Friday, August 31, 2007

Mainlining the stream

Several months ago, I made an automotive decision almost everyone else questioned: I bought a Scion xB. If the name doesn't register, the design definitely will.

Mine is a 2006 model, though in name only. Scion did not designate a 2007 xB, which means I always have to explain why the two-month-old car I bought with 30 miles on it was not a year-old program car. Thanks, guys. But that's about my only complaint with the car.

Most who question the existence of the Scion xB point to its perceived flaws: "How can the tires be so small?" (Do Miata owners get the same question?) "The bottom must get dented all the time!" (It's an optical illusion. I ran over a concrete parking barrier once without a scrape.) "A center-mounted dash? That must be awkward!" (I can see it without taking my eyes off the road.) "That 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine must be deadly in highway traffic." (I've driven it on mountain roads, at full occupancy, with little problem.) "Do people make fun of it?" (Mostly they ask me at traffic lights if it's as a great a car as rumored. I say yes.)

The Scion xB, more so than most, is a car that you either adore or despise. And plenty of people fall on both sides. Overall, I find people fall into three camps: 1) Those who unconditionally hail it; 2) Those who would not get it themselves but appreciate the concept behind it; and 3) Those unafraid of telling xB owners that they have the ugliest car ever made. These reactions say much of those who speak them, I think.

Scion hoped for the same thing. Even their marketing materials said, "The xB looks like nothing else on the road. And we designed it that way." Well, no more. Apparently the marketing department convened a focus group of the It's Ugly Camp and asked them what needed to be done to the 2008 model. The result is this SUV wannabe that saps all of the charm and originality from the original vehicle. In addition to looking completely different, the new xB is larger, stuffier, less fuel-efficient and has perilously huge blind spots where the previous xB had virtually none. Why, Scion, why?

At best, the 2008 Scion xB should have been introduced as a different model line. Perhaps as the souped-up second coming of the four-door Ford Maverick? If automotive message boards are any indicator, the new xB will sell well...to the same middle-of-the-road, power-hungry masses that the Scion brand isn't supposed to court in the first place.

Why does this always seem to happen in America? What compels a company to introduce a quirky niche product, see an immediate positive reception, have its fans herald it as an instant classic, see swift mainstream-level sales and then decide to remove all of the product's distinguishing elements? Who on Earth would say, "This product is selling beyond our wildest dreams. We're surprised at the diversity of our client base and we've clearly found a niche that has not been filled by anyone else. What we need now is to start over?"

I've long had the same gripe with radio stations. All of my favorite stations as a teenager and college student would appeal to a loyal demographic, and get marvelous ratings for playing music that was otherwise not on local airwaves. It all seemed fine. BUT...the (corporate-owned) stations would realize that they could get a minuscule ratings bump by playing the same pop swill as everyone else, and they would switch formats without notice.

Prevailing American business thought seems to be thus: alienating your entire market is worth the couple of extra dollars that the mainstream will bring in. That might be (slightly) better for the balance sheets, but it does little to curb the bland blight infecting the marketplace of ideas.

Greed sucks.

10 comments:

Hathor said...

I think your car is ugly, but to each his own. I definitely like the center mount dashboard. I have one in my Saturn Ion, which I think is soon going the way of your xB.

Leigh C. said...

Awwww, man. Now I won't be able to make fun of the "box through the wind" aerodynamics of that li'l car.

Something in me says our '96 Lumina is on its last legs. Such a shame when good cars go bad - in a different way.

Ian McGibboney said...

Hathor, I almost bought an Ion, but this had much better gas mileage. Also, it's easier to put a bike in an xB. I personally find most new cars gaudy and repulsive - at least this one has some benefits to its odd design.

Leigh C - the xB supposedly has such bad aerodynamics that its windshields have been known to crack. But that might be anecdotal, because I don't know any owner who's had that happen to them. FWIW, I find the ride surprisingly smooth and frugal.

And yes, I remember when the Lumina was Tom Cruise's race car. Boy, they both changed...

Cajun Tiger said...

What??? No hybrid??? And I thought you loved the planet???

Ian McGibboney said...

Well, my financial situation wouldn't have qualified me for most hybrids. Also, the xB gets 30-35 miles per gallon. And I never drive it when walking or bicycling will suffice. As a result, I haven't even had to change the oil yet, and I've had it for seven months. Not exactly the stuff of conspicuous consumption.

Cajun Tiger said...

Close but no cigar...I'm sure the left wing enviros would still hang you from your toes for driving it. Ride your bike until you are able to save to money to save the world with a hybrid...where's your commitment, they'd ask???

Ian McGibboney said...

That comment says more about you than about environmentalists. My car is a significant upgrade from my previous truck, which itself had decent gas mileage for its time and class. I'm at least being diligent, which is more than you can say about most drivers, who still choose to drive Hummers and equally thirsty monstrosities despite our political and environmental troubles.

Most, if not all, cars in the future should be hybrids or run on an alternative fuel. But that depends on research and lowering of production costs, which isn't exactly being encouraged in this administration.

Cajun Tiger said...

I'd rather we spend more money on things that are actually proven to be a problem then something that is being proven less and less true every day like human caused global warming that no longer even enjoys a consensus (or even 50% agreement) anymore but that's just me.

Ian McGibboney said...

Again, can you cite that statistic? This is second startling statistic you've offered today that I've never heard anything close to. I'm starting to feel dumb here.

All the climate scientists I've ever heard say that human-caused global warming is a significant factor in the direction of the planet. Maybe if I find ones with corporate sponsors?

What you seem to be implying is that human pollution is too small a factor to worry about, so we should just not bother to change any of our habits. Did you really ever live in Louisiana? Even if global warming was complete fiction, it would still be nice to breathe fresh air.

Cajun Tiger said...

http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=b35c36a3-802a-23ad-46ec-6880767e7966

Only 45% now believe the current warming cycle is caused by humans and only 1 of all the papers believe it will have catastrophic results.

I have no problem with stopping pollution for clean air. I just don't believe b/c the evidence doesn't support it that human produced CO2 is warming the planet and apparently now I'm in the majority.