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Scion is the New Saturn: What We Said in January 2015

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 1/8/2015 Scott Evans

Editor's Note: With the news of Scion's demise, we're revisiting this commentary on the Toyota brand originally published in January 2015.

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Niche brands like Scion, created out of the blue by big automakers, are places where great ideas go to either thrive or die. Too often, though, it's the former followed by the latter. Scion isn't the first to follow this course, and its end isn't predetermined, but if the brand hopes to survive, it would do well to take a careful look at another marketing-led brand that flamed-out: Saturn.

The similarities between GM's ill-fated Saturn brand and Toyota's falling-star Scion may not be obvious at first, but consider their histories. Executives within one of the world's largest automakers envisioned a new division with unique, low-priced products to be sold in special dealerships with "no haggle" pricing structures and promoted with an outsider, "different kind of car company" marketing strategy. Scion and Saturn may not be carbon copies, but they're reading from the same playbook.

MotorTend Image© Provided by MotorTrend MotorTend Image Consider first their genesis. Scion and Saturn were both created by executives at giant auto companies. Their purpose is to attract a new customer who wouldn't consider the existing brand and its boring, establishment image. They are, quite simply, marketing strategies. They'll sell different-looking cars at low prices and, what's more, they'll entice customers with a low-pressure, simplified sales process. Saturn's "no-haggle" pricing and Scion's "Pure Price" strategy are based on the same principle: Most people hate negotiating the price of a new car. Each was quick to identify itself as a "new" kind of car company that didn't play by the old rules. Scion went so far as to codify the idea into its name. Never mind that however much autonomy the divisions may have been granted, each was still the product of and run by the same old established automakers customers were trying to avoid.

In both cases, the initial splash eventually wore off, sales began to shrink, and new product was needed. In both cases, this is where things started to go off the rails. Consider now their trajectories: a big splash, a period of malaise, a mid-life crisis complete with sports car, and finally a desperate attempt to pass-off lightly re-badged European models.
For Saturn, things turned when the exclusive but very long-in-the-tooth S-Series was replaced with the brand's first re-badge job, the L-Series. Once GM had a taste of the cost savings afforded by platform sharing, it was all downhill for the Saturn idea. The line-up exploded with shared vehicles, from crossovers to minivans to coupes and roadsters.

MotorTend Image© Provided by MotorTrend MotorTend Image Scion had the good fortune to take its hits in slower succession. Granted, its cars always shared their platforms with Toyota products, but Toyota/Scion had the good sense early on not to simply slap two different brand names on the exact same vehicle and sell them in the same market (see: Saturn Relay). Instead, Scion pulled from Toyota's Japanese market line-up, but even that was no guarantee for lasting success. The xA and xB, like the S-Series, looked like nothing else on American roads and quickly established the brand as quirky and different, exactly as hoped.

The brand then tried to get sporty with the tC, much the same way Saturn did with the Ion Coupe. Like the Ion, the tC would slowly rot on the vine with lip-service updates over the years but few meaningful improvements. Scion has even cashed in on paint-and-sticker special editions in the finest GM tradition. Meanwhile, the core product began to age. The xD replaced the unloved xA and hardly anyone noticed. The xB blew up like a balloon and alienated diehard fans of the brand but, hey, at least they didn't do a minivan.

Scion is the New Saturn: What We Said in January 2015

Then came Scion's brand-stretchers. First, it was the iQ, which was also sort of the brand's Saturn ION Quad Coupe, if you think about it. Saturn called their car a "quad coupe" thanks to its rear-opening half-doors. Scion had its own silly seating idea, the iQ's 2+1 layout that puts the front passenger's nose on the windshield and eliminates the seat behind the driver. Neither was a major hit with consumers.

Next up, the Scion FR-S, the low-cost, mid-life-crisis car. The long-teased roadster may never be built, but it's hard not to see the similarities with the Saturn Sky. As Saturn allowed fellow division Pontiac to do the heavy lifting, Scion/Toyota let Subaru (whose parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, is 16.5-percent-owned by Scion parent Toyota) do most of the work on the BRZ/FR-S/GT86. Each had its drawbacks, the Sky not handling near as well as it should've and saddled with an infuriating convertible roof, the FR-S never making as much power as enthusiasts hoped and saddled with a terrible radio that lacked a number of expected features. Neither set nor is setting the sales charts on fire.

This brings us to November 2014, when Scion pulled its latest page from the increasingly desperate Saturn playbook with the introduction of the iM. Despite the success found in pulling from Toyota's Japanese market line-up, Scion decided to ignore the warning flags flying over the European-designed iQ and double down on re-badged Toyota Europe product. The iM is a slightly re-worked Toyota Auris, a popular hatchback across the pond. Why does that sound familiar? Oh right, because Saturn tried it with the Aura and Astra, also known as the Opel Vectra and Astra. Spoiler alert: It didn't work out well.

Following such similar trajectories, it's hard not to see a common end. Granted, Saturn's was pulled forward by GM's bankruptcy, but how much life did the brand really have left in it? The re-badged product hadn't led to the sales increases GM had hoped for, and whatever spark Saturn was born with was long-since distinguished as the rogue division was reabsorbed into the corporate mother ship over the years. "No-haggle" pricing and dent-proof plastic body panels were gone. GM had made an example of Oldsmobile less than a decade prior, showcasing its willingness to put down an underperforming brand despite its popularity with diehard fans. If Saturn had any future, it would've been one of the brands saved in the bankruptcy, not one of the ones shuttered.

Toyota as a whole appears to face no such do-or-die moment any time soon, so Scion's death, if it comes, won't be swift. Saturn made enough money to keep its doors open for years after its reason for existing was gone, and there's no reason why Scion won't do the same. If the iM is a flop, though, or even just a mediocre performer, it may just create that do-or-die moment. Toyota's no stranger to killing underperforming divisions in the U.S. (see: Daihatsu, of which Toyota owns a controlling 51-percent stake), and if Scion's fortunes don't turn around (sales were down 15 percent in 2015), it simply becomes a matter of time until Toyota decides the costs aren't worth the returns.

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