Scion ology

A weird-looking, boxy car from Japan called the bbX, introduced on the Internet, aims to be next year’s rage

Let’s active! Tilt the Scion bbX on its tailgate, and it gets even the toughest stains out.

Let’s active! Tilt the Scion bbX on its tailgate, and it gets even the toughest stains out.

From the looks of the cryptic gray opening screen of the Web page, the company it represents could be anything—a manufacturer, a retailer, one of those nebulous “what does Agilent actually do, anyway?” kind of outfits, even somebody’s school Internet project. A field of 336 white squares, arranged neatly in 12 rows, obscures a minimalist oval badge; on the horizontal band through the logo, spelled out in letters not unlike Porsche’s elongated Eurostyle script, is the word “Scion.” Only the line of type along the site’s top is a giveaway: “Presented by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.”

Mouse over the Flash-animated squares, each with a different color image, click on one, and the image blows up, accompanied by the text: “Welcome to a brave new world.” It disappears, replaced by a photo of a young white guy in amber shades and black clothes, sitting in a tan zebra chair. “Taste is a matter of opinion … yours,” the text overlay reads.

Mouse over the slippery box on the left that reads: “see,” and select “bbX preview.” What comes up is an image of a toy-like vehicle that isn’t going to come in with the lowest coefficient drag in an aerodynamic contest. In fact, it looks like someone pushed a washing machine onto its back, drew station-wagon windows along the side, then put the thing on wheels. It’s kind of cool looking.

What gives?

Scion is a new line of cars that Toyota is aiming at the emerging generation of teens and young adults who have grown up navigating the Internet. The reason you may not be aware of Scion yet is that, while it was launched two weeks ago at the New York Auto Show, the company won’t start selling cars in the U.S. until June of next year, when it will begin in California before rolling out nationwide. And Toyota doesn’t want to use any flashy television ad campaigns to position its new brand just yet. Instead, the only way place it’s being represented, for the time being, is on the Web.

The Scion Web site was developed by a Los Angeles company, Fresh Machine, which worked with another outfit, the Rebel Organization, a division of URB Magazine. The idea was to zero in on 18- to 24-year-olds, an audience that may be immune to conventional ad campaigns. “Obviously, it’s a very different target market with very specific interests and ideas,” says Rick Bolton, Fresh Machine’s CEO. “And it’s also a group that doesn’t like being marketed to very much, or they’re an interesting and complicated group of people to market to. They buy music, clothes and cars just like everybody else, but most young people require a fairly strong lifestyle identification with a brand in order to participate with that brand.”

In plainer English, if Grandma drives a Camry, then her progeny, or scions, may not want to “participate” with the Toyota brand when it comes time to buy a new, personal set of wheels. It’s a problem that many companies face when they try to bring in a new generation of customers—the aging of an automobile marque, and a subsequent perceived lack of coolness among younger buyers. It’s one reason you don’t see too many 20-year-olds lining up to buy new Buicks.

Which is why Toyota hooked up with Bolton’s company and URB. According to Bolton, who previously worked at the online development company Razorfish and, before that, Disney Online, it was a plus that neither Fresh Machine nor URB had ever worked on a car campaign. “They deliberately decided to go with an interactive design company that understood digital media, that understood the Web,” he says. “That’s going to be core to their brand identity.”

To that end, Scion’s Web site uses music and content from URB, whose editorial mix spans dance music, hip-hop and electronica, along with the subcultures that have grown up around those genres. MP3s offered for download include tracks from Aphrodite featuring Schooly D, the Youngsters and Vikter Duplaix, and one photo of the bbX on the site depicts a Pioneer sound system placed for maximum noisemaking effect.

A page fromthe Scion Web site, pitching hoopties at “the new generation of forward thinkers, the true arbiters of cool.” (Their words, not ours.)

But even with a lethal sound system, can a car as defiantly anti-aerodynamic as the bbX succeed in America? “They’re interesting little cars,” Bolton says, laughing about an experience riding around in one in a parking lot. “They’re like small but roomy cars that you can put a lot of people in, hang out with your friends and drive around town.”

In short, the Scion bbX, already a huge success in Japan where it’s sold as the Toyota Bb, has a chance to become the NetGen version of the Volkswagen microbus.

Of course, only a fool would launch a car line on the strength of one model, especially something as deliberately idiosyncratic as the bbX. It’s likely that Scion will make its U.S. debut with two cars; a swoopy, almost feline crossover coupe called the ccX, which looks like the next iteration of Toyota’s recent Matrix model, should provide a more conventional counterpoint.

According to Bumsuk Lim, the assistant chair in the transportation design department at Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena-based school that turns out close to half of the world’s automobile designers, Toyota is aiming, Joe Camel-like, at a demographic that’s still a few years away from getting its collective driver’s license. “By the time they can afford their first cars,” he says, “hopefully they will buy those cars they dreamt of as kids.”

Incorporating an almost cartoony design aesthetic, which the bbX certainly does, may help capture imaginations of future buyers. And while there are a few cars that give the finger to aerodynamic convention on the market, most of them are canny updates of earlier models, like the VW New Beetle and BMW’s just-launched Mini, the latter of which reworks the classic Sir Alec Issigonis Austin Mini-Cooper/Morris Mini-Minor design, first introduced in 1959. Chrysler’s Neon-derived PT Cruizer uses less-obvious reference points, but it still aims at baby-boomer nostalgia.

Lim, who’s designed cars for GM and Honda, thinks Scion will be successful with the bbX, which pretty much makes a clean break from nostalgic references. “It will not exactly fit into some of the driving styles and settings here,” he says. “The bbX was really developed for the city crowd. When you’re stuck in traffic jams, aerodynamics will not do much for you, anyway. And instead of sitting in a small coupe or sedan or hatchback type of style, you have a mini-minivan type of outline. With a huge space in the back where, most people—I saw in Japan, they buy these cars and they fix them up, put huge speakers and things like that.”

In Japan, the Bb (the model the bbX is based on) has become successful precisely because of its Swiss Army Knife-like customizing possibilities; a sizeable aftermarket has developed around it, much like one has come about in Los Angeles around the Honda Civic.

“It’s very popular in Southern California, what they call an Asian hot rod,” Lim says. “And Toyota doesn’t have any car competing with the Honda Civic. They probably want to bring in very different types of cars that appeal to an even younger crowd. And they probably want to do it with a new brand.”

And, even though Fresh Machine’s Bolton believes that the so-called NetGen might be a marketing challenge for a new car brand, Lim thinks its members can be reached. “Around the world, they probably all watch the same programs,” he says. “They watch the NBA, they play the same PlayStation games, listen to the same type of music. They might speak different languages in different cultures, but they share a lot of common elements.”

So Lim doesn’t see a car that looks like a funky cross between a shrunken Chevy Astro van and an East German Trabant wagon, the kind that U2 once featured on its “Zoo TV” tour, as any kind of long shot. “I think Toyota can bring in cars like the bbX, which is very popular in Tokyo, believing that it can be popular in California, too,” he says. “And once it becomes popular in California, it will spread out across the nation.”

Given what happened the last time Toyota introduced a new brand, when it announced it would take on Mercedes-Benz and BMW with a line of luxury cars, Lim may be correct. And, as Lexus has come to dominate the high-end market, in little over a year from now, a line of weird Japanese cars, introduced on a Web site, may very well be ubiquitous. Stranger things have happened.