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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Scion still seeks youth market with quirky 2011 tC

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Scion still seeks youth market with quirky 2011 tC

New model could draw coveted twentysomethings to brand

BY GREG GARDNER

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Tapping into the fantasies and fetishes of young car buyers has often been a fool's errand, and Toyota's Scion brand has taken its share of lumps in the quest.

But with the Oct. 1 launch of the second-generation tC coupe, Scion has a decent chance of diverting young, predominantly male "trend transmitters" from their smartphones, iPods and video games to at least consider a quirky, zippy car that stands out from the crowd.

"The entire industry is so much smaller, and then the economy has disproportionately hit this generation," said Jack Hollis, vice president and general manager of Scion. "Now consider all the choices they have to spend money on and our challenge is that much bigger."

Scion sales through the first eight months of 2010 are down 32% from a year earlier, according to Autodata. Unlike the boxy xB wagon, whose buyers have a median age of 42, the tC is aimed at buyers in their mid-20s at a time when unemployment among all Americans between 18 and 29 is 20%, Hollis said.

But Toyota isn't known for pulling the plug on ideas that launched before their time. Critics ridiculed the initial low sales of the Prius.

Even at modest volumes, Scion is reaching a different set of consumers. Nearly three-quarters, 71%, have never owned even a used Toyota or Lexus, Hollis said.

Next March, Scion is to launch a tiny city car, called the iQ, in the U.S. to battle cars like Mercedes-Benz's Smart and the Fiat 500.

Scion's marketing money is going into youth-oriented music festivals and drift-racing competitions, where drivers intentionally oversteer, but without losing control as the rear tires lose traction. The message is clearly aimed more at a 21st Century "boy racer" than a young environmentalist.

While Toyota has set a goal to offer a hybrid or other alternative powertrain option for every product by the early 2020s, so far Scion has no plan to offer a hybrid or plug-in electric model. "Scion was created to be what Toyota is not," Hollis said. "If I say hybrid to anyone in the U.S., the first thing that comes to mind is Prius."

With one in five adults under 30 jobless and the competition with wireless devices, will Scion fall prey to a widespread decline in interest for cars among the youth similar to what has happened in Japan over the last five years?

"The U.S. is so much different," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "Our public transportation systems are sadly lacking. The car has always been a right of passage for the American teenager and I don't see that changing anytime soon."

To be fair, Scion's bumps and bruises are more visible precisely because it is targeting younger buyers with distinct styling approaches. As a separate brand, there is no statistical shelter within the larger Toyota division's sales reports. Other "out-there" youthful models such as the Kia Soul or Nissan Cube may hit or miss their sales targets, but one must dig through the numbers to find out.

Read more: Scion still seeks youth market with quirky 2011 tC | freep.com | Detroit Free Press http://www.freep.com/article/20100916/BUSINESS01/9160455/1210/business01/Scion-still-seeks-youth-market-with-quirky-2011-tC#ixzz0zhFtLMBD

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