts available right off the showroom floor. Unfortunately, that’s as close as the brand ever got to building its own car with anything approaching sporting pretense.
Then came the second-generation xB in 2007. The writing was on the wall.
Toyota took the most-loved, most iconic model in the Scion lineup and screwed the pooch. They said focus groups wanted more space and more power. It wouldn’t be the first time a focus group got something completely wrong. In fact, the rise and fall of the xB is pretty much a textbook definition of why you don’t rely too heavily on focus groups. The resulting second-gen xB was bloated, comparatively huge, and got disastrous fuel economy when stacked against its progenitor.
Somewhere along the line, the original xA was discontinued and replaced by the somewhat less-bulldoggy xD. The tC soldiered on with a Botox injection plus further cosmetic surgery to install a perkier set of headlights and a more pleasing tail. But young people, that demographic Scion was supposed to be chasing, found themselves with fewer compelling reasons to darken the doors of their nearest Scion dealer.
Until, that is, a savior soared in from the Stars of Pleiades. Subaru and Toyota entered into an agreement to jointly build and market the Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT-86, with U.S. dealerships getting the GT-86 as a Scion to be known by the moniker FR-S. Sexy and lightweight, it was the kind of sporty experience Scion needed all along to draw and keep youthful customers — but it was more Subaru than Toyota. To make matters worse, it was saddled with not-so-grippy tires, an underwhelming engine as sports coupes go, and an MSRP that would land prospective buyers squarely in the neighborhood of 300+ horsepower domestic ponycars that offered more space and better performance numbers.
The tC could be forgiven if it was seen giving the FR-S and Toyota corporate some serious side-eye while wondering what might have been if it had been given a more hoonable engine and a dose of Celica All-Trac grip.
Scion made one last grasp for relevancy, albeit misguided: Late 2015 saw dealerships finally getting two new models in the iM compact hatchback and the iA subcompact sedan. The iM was really a European-market Toyota Auris with an underwhelming U.S.-spec powertrain but a solid-handling chassis that would, in a just world, underpin our closely related Toyota Corolla. The iA was merely a Mazda2 badge job — a way for cash-strapped Mazda to make a little money selling Mazda2s here without taking on the risk of stocking a possibly slow-selling inventory of economy cars at its own dealerships as gas prices plummeted last year. I loved the way the iA drove, and I loved the mix of economy, features, and pricing it offered. I didn’t love it as a Scion, however.
Scion deserved better than the management it got. That’s it, in a nutshell. If the brand were as limited and quirky now as it was in those early days, I might not be penning this requiem.
I will miss the Scion of 2005 — but not the Scion of 2015.