Earlier this week, Toyota announced that it would be killing the Scion brand, its entry level car brand aimed at first time car owners. Scion may not have pioneered the “no haggle, no hassle” form of car buying, Saturn started it, but they continued in that tradition and I would argue made a bigger impact with it by focusing on college kids and recent grads. The death of the company felt like a long time coming, largely due to what felt like a lack of interest from Toyota, though what really put the nail in the coffin was the move toward ride sharing services, primarily Uber, and a sharp decline in car ownership among the college age demographic.
Scion’s sales peaked in 2006, in the days of heady youthful optimism before the recession and the shift in ownership and ride sharing behavior. This was also the year after I bought my Scion, an xA.
When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, my parents rewarded me for getting into college with my first car, a used white Chevy Cavalier. It was pretty sweet and had surprisingly good power for the small size. It was not exceptionally great in the snow, though neither was the car which rear ended me while I was stopped waiting to make a turn near our house. The Chevy was totaled from what seemed like a rather small collision, and I was a bit shaken up. After a few weeks of recovery and getting over the crash, I decided to go for an indestructible and extremely safe Volvo 240, essentially a tank on wheels.
The Volvo served me well through my first two years of college, serving as my prom wheels, and even helping me (I’m sure) meet my wife. It had heated seats that didn’t work, seats in a shocking state of disrepair, and had a tendency to lose hubcaps at speed over 60. It did however survive a head on collision with a pickup truck that destroyed the truck’s fender, and though the grill popped off of the Volvo, it went right back on by hand and there was no damage. After a few years, it also developed a tendency to lose power to the windows and more alarmingly, the steering, especially on downhills, though would always restart when I would turn it off and back on again, even while moving. Eventually these electric problems would be its downfall as I couldn’t deal with the temperament any longer.
In the summer of 2005, I landed an internship at a publishing company, my first doing software development. With a stable source of income, I decided it was time to put the Volvo and its mercurial behavior to rest and began car shopping. I landed on Scion as a brand to check out due to the no hassle pricing which appealed to my introverted side. I, like most people in my generation, would rather forgo the song and dance around saving a few hundred dollars by negotiating for a car, and just buy one like any other product is bought. The style of Scion also appealed, though it was definitely targeted more toward the skate boarding crew with its extensive customization options and neon colors.
Scion’s lineup never changed much through its run, beside adding the iQ and replacing the TC with the FRS. At this time, the xB was the most popular model due to the size and huge customizability. It ended up becoming extremely popular with a completely unintended audience because the boxy shape meant that entry and exit were easy for the elderly and those with mobility issues. The xB was also one of the first cars with an iPod connector. It really didn’t appeal to me though, and I began looking at the tC.
The tC, the sports car model was a symbol of power at the time. It was targeted toward the performance car enthusiast who couldn’t afford a BMW or even Miata. It even had a manual transmission! This, along with the higher price once spec-ed out ruled it out for me.
Instead, I decided on the xA, a funky little hatch that compared most with the Mini. However, it had more space with a real back seat and four doors. It was also super comfortable to drive for a long time and made a good GT car. It would never win any races or even launch off of the line at a light, but its size and nimbleness made it fun to drive. It was also not too bad in the snow due to a wide wheel base and thick tires. It quickly became popular among my friends in college and I was soon giving rides everywhere. It made it through my junior and senior years of college as well, becoming my commuting car for a second software development internship with a drive from the Poconos to the Lehigh Valley daily. When I graduated and moved to a job in Jersey City, NJ, it came with me, actually moving all of my belongings due to a surprisingly capable trunk, especially with the back seats folded down.
Scion understood customizability and the importance of electronics, especially stereo systems for the younger generation. Scion offered both a traditional enhanced stereo system with Harmon Kardon speakers for audiophiles, and an improved system with what young people cared about with iPod and mp3 cd support. MP3 CD was a much bigger deal for me as I was constantly burning cds and with a high capacity CD, you could fit thousands of songs on a single CD. With the changer, you could get your entire library in the car. Countless were the days I spent driving around blasting Fountain of Wayne or Bowling for Soup. It was a simpler time.
Scion lost focus on what endeared it to its customer base, customizability, low price, and a forward look at technology. Scion never figured out strong smart phone integration, voice controls, or advanced climate control, things that college kids around the country would still look for. Though it is dying, its legacy will live on through entry level Toyota models and a renewed focus on marketing to college kids rather than assuming they’ll buy used cars. Their early focus on sound systems and music device integration, shifting the focus from in dash systems to external devices is only now being figured out in other car brands with Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto. Customizability has also trickled into other brands much more so than in 2006, Tesla being a prime example.
The no hassle model hasn’t really survived which is a shame. Our generation is used to seeing a price online and proceeding to buy in one click. Losing the no haggle model takes a step back away from this, and in my opinion, a regressive step back in time. I would gladly pay a slight premium to not have to deal with two hours of haggling in a dealership. Ideally, car buying would be the same as buying something on Amazon. I believe this is a prime area for disruption as more and more of the prime demographic for car buyers are used to this method of buying. I would be totally happy building out and buying a car directly online and picking it up without talking to a salesperson, and I believe most people our generation would as well. Tesla tried moving toward this, but because of arcane laws, had to move to a sales model and is rumored to be considering franchising dealerships in the short term future.
In 2009 with a full time job in the financial industry and an apartment, it was time to move on from the Scion. We traded it in and moved to a Mini Cooper S, one of the most fun cars to drive I’ve had the pleasure of owning. Sadly the problem with focussing on a young market is that they grow up and move on.