Once upon a time, the koo-koo kids of youth culture filled airwaves with odes to their raging rides. From the first rock 'n' roll song, Ike Turner's â€œRocket 88,â€? to Johnny Bond's â€œHot Rod Lincoln,â€? Ronny & The Daytonas' â€œLittle GTOâ€? to Bruce Springsteen's â€œRacing in the Streetsâ€? â€” these were anthems to the roadsters of Detroit's golden age, the faithful steeds of the cowboys of a restless era.
You just don't hear songs about tricked-out Camrys or souped-up Tauruses. The reason is self-evident. The legendary '57 Chevys and flat-head Mercs and muscle cars like 'Stangs and Cobras, all offered distinct designs and monster motors that served as manifestations of a driver's personality and testosterone level. Notwithstanding the auto industry's billions of dollars of annual advertising, personality is hardly something their products have exuded in the past 20 years. Flattened ovals on wheels have clogged an expressway of common sensibilities, eschewing the spirit of the vehicles that so juiced a generation of young buyers.
Carmakers now seem bent on recapturing that lost cool, and nothing puts as profound a stamp on the industry-wide rejuvenation as Toyota's new Scion. Toyota unveiled the line earlier this year at the major auto shows with a streamlined concept car called the ccX â€” likely just a mock-up of the kind of design cues a Scion sedan might take â€” and a stunning hybrid vehicle, the bbX, that appears to be a cross between a car, an SUV, a pickup and a school bus. The broader Scion line will evolve between now and its launch in 2003, but Toyota will incorporate a unifying, sci-fi-esque aesthetic throughout. Unlike most mainstream car companies, which nurture each model as a distinct entity, Toyota will present the Scion as an overall brand with similar design elements.
It's become a common theme for the industry: Younger car buyers have their own needs, which seem to translate as a generally sporty design and some kind of modular, hatchback interior. Witness Pontiac's Vibe, Toyota's own Matrix and Honda's Element mini SUV, which one company exec has described as a â€œmobile dorm room.â€? But only Toyota has created a new imprint for the market.
â€œFrom our perspective, it feels a lot like 30 years ago, when we started addressing the needs of Boomers specifically,â€? says Brian Bolain, Scion's national manager. â€œIf you look at full-on manufacturers, you find median ages [of buyers] in the upper 40s and that's just kind of where the wealth of the population has been. We lost sight, to some degree, of how to satisfy a younger and maybe a bit edgier group. But as we look at the population shift over the next 20 years, we obviously need to grow with them.â€?
The numbers are there, given the 72 million members of Gen Y. At the same time, more of America's young people are buying new cars and making their purchases earlier in their lives. According to industry tracker CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., some 40 percent of all U.S. teens, ages 15 to 19, counted themselves car owners in the model year 2001, after a gradual â€” but significant in car-dollar terms â€” increase every year since 1996, and up from just 22.3 percent in 1985. Buyers ages 20 and younger accounted for 583,000 new-car sales in 2001, up from 402,000 in 1996. Used-car sales, by contrast, have slipped every year since 1998 for this age group.
Getting that first purchase is crucial, says Art Spinella, vice president at CNW. â€œThe chances of that person buying your brand again is almost seven times as great as it is getting someone else to come in and buy your brand,â€? he says. Lost along the way has been something to dazzle the buyer at the entry level, other than the sticker. While imports like Hyundai and Kia have made their names on price, the full-portfolio companies have all but shunned the unique vehicles so revered by previous generations.
â€œBack in the heyday of muscle cars, the Mustangs and GTOs were in the bottom end of the market,â€? says Spinella. â€œIf you had a part-time job, you could afford one. But in the '70s, safety features became mandatory and prices went up. The kind of vehicles that came to be the entry level â€” the Chevettes, Omnis and Horizons â€” had no personality, and the younger buyer wound up being cut out of the market.â€?
Prices began holding in the mid-1990s, giving companies the option, says Spinella, â€œto do what they should've been doing for the last 15 years â€¦ instead of just taking a general market vehicle and putting a spoiler on it.â€?
The latter is a key point. Naturally, there have been cars marketed to youth in the intervening years, blared as hip, rock 'n' rolling vehicles via quick-cut ads or music sponsorships. But few have tendered truly distinct design, and when they did â€” the Dodge Viper, or even the VW New Beetle â€” they often sold at prices above entry-level affordability.
When carmakers have attempted dedicated youth vehicles, they have shown questionable judgment, as witnessed by Pontiac's launch last year of the Aztek. That car/SUV hybrid, intended to be the distinctive, go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle young buyers craved, tanked, mostly chalked up to the fact that it was too stylized.
Scion's first entry could have problems in that same vein. Scion's Web site defines the bbX vehicle as an â€œurban conveyance,â€? not unlike the positioning of Chrysler's similarly eye-catching PT Cruiser. But there's good shock and bad, says David Morrison, president of consultancy TwentySomething Inc., in Radnor, Pa., and the boxy design of the bbX could inspire the latter.
â€œI saw a quote in reference to the PT Cruiser â€” which ended up selling to much older buyers â€” and it was, â€˜I'm not gonna hot-rod around in a four-door car,â€™â€? Morrison says. â€œThe bottom line is, young buyers want something fun, but they don't want something that looks like the car their parents drove.â€?
Whether or not the bbX flies out of the gate, or whether Scion's fate trends more toward the wedgy ccX, it's pretty much a given that Toyota will keep loosing designers until the brand becomes the first stop for young car buyers, and a first contact for Toyota. At that point, Bolain and Scion can call their own tunes.