L.A. Auto Show: Scion looks to rebuild brand with new iM hatchback

Toyota's Scion division debuted its iM hatchback concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show

In what amounts to a reboot of Toyota’s flagging Scion division, the automaker debuted its Scion iM hatchback concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday.

Though Toyota has labeled the five-seat compact as a concept, Scion will start selling the production version next year. The brand is to show off the production car and another new Scion model at the New York International Auto Show in April.

“The two models we’re debuting in New York next spring are just the beginning for Scion,” said Doug Murtha, Scion’s vice president.

All told, Scion plans to bring three new products to its showrooms at a rate of one a year, he said.

Toyota considers Scion a laboratory in which it can explore how to sell cars to younger customers and test out different marketing tools. It’s had mixed success.

Scion sales, already a fraction of the Toyota division, have fallen 15% through the first 10 months of this year, to barely 50,000. And that’s after falling 7% last year.

The brand is looking to create an image that's as sensible as it is sporty, Murtha said at the Wednesday unveiling. 

"Today's younger buyers have that same independent spirit and desire to standout, but have adopted a degree of practicality," he said.

The automaker wants Scion to attract buyers in the 18-to-34 age group by developing stylish, practical and inexpensive vehicles.

However, Toyota balked at the expensive proposition of creating a separate sales channel with stand-alone showrooms, as BMW did with its Mini brand. That’s created problems, said Jack Nerad, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book, the online car shopping company.

“There is a lot of difficulty keeping Scion a youth brand while keeping it in a Toyota showroom,” Nerad said. “Older Toyota buyers would see the Scions and purchase the cars. That hurt the brand’s image.”

“Scion needs to decide what it is,” Nerad said. “And it can’t be what it has been, a way to get more volume out of miscellaneous Toyota vehicles from overseas.”

Scion needs a common design language for its models, Nerad said, noting that “there is just no family brand identity.”

The iM looks to be the first step in that direction.

Scion has tried to add pizzazz to the vehicle with a paint scheme that includes a vibrant blue body complemented by matte silver and gunmetal accents.

Toyota designers imbued the iM concept with an impression of sporty handling and racy styling by giving the car a wide stance and low ride height. The 19-inch forged alloy wheels sit flush with the body.

The automaker said the production version will offer excellent fuel efficiency, sporty handling and easy parking. It plans to provide more information about the transmission, engine and technology next year. The car is to be priced at under $20,000.

Scion also is experimenting with changes in the way vehicles are sold to make the process more palatable to younger buyers.

It has introduced the Scion Pure Process Plus program at 50 dealers across the country. The program allows buyers to research a car through Scion.com, find it at a dealership, apply for credit and secure a price. Toyota said the dealers have agreed to make sure the advertised price is the price a consumer pays, without extra haggling or hassles.

The automaker plans to roll out the program to more dealerships next year.

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