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New Car review: 2005 Scion xA

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It’s Cool, er I mean, It’s Off The Hook!

By Marc J. Rauch, Exec. Vice President & Co-Publisher

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Northern California launch of Toyota’s new low-priced, youth-oriented line, SCION. The press conference and vehicle introduction were unremarkable, except for the effort made by Toyota to insult all of the journalists in attendance.

That’s not to say that auto journalists aren’t deserving of a bit of insulting, least of all me, but it just wasn’t appropriate at this occasion or from whom the insults emanated: an advertising executive.

As everyone knows, the only thing lower than a doctor, a lawyer, or a snake (in that order), is an advertising executive. As one adman once wrote, “Don't tell my mother I work in an advertising agency - she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.” Being insulted by an ad executive dressed in a dour, four-button Soviet bureaucrat-like suit, (with an affected British accent, no less), was low, real low. Incidentally, the guy had the affected accent, not the suit.

Perhaps fearing that their accumulative automotive experience and knowledge was insufficient to allow a competent introduction of a vehicle designed for younger drivers, Toyota hired fourteen diverse marketing/advertising firms to do the same job that one agency might ordinarily handle. Mr. British Accent represented one of the fourteen agencies: the one charged with creative development of the promotional materials. I presume Toyota recognized the agency’s creative abilities because the agency ingeniously changed the spelling of their company name, which is an everyday word spelled with the letter “C” to being spelled with the letter “K.” Gosh, that’s just so, so, so kreative. No, the agency’s name is not Kreative Advertising, Ink.

Of course, what makes this narrative all the more funny is that my other fulltime vocation is as an advertising executive. So yes, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. (Hmmm, I wonder if the origin of that idiom is a racial slur? I hope not.)

Anyway, what made the Scion presentation so offensive was that it was prefaced as being over our journalistic heads: We were repeatedly told that we were all too old to understand the intended market for the Scion, or to even understand the techniques that would be used in the forthcoming consumer advertising campaign. For example, one young man (portraying a typical Scion customer) in the video portion of the program explained: “We’re so cool we don’t say COOL, we say OFF THE HOOK.” Quite obviously then, we in the cheap seats (there was nothing cheap about the presentation venue, it was very high class) who are mired in such out-dated expressions as BOSS, GROOVY, HIP, HEP, TUFF, and NEAT, could never appreciate just how KEEN Scion’s marketing messages would be to the desired audience.

Reiterating this point, our friend in the drab garb also proclaimed that the next generation of car buyers was the most connected and best informed consumer group ever. I thought that this depiction of what I refer to as Generation Duh to be grossly over generous. After all, this is a group of people that generally couldn’t tell you who was President of the U.S. during the Civil War. Moreover, they couldn’t even tell you when that war was fought, nor do they seem to know when “the big one,” WWII, took place.

My very sharp vocal response at that time was to comment on just how pretentious and puffed up I found those claims to be. However, I also softened my public rebuke with a couple of observations, which were: Scion will undoubtedly be successful because the line is produced by a company known for making reliable cars, for offering good to excellent customer service, because Toyota has a big advertising war chest and extensive dealer network, and because the Scion vehicles will be priced lower than most new vehicles. Conquest, I believed, will be attained by the company following tried-and-true business principles, not by appealing to Generation Duh’s – non existent - intellectual savvy or impaired sense of style (I don’t care what anyone says, multiple body piercings, tattoos, and trousers belted at the crotch are comical and repulsive).

So, you say to yourself, it seems like Marc has been harboring a grudge against the Scion launch presentation a little too long and a little too deeply. If you said that to yourself, you’d be right! I’ve been waiting to write about the event ever since it occurred; I’ve just been waiting to test drive a Scion so that I could offer a balanced picture.

Well, after a long wait, I finally had the opportunity to drive a Scion, a sassy red 2005 xA model. And it’s just what I though it would be: a great little, yet roomy, fun, sporty, easy-to-handle product of Toyota. Regardless of its low price tag, the xA feels solid and offers a ride performance that is very, very acceptable. And regardless of what the charlatan-in-adman’s clothing had to say on the marketing of the vehicle, Scion’s success comes only as a result of sensible manufacturing/business practices, abundant distribution outlets, and the realization that they (Toyota) do indeed have the collective gut instinct to tackle the launch of a new vehicle line, just as they did with Lexus.

The xA can carry five occupants. While I didn’t have the chance to get my whole posse in the car to try it, it looked like it would be pretty comfortable for at least four adult-sized bros (or is it “my dogs”). The car has sport front seats and a 60/40-split, folding rear seat. Standard features include air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, a 160-watt six-speaker stereo that plays CDs and reads MP3 files, and power windows, locks and mirrors. The vehicle I test drove had an optional Bazooka Sub-woofer, and although it produced annoying reverberations when I listened to my favorite old-man talk radio programs, it really socked-it-to-me when I grooved to the tunes on the local Easy Jazz station. Seriously though, the device was interesting to play with. It has three settings: Off, Hear the Bass, and Feel the Bass. Feel the Bass delivers as stated: It makes the xA rock, literally!

The xA delivers looks from passers-by and other motorists, as well. And it wasn’t just because people were laughing at the old fart driving the teen mobile: I noticed plenty of gawkers admiring the car when I was across a parking lot or coming out of a building.

Scion’s 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine puts out 108 horsepower and can be mated to either a five-speed-manual or four-speed-automatic transmission. I had the manual, and it zipped and zoomed as nicely as the Mini-Cooper; a comparison that I deem very positive. Antilock brakes are standard, but side-impact and side curtain-type airbags are a factory option.

Base price for the xA with manual transmission and a bunch of good standard stuff is $12,995. The automatic transmission with the same plethora of standard features is slightly more at $13,795. Either way, it comes down to this: You can get a brand new Toyota, with all the qualities and performance characteristics that the company is famous for, for less than $13/$14k. I think that’s a deal that’s definitely ON THE HOOK!