Son of a . . .

Toyotas new Scion proves the more things change, the more they stay the same

Photo by Matt OttoThe name "Scion," which means descendant or heir of something, should have been a clue that there was major money at work somewhere.

But for many car buffs, the Scion—quietly made, not so quietly marketed by Toyota—seemed the spawn of aliens from Planet Ugly when its two introductory models, the Matrix-like xA and the breadbox xB, arrived mid-2003.

On a recent Saturday, the folks at Toyota revealed their true identity during an appreciation day for Scion owners on the devoid-of-Marine-life El Toro base.

They planned for 300 cars and 1,000 people, but they got 473 cars and more than 1,200 people who'd driven from as far as Florida and Vegas.

Many were the scions of boomers: the mild-mannered, techno-lovin', technology-embracin' members of Generation Y whom Toyota so eagerly courts. No place better to woo 'em than El Toro, an isolated piece of land where no one can hear you scream.

A few were just plain folks who just thought this was a good car and sumpin' different, which it no doubt is underneath the snooze-worthy sheet metal.

And a few were undeniable geezers who'd made this the last car they'd ever buy ("their second or third car," according to the wizards in marketing). We took their picture, two of them, standing blankly by their Scion, whilst DJs spun kicky hip-hop jams and everyone else got all goo-goo over their cars, their babies, their children.

Adopting a Scion baby is an expensive proposition, even though at less than $20,000, it's not a pricey car. Too rich for my blood. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if they'd just shut up about it—but then, this is always what you're in for when you buy from a new marque.

Remember those endless commercials when the Saturn arrived a few years ago? They actually had something to sell—social justice (they profit-shared with their employees) and an unassuming quality reminiscent of the old Beetle and its ads.

Old Beetles are so airtight they'll actually float. Not so the Scion. It's being sold as the designer car you design yourself—you in the low-rise jeans, you in the Abercrombie tee—when, really, it fails on both counts.

"We had three product philosophies in mind, and what makes each car different is the percentage [it has] of those philosophies," their marketing guy told me. "They are: one, the style should be very expressive, but in a simple way; two, they should be extremely versatile; and three, there should be an element of surprise."

Is he still talking?

But the Scion's design isn't so brilliant, so awe-inspiring, outside or in, to justify all that motorized Feng Shui. It's cheap frills, a house of cards collapsed by its own weight, too small to be the "new urban assault vehicle" the press release promised.

If you don't like a vanilla Scion, you're supposed to be able to custom blend your own—ordering the car entirely over the Internet. Colors and custom accessories such as extra interior lighting and high-performance parts all can be picked out online.

How original is that? Not very. Sooner or later, the Scion runs out of options, and you realize you'll be stuck sitting next to yourself at the traffic light, just like you are now.

It's not a genuine throwback to the custom cars of the '50s and '60s, as they'd have you believe. Those were one-of-a-kind, see; subtle difference.

The Scion tC coupe, the fastest Scion yet, comes out in June. But at 160 horsepower, it isn't even legitimate competition to the tuner market, which in the time you took to read this coughed up another Brand X supercar to kick Scion butt all over the 405. Read faster.

The only thing truly unique about the Scion may be the way Toyota has taken online car buying to the masses. Too bad the BMW Mini got there first.

 
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