Scion: Canada's newest brand

Jil McIntosh drives the three new models of Scion in Vancouver.

  • Driver

VANCOUVER, B.C.—There’s a new player on the automotive scene. Scion, the entry-level brand from Toyota, is now making its way into select Canadian dealerships.

And if you’re reading this on the dead-tree page of a printed newspaper, you’re definitely not its target audience.

Pronounced Sigh-on, it already has a firm foothold in the U.S., where it’s been available since 2002. We’ll get all three of the current models — the tC coupe, xD four-door hatchback, and the boxy xB, affectionately known to fans as “the Toaster” — with the subcompact iQ coming next spring.

The 2011 xB and xD are mild makeovers of the U.S. 2010 versions, while the tC is a complete redesign.

Pricing is aggressive: the xD starts at $17,200, the xB at $18,270, and the tC at $20,850. The company uses “mono-spec” pricing, encompassing a long list of standard features that are optional on many of its competitors, with colour and transmission the only major decisions. That’s because Toyota expects many buyers to personalize their cars with various add-ons that would normally be aftermarket, such as wheels, performance exhaust, lowering springs and cold air intakes, installed by the dealer and rolled into the monthly payment.

Scion goes on sale Sept. 28 through 45 dealerships. Toronto has 21, with the rest in Vancouver and Montreal, and other cities to follow. Three are stand-alone, while the rest are “stores within stores” inside Toyota dealerships.

The models are sold in Japan as Toyotas, while the Scion name is unique over here. Launched in the U.S. in 2002, it is one of the very few sent out to capture the youth market that actually succeeded. Other cars marketed to younger buyers, such as Honda Element, PT Cruiser and even Toyota’s Matrix, ended up being purchased by their grandparents.

“It’s because the companies didn’t know what to do with them,” says Stephen Beatty, managing director of Toyota Canada. “They were plunked into the showroom alongside all the other models. Scion has a proven track record because they were target-marketed. We can’t reach these buyers with our old style of advertising.”

While the cars are decent drivers and value-priced, it’s all about the image and marketing to “Gen Y” buyers in a way that resonates with them. It’s also a long-term proposition, Beatty says.

“This is primarily about a new way to sell vehicles to a new group of customers. As they get older, they’ll probably move through the Toyota and Lexus brands, but we won’t change the way we advertise and sell to them,” he says.

It’s a multi-format method that includes social media such as Twitter and Facebook, dealer brochures that look like magazines and include photos of customized cars, and a 3D “build and price” feature on the website. A special 3D commercial will run strictly in movie theatres — “These aren’t people who watch commercials on TV,” Beatty says.

Across the U.S., there are shows and events for owners every weekend, and Toyota Canada had a display at the recent Importfest tuner car show. Visitors to Scion dealerships enjoy video games, free CDs and the ability to hook up their iPods to hear how their music sounds on the car’s stereo. A single person takes them through every stage, from first greeting to final delivery, and buyers can even configure their vehicles online in the showroom and hand it over for ordering.

Sales have slowed recently in the U.S., but some 762,800 have sold since 2002. This is a respectable number for an age group that sees cars as a commodity and doesn’t really aspire to owning one, Beatty says. He adds that Canada held off importing the brand until our population reached the “critical mass” of younger buyers that originally propelled Scion to prominence.

That’s crucial. As a brand, Scion has the youngest buyers in the industry, at an average age of 38, while the tC coupe maintains the lowest for a nameplate, at a mere 26. By comparison, the average U.S. Toyota buyer is 55.

Scion isn’t expected to steal sales from Toyota, even though some Toyota models cost less. The vast majority of Scion buyers never consider Toyota, primarily because of its traditional image and advertising. Likewise, the company says it isn’t worried about competitive brands, since no other automaker is addressing these buyers the same way. In many cases, Scion isn’t getting them out of another vehicle, but off a skateboard or a bus pass.

That said, after a short drive in each, the product seems solid. Each is based on an existing Toyota model, and all are built in Japan.

The xD hatchback, with 1.8 L four-cylinder and five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, rides on a Yaris platform. The boxy xB, with 2.4 L four-cylinder and the same transmission choices, comes from the Matrix. The tC, with 2.5 L four-cylinder and six-speed manual or automatic — unusual for the price — is based on the European Toyota Avensis.

All rely heavily on the parts bins, but Toyota has handled this very well. Instead of simply sticking the parts on, the designers built the interiors around them. All use identical heater controls, for example, but their model-specific bezels give each a completely different look.

For performance and driving feel, the xB is fun, while the xD is at the bottom of the trio, with growly engine and unpleasant steering feel. The tC is the standout of the three, with sporty handling, great shifter, and standard 18-inch wheels and dual-pane sunroof.

There are places where the price point is obvious, such as in the xB’s tinny doors, but the list of features is impressive. All three come standard with a/c, heated mirrors, keyless entry, stability control, active front head restraints, driver’s auto-down window, iPod and USB connection, Bluetooth, Pioneer audio, flat-folding rear seats and cruise control. All have side and curtain airbags, while the tC adds two front knee bags.

Still, Toyota isn’t concerned if it doesn’t move huge numbers right away. This is a long-term project, intended to benefit all three brands well into the future. It’s about cultivating Gen Y as its buying power gradually eclipses that of the baby boomers, and retaining these customers as they move up from Scion into Toyota, and perhaps into Lexus.

Not for its cars, but for how it could change the way car companies approach and sell to its customers, Scion might well be the next major turning point for the entire auto industry.

2011 Scion

PRICE: xD $17,200; xB $18,270; tC $20,850

ENGINE: xD 1.8 L four-cylinder; xB 2.4 L four-cylinder; tC 2.5 L four-cylinder

POWER: xD 128 hp, 125 torque; xB 158 hp, 162 torque; tC 180 hp, 173 torque

FUEL ECONOMY: xD City 7.4 (38 mpg), hwy 5.9 (48 mpg); xB City 9.5 (30 mpg), hwy 7.2 (39 mpg); tC City 9.2 (31 mp), hwy 6.4 (44 mpg)

WHAT’S BEST: Long list of standard features

WHAT’S WORST: xD doesn’t measure up to the other two

WHAT’S INTERESTING: The youngest average buyers in the industry

  • Scion: Canada's newest brand

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