Scion chasing grown-up buyers with new models, attitude

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Scion isn’t just for kids anymore.

Of course, I always questioned whether the brand Toyota launched eight years ago was ever really in touch with its target audience.

But Scion was Toyota's response to its shrinking appeal to younger buyers -- an issue it began addressing in earnest in the late 1990s.

In fact, its concern at the time wasn't that younger buyers in general weren't buying Toyotas, but that younger male buyers weren't.

Toyota was doing fine with younger females, who were buying Corollas and Celicas.

After a couple of wobbly attempts to overcome the young-male-buyer problem by tweaking some products, Toyota decided the most effective strategy would be a new, hipper brand.

Scion launched with a couple of 2004-model-year cars, including the unique xB, and a marketing effort tasked with bringing young 20-something urban males into showrooms.

So far, so good.

There is a simple maxim of military strategy that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Toyota learned that this is as true in the car business as it is in battle.

Relying primarily on loss-leader pricing, high-end audio systems and a smorgasbord of customizing options as their path to achieving their younger-buyer mandate, the boxy xB and xA hatchback rolled onto the scene.

Both were packed with value but lacked much in the way of get-up-and-go. They shared a four-cylinder engine with the timid Toyota Echo.

At the time, I asked Scion execs why they expected 20-something males to drive the anemic xA when they couldn't coax one into an Echo with an electric cattle prod.

They answered that they had shown both Scion models to focus groups with young urban consumers, and both had been enthusiastically received.

Well, OK then. You've thought of everything.

It wasn't until the two-door tC arrived for 2005 with its 160-horsepower four, that Scion finally had a model with enough punch to actually appeal to young males. The average age of its buyer is 28.

With a median age of 37, Scion owners trend younger than Toyota buyers by more than 15 years; yet it never enjoyed the groundswell of younger buyers it was to attract. For example, the average xB buyer is 42.

In reality, attempting to target youthful buyers is like intentionally trying to run over a squirrel. Aim for it, and nine times out of 10, it'll juke and dodge its way safely out of reach.

It's when you don't try that the squirrel comes to misery.

Scion may have figured this out.

Scion is no longer trying to pander to its original target demographic. In fact, it announced that it will discontinue its two boxy models: the iconic xB and the underwhelming xD.

Scion recently introduced the speck-like iQ and the sporty FR-S.

"One of Scion's main goals is to be a laboratory for Toyota," says Jack Hollis, a Scion vice president, "a lab to attract new buyers."

Although iQ and FR-S each target a specific buyer, Scion's overall emphasis has gone from 20-something males to "any buyer new to the Toyota family."

2012 Scion iQ

As though to prove this, so far the average age of the iQ buyer is a decidedly middle-aged 50.

Like our squirrel, however, Scion may finally get its original target buyer with the new FR-S.

A sharp, two-seat, two-door, rear-wheel-drive sports car, it's nimble, athletic and affordable -- pricing begins at $24,200.

2013 Scion FR-S

A 200-horsepower four-cylinder percolates under the hood, mated with either a six-speed manual or six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic.

It's loaded with standard features and technology. An eight-speaker Pioneer audio system is standard, and dealers will have shelves of products for personalizing each FR-S.

It's exactly the car Scion should have launched in 2003.

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