This is more than just the failure of a sub-brand. It's the failure of a company to deliver new and compelling products over an extended period of time. Toyota will point to the Great Recession as the reason it hedged its bets and withdrew funding for new vehicles, instead of using that as an opportunity to redouble efforts. This was as good as a death warrant, although myopically no one realized it at the time. Sadly, GM's Saturn experiment was a road map for this exact form of failure. No one at Toyota seemed to think the Saturn experience was worth protecting their experimental brand from. Or they weren't heard.
Brands live and die on product. Somehow, Scion convinced itself that its real success metric was a youthful demographic of buyers. It seems like this was used to gauge the overall health of the brand. Look at the aging and uncompetitive tC, which Scion proudly noted had a 29-year-old average buyer. That fails to take into account its lack of curb appeal and flagging sales. Who cares if the declining number of people buying your cars are younger? Toyota is going to kill the tC thirteen years [ And two indifferent generations ... - Ed.] after it was introduced. In that time, Honda has come out with three entirely new generations of the Civic.
At launch, the brand could have gone a few different ways. The xB was plucky, interesting, and useful – a tough mix of ephemeral characteristics – but the xA didn't offer much except a thin veneer of self-consciously applied attitude. That's ok; it was cute. Enter the tC, which managed to combine sporty pretensions with decent cost. It took on the Civic Coupe in the contest for coolness, and usually managed to win. More importantly, an explicit brand value early on was a desire to avoid second generations of any of its models, promising a continually evolving and fresh lineup. At this point, the road splits.
Scion wasn't a losing proposition from the get-go. Its death is due to negligence and apathy.
Down one lane lies the Scion that could have been. After a short but reasonable product lifecycle, it would have renewed the entire lineup. The xB would become cuter, more practical without becoming frumpy, and maybe even less mainstream. The xA would grow a backbone and find room at the bottom of the fun-to-drive hatch market, in the vein of the Fiesta 1.0-liter. The tC would be completely superseded by the FR-S, and the lineup could be shuffled to accommodate a tiny CUV – something the brand ultimately needed to stay relevant in our crossover-dominated present day. Think Mazda CX-3 competitor; in other words, the C-HR that came so late in Scion's short life that it will be born a Toyota. In this universe, Scion has a decent shot at life.
- Image Credit: Chris Doane Automotive
You know what happened instead. The xB and xA rotted on the vine for a bit, to be replaced by a bloated and repugnant xB and an entirely forgettable, completely uncharismatic xD. The tC stuck around long after its competitors evolved, receiving an indifferent facelift and ... that's about it. The FR-S, itself a promising cult classic, seemed self-conscious about sharing a showroom with its forgettable stablemates. It never would have been able to prop up the brand alone, anyways. An interminable series of insipid Release Series editions stretched the concept past incredulity. And as mentioned above, the C-HR, Scion's best shot at a lifeline, will never know its intended parent brand.
And the last, desperate gasp? Bungled. Swiping the Mazda2 platform to create the iA was a brilliant move; defacing it with an evil robot catfish maw was a major mistake. On paper, the other new Scion, the iM, is also a decent idea: It's a European hatch-like wagon, something that younger buyers seem to enjoy when it comes with a VW badge on it. Or with some body cladding and suspension work, perhaps a Subaru Crosstrek competitor. Of course, the reality of the iM combines sporty sheetmetal with an insipid dynamic package, at a not-particularly-attractive price point. An Impreza offers more power and all-wheel drive for around the same money, the Golf is much more appealing for a little more. The iM doesn't seem to win in any category. It's not the tall quasi-CUV that might sell, it's the Matrix 3.0 nobody asked for.
Folding these models into the Toyota lineup seems more about recovering amortized costs than filling slots in the lineup. How long they'll linger moving in volumes that are considered rounding errors in Camry sales before being mercifully put down is to be seen. The FR-S at least provides a rallying point for the few American enthusiasts who cherish Toyota's sporty past, with rally-ready Celicas and mythic Supras.
And the last, desperate gasp? Bungled.
Conventional wisdom will write Scion off as a failure of identity or structure, felled by hard economic times and fickle youth buyers. An examination of its lineup over time, as we've gone through here, makes a compelling case that it all comes down to product. It also makes Toyota's ex post facto revelation that Scion isn't needed anymore, now that Toyota is aspirational, such a cynical rationalization. Scion is a diminished, neglected brand. Of course it's not aspirational!
Here are the important lessons that come out of the Scion experiment. Want to stay relevant? It takes money to make money, so pour some into product development. Make sure each of your vehicles has some sort of "win" against its segment competitors. The inertia that sets in when investment declines is fatal. So is chasing the wrong measure of success.