Is Scion becoming Toyota's Saturn?
Pop quiz time: Did you know that it’s been one year since Toyota Canada introduced its so-called “youth” Scion brand to this country? No? Well, you’re forgiven if you forgot to get an anniversary gift or send a card. With sales a mere fraction of the automaker’s original estimates, it’s not like Scions have been clogging up Canadian roads. Even more worrisome for Toyota fans is how similar the Japanese automaker’s bungling of Scion mirrors how rival General Motors spolied its now defunct Saturn brand's early success.
If you remember, Saturn was set up by GM in the mid-eighties to take on the burgeoning Japanese imports, like Toyota. Sold as a "different kind of car company," Saturn had some initial sales success with a unique, “no-hassle” sales process, and fuel-efficient small cars with dent-resistant body panels. But a struggling GM in the nineties stopped investing in Saturn-exclusive products. Eventually, the distinctive cars were replaced with rebadged vehicles from GM’s Chevrolet, Opel, and Pontiac brands. Not so “different” anymore, along with Pontiac, Saab and Hummer, GM pulled the plug on Saturn as part of its bankruptcy recovery plans in 2009.
And Scion? The Toyota sub-brand was first launched as a U.S.-only collection of small, Japanese-market Toyotas in 2002. The cars were different and quirky enough from the more mainstream Yarises and Matrixes to the point where sales once peaked at 175,000 units in 2006. But then—like GM with Saturn—Toyota seriously misjudged the loyalty of Scion’s original customer base.
The Scion models that first launched the brand in the States were replaced with larger, heavier and less distinctive looking models. And guess what? Those original U.S. buyers who drove Scion’s initial success weren’t all that impressed by the new “Americanized” second-gen cars. And (like GM, again) parent Toyota starved Scion of new products. Except for the second-generation 2011 tC Coupe (seen above), Scion relied on special editions at a time when small cars from Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Ford—and others—started to eat Scion’s lunch. Not unexpectedly, Scion's U.S. sales plummetted to just 58,000 annually by 2009.
Despite the annual sales drops and stale product cupboard, Toyota's suits inexplicably continued to wax optimistically about Scion. In October, 2009, one year before the brand was set to launch here in the Great White North, Toyota Canada's president, Yoichi Tomihara, projected that by 2013 the automaker was targeting for 30,000 Scions sold annually.
Then, five months later, in March 2010, the U.S. vice president of Scion, Jack Hollis, boasted the brand would somehow miraculously bounce back to 100,000 vehicles annually in the U.S. by 2011.
Needless-to-say, Toyota's forecasts, on both sides of the border, look like fairy dust today.
In the U.S., Scion kept losing customers. It sold just over 45,000 cars in 2010. There's been a bit of an uptake this year. For the first nine months of 2011, just over 37,000 Scions have been sold—which projects to about 50,000 by the end of this December. An increase over '09, but about half of what Toyota USA projected. And now with Scion “celebrating” its first year here, Toyota Canada’s original prognostications look even more surreal. Through the end of last month, only 3,637 Scion xDs, xBs and tCs have been sold in Canada, which projects to about 5,000 units moved by the end of December, a far, far cry from the 30k/year Toyota Canada officials hoped to sell yearly by 2013.
(To put Scions’ Canadian woes in perspective, rival single models like the Hyundai Accent (17,810 sold through September) Nissan Versa (11,317), Ford Fiesta (10,840) Kia Soul (9,407) and Rio (5,325) and Mazda2 (7,510) are handily outselling the entire Scion Canada lineup this year.)
For the few (if any!) Scion optimists still out there, you could argue that a couple of new products will help jumpstart sales. But both the Smart ForTwo-like iQ city car that’s new this fall, and the yet-to-be-confirmed FR-S rear-wheel-drive 2+2 sports coupe (that shares its bits with the forthcoming Toyota FT-86 and Subaru BRZ) are niche vehicles at best.
So, what do you think?
Based on what Toyota has done in the past and is planning for Scion's future, do you think its “youth” brand will ever regain its parent’s sales expectations?
Or—like what GM eventually had to realize with Saturn—is Scion beyond repair?