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Carmakers retreat from quirky designs as millennials embrace mainstream

July 15, 2016
It was not too long ago that automakers were tripping over themselves in pursuit of younger buyers, offering boxy wagons and small, jellybean-shape city cars. The Scion xB, the Honda Element, the Nissan Cube: All were funky departures for Generation X from the dowdy minivans of their parents.
But times and tastes change. When Toyota moved to mothball its youth-oriented Scion brand, it punctuated a broader retreat in the industry from quirkier car designs, particularly at the low end of the market.
Today’s younger buyers, loosely referred to as Generation Y, have embraced a term that would have turned off their immediate forebears.
Compared to Gen X, Gen Y is very mainstream," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader. "They see the car as a symbol of their accomplishments and aspirations. They’re into very established, highly respected global brands, whereas Gen X always wanted something different from what their parents drove."
Scion reached peak sales of 173,000 a year in 2006, then plunged as low as 45,000 in 2010. Some of its models will survive, but under the Toyota name.
Instead, younger buyers have embraced conservatively styled crossovers and sport utility vehicles. Even once-moribund Buick is attracting millennials with its strong-selling Encore compact crossover.
Central to the Scion recipe were unconventional exterior designs ripe for personalization. The so-called tuner culture that blossomed in the 1990s in Southern California readily adopted the cars, with their sub-$20,000 sticker prices, idiosyncratic yet malleable styling and easily upgraded exhaust and engine-management systems. Scions were underbaked by design.
"Toyota is, ‘measure 17 times, cut once,’ whereas Scion was more, ‘measure twice, cut once,’ " said Jack Hollis, group vice president of marketing for Toyota’s American subsidiary, Toyota Motor Sales. "Being progressive wasn’t something that came easy for Toyota 13 or 14 years ago. Scion was a laboratory for experimentation."
Hollis, who previously served as vice president of Scion, added: "We had the lowest median age buyer in the market, so the recession hit us hard." But while other carmakers roared back, with a record 17.5 million passenger vehicles sold in 2015, Scion’s numbers never recovered.
Mini, the emblematic British brand resurrected by the BMW Group of Germany at the dawn of the millennium, has also struggled against the preference of millennials for more staid — and bigger — cars, with American sales of the Mini relatively flat since 2012.
The asymmetrical Cube from Nissan, a vehicle whose emphatic strangeness was unrivaled in the United States market, was discontinued in 2014. Production of the Honda Element, an airy four-door beloved by dog owners for its crate-ready rear load area and easily cleaned interior, was stopped in 2011.
Hollis said that the initial success of the Scion FR-S, a well-reviewed sports coupe, was attributable in part to its "being mainstream." But consumers gave a wan embrace to the Scion iQ, a tiny runabout aimed at urban dwellers. "It didn’t work as well," he said of the iQ experiment.
Stewart Reed has a front-row seat to aesthetic shifts in the industry, as chairman of the transportation design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., one of the car industry’s top incubators of global design talent. Reed recalled that the original Scion xB, whose resolutely boxy body scored a knockout for unfashionable design, sold strongly through its first generation.
Given the cyclical nature of the car business, unconventional designs may resonate anew with younger buyers entering the market. But for the time being, an old saying in the auto industry has been flipped on its head. 
"Right now, you can’t really say: ‘You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man,’ " Mr. Reed said. "It’s a make-you-smile shift."