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RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL

Thinking inside the box

The xB from Toyota's Scion brand is a kind of stereo on wheels, aimed squarely at Japanophile Gen-Y buyers barely old enough to drive. Parents won't get it, but that's the point.

November 05, 2003|Dan Neil

After spending a week driving a Scion xB -- the ice-cube-shaped flagship of Toyota Motor Corp.'s new youth- directed brand Scion -- I would like to publicly apologize to Volvo for all the times I accused its products of being boxy. Clearly, I didn't know from boxy.

Styled with a T-square, a plumb bob and a cheese cutter, the Scion xB takes the concept of boxiness and sexes it up to new, almost platonic levels. You can well imagine somebody in Plato's cave seeing the xB's shadow on the wall and saying, "What the heck is that? ... Oh, silly me, it's just a box."

If for some reason you find the isometric design of the xB displeasing, Scion's under-25 demographic has a message for you: "Yo, old guy, get on home now, you're missing, like, 'Friends.' " This car is aimed squarely at the most subversive subset of Gen-Y, trendsetters who are abandoning the sport compact movement as it goes mainstream, a la "The Fast and the Furious."

The xB is to the sleek-and-low styling of sporty imports what chainsaw sculpture is to the Italian Renaissance.

The Scion brand was launched in California in June. (The brand will bow in the Southern and East Coast markets in February.) Thus far, the xB has outsold its more conventionally styled stablemate, the sport-hatch xA, by almost 2 to 1. And though the xB is the most radically styled, chunky monkeys including the Honda Element and the Suzuki Aerio SX also have found an audience.

So how did square get to be so dope?

It all started with the Japanese market kei mini-cars -- urban runabouts that are limited to 660-cubic-centimeter engines and narrow enough to squeeze through Japan's tiny streets. (The government encourages the use of kei cars by levying lower owner taxes and high fuel taxes.) The boxy shape -- called "tall wagon" in Japan -- was the natural result of seeking maximum cabin space over the cars' minimum footprint.

Kei-class cars constitute about half the Japanese vehicle market, and some of them -- the Honda Life, Nissan Cube and Suzuki Wagon R -- are wickedly clever little transportation gadgets. Besides being super-practical and dirt cheap, the cars appeal to the Japanese taste for a particular sort of goofy anti-styling, a kind of gothic cuteness and precious edginess.

The xB, built on the same platform as the 1.5-liter Toyota Echo, belongs to a larger class of vehicle, but the styling vocabulary is right out of the kei playbook. And considering how Asia-centric Gen-Y's tastes are -- whether for anime, electronics or "Kill Bill" -- perhaps it was just a matter of time before the mad-boxy style jumped the ocean to California.

"It's so ugly it's cute," my girlfriend, Tina, observed. (Almost makes you wonder how the Pontiac Aztek missed, doesn't it?)

The xB is, in fact, a warmed-over Japanese market car called the bB (for "Black Box"). There is talk already at Nissan Motor Co. that it might bring its Cube, scaled up by a factor of 1.2 or 1.5, to the U.S. market. If the xB hits, imitators won't be far behind.

If you have read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" you understand the so-called Law of the Few: the select group of people who discover a new idea -- be it shoes or a band or a car -- and translate it in such a way that it becomes acceptable to a much wider audience. Old-school marketers call them "thought leaders." The existentially boxy xB is aimed right at this mandarin group inside Gen-Y, and the Scion brand rollout, first in California, reflects this staged assault on the command-and-control structure of Dub Nation.

Having grown up in a maelstrom of mass marketing, Gen-Y is naturally suspicious of ordinary advertising. Almost three years ago, Toyota approached the Los Angeles-based Rebel Organization (the marketing arm of URB magazine, the Rolling Stone of hip-hop, dub and underground music) to help the automaker connect with Scion's target audience.

"Peer-to-peer word of mouth is really key to these consumers," says Josh Levine, president of the Rebel Organization. "They are more interested in companies that they've heard about than those that get pushed on them from TV."

Rebel's under-the-radar marketing of Scion includes putting "street teams" at events like Hot Import Nights -- the Lollapalooza of the tuner world -- as well as supporting deejay contests, nightclub events, fringy art gallery showings and carwashes. The idea, Levine says, is to "put Scion where its audience wants to be."

The ironies abound, starting with the oxymoronic flavor of the name "Rebel Organization." And maybe it's just me, but there is something slightly sinister about an enormous corporation using underground music -- ever the secret-decoder ring of youth culture -- as a conduit to push its products. Imagine the Sex Pistols at CBGB, brought to you by Coca-Cola.

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