Scion youth looks to sedan, hatchback to revive sales

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW YORK (AP) — Toyota is turning to a sporty hatchback and a low-cost sedan to restore some hipness — and sales — to its youth-oriented Scion brand.

If it snags a few baby boomers along the way, so be it.

The brand, started in 2003 to lure people 18 to 34 to the aging Toyota family, has worked to a point. The average head of a Scion-owning household is 51, three years below the industry average. Even though many boomers bought the versatile but boxy xB wagon to downsize from larger SUVs, the average age of a Scion driver has stayed around 37.

Brand chief Doug Murtha says the new cars to be unveiled at the New York auto show this week stay true to the original mission. But he also says: "We're not turning away older buyers."

At this point, Murtha can't be too choosy. Buyers of any age haven't been gravitating to Scion of late. Sales fell nearly 18 percent last year to around 58,000, and Scion hasn't come close to its peak sales of more than 173,000 in 2006, according to Ward's Automotive.

Murtha blames the sales drop on an aging lineup. Scion hasn't had a new car since 2012.

The hatchback iM is aimed at young buyers who want a sporty car that can haul things. With an estimated price under $20,000, owners will still be able to make the rent, pay off school loans and have enough left for a weekend outing with friends, according to Toyota.

Hatchbacks generally haven't sold well in the U.S., but Murtha says research shows that trend is changing. Hatchbacks have the hauling utility of small SUVs, which are now hot sellers, yet have a lower center of gravity for better handling, something that appeals to youths, he says.

Toyota expects the iA sedan, to cost around $16,000, to appeal to today's young people's more practical nature. Sedan designs, like the iA, he said, look more like coupes than the boxy cars of yesterday, Murtha adds, and give young buyers space to drive around with friends.

Both cars, due to hit showrooms in September, have technology for younger people. Each comes with a six-speaker multi-media sound system with a 7-inch display.

The cars are also easier on the gas budget. The iA's 1.5-liter engine and six-speed automatic or manual transmissions can get up to 42 miles per gallon on the highway. The sportier hatchback, with a 1.8-liter engine and six-speed manual or continuously variable transmissions gets up to 37 mpg.

The new cars should make Scion fresh, and that will appeal to many buyers, said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS. "The easiest way for them to appeal to younger buyers is to kind of not think of the age," she said. "They need to find a way to be hip and fresh again, and they haven't been for a while."

She says it's hard to make a car for just one demographic. "Baby boomers and millennials all want technology. They all want storage, they all want visibility," she said. "I think focusing on making it right is more important than the number associated with it."