The Toyota monolith can be difficult to denigrate. Since the Toyopet Crown came to Hollywood in 1958, all Toyota has done is define the course of modern American personal transportation. The only recurring criticism of Toyota's cars over the past 60+ years is "Boring", which really isn't a criticism at all, but a comment on the critic's headspace. Toyota is the biggest car manufacturer in the world (pending how Renault/Nissan choose to organize themselves that day), they own the number one spot in passenger car and SUV sales, and they're always in the top 5 for truck sales, and in minivan sales, oh and the midsize luxury car segment, they have the number one spot in that too - No, Tesla, deliver what you "sell" and then we can talk. Toyota is nothing short of dominant. And yet, what if I told you that with some extra effort, Toyota might have expanded their dominance even further and taken complete control of the entire Crossover segment? It might have happened. I reckon somewhere, there is a parallel universe where Toyota rules the CUV market with three kings: The RAV4, the xB, and the Venza. It all starts 20 years ago.
In 1999, Toyota saw that their buyers were getting older. Building solid, reliable cars like the Camry, RAV4, and Corolla had made their brand an icon. But - then as now - Camrys don't get the youths excited. As an aside, that's pretty impressive foresight. American brands barely noticed this exact same trend in the past decade. Toyota's research lead them to create a new, youth-focused brand named Scion. Despite their urban-focused marketing schemes, decent selection of OEM aftermarket parts, and their ventures into tuner culture, Scion ended as a failure. Their model selection stayed small, they never really grabbed a youth audience, and their no-bargain sales technique came across as a ploy. Yet Scion had one shining, glimmering beacon of hope, and it was no more or less than exactly the car that Toyota did not expect people to buy: The Scion xB.
In 2003, Toyota launched the Scion brand with two models, the xA and the xB. I had to look up the xA to write this and I've already forgotten what it looked like, but everyone knows the xB. It's the square one. The one that looks like a box with wheels. Usually purple or orange. Toyota had planned that the xA would outsell the xB two to one, but that very much did not happen. From the jump, xB sales nearly doubled the xA, and that gap grew wider and wider until the xA slid mercifully into a cold grave in 2006. The xB was more than just a success, it was a bonafide hit, selling over 47,000 units in its first full production year, and over 285,000 units by 2009. Toyota had aimed for the younger Generation Y, but had squarely hit the Gen X-ers, with the xB's lifetime average purchaser age standing at 46. YouTuber Mr. Regular has attributed this twist to the car being very easy to get in and out of, and...he might be right. But no matter the reason, Toyota had unwittingly popularized what we now recognize as the Subcompact SUV, and they had found a brand new market segment that was all their own. Until 2009.
That's when the hamsters came. The rapping, dancing hamsters. By 2009, a small, upstart Korean car company named Kia had taken notice of Toyota's special little market segment. And all they did is come in and take the entire shit for themselves plus a good deal more, thanks to the Kia Soul. The sales figures are shocking. In the Soul's first year it managed to outsell the redesigned xB. In year two, Soul sales tripled sales of the xB. In year three? No, not quadrupled. In 2011, Kia sold ten times more Souls than Toyota sold xBs. And it was over. Just as Toyota's run was ramping up, it was completely and totally destroyed. The xB was never redesigned again. It was never even meaningfully updated. Toyota just let the car, and the entire Scion brand, whither and die.
But it didn't have to be that way. Nearly every single thing Kia did with the Soul they took directly from Toyota. Kia aimed for the youth with an urban-focused aesthetic. They had a smattering of OEM aftermarket parts. They produced true special editions. They used bright paint colors and big alloy wheels. Kia's unique twist was that hamster-abomination moonshot which flew directly past every youth in the world and buried itself deeply in the heart of your aunt who is thrice-divorced and calls herself "quirky" to cover up the fact that she's a fucking basket case. I can mock it as much as I want, but it worked perfectly. Kia more than won. Not only did the Soul kill the xB in the harshest way possible, but the continued success of the Soul allows Kia to make things like the Stinger, and the Forte 5 SX, and that weird K900 thing. In 2018, Kia sold over 108,000 Souls, and it was a down year. Try and tell me Toyota wouldn't like some of that market right now. They're still trying to re-enter the compact SUV market with flotsam like the C-HR, which was a Scion concept car originally, and which has been such a failure that Toyota is trying to replace it after just two years. Whoops.
The death of the xB is odd because Toyota is used to battling tough competition in tight market segments - see the Camry, see the RAV4 - and yet Toyota allowed Kia to use their own tricks to take over a segment that they popularized. It just doesn't make sense to me. And clearly, once the Soul came out, the xB no longer made sense to buyers. Maybe it was the relative scarcity of Scion dealerships, and Toyota should have absorbed the xB as its own. Maybe it was the fixed-price thing, combined with the xB starting at $3000 more than the Soul. Maybe it was the fact that the xB never got anything better than a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual, and while it had more power than the base Soul, it had less than the top-trim Soul, and the xB got worse combined gas mileage than either trim.
Looking at the sales figures, I think it's safe to say that by 2010, Toyota had given up on the xB. But I don't think they had to, and I don't think they should have. Yes, the Soul outsold the xB even in its first year, but the Soul was also so poorly made that Kia was forced to do a half-year interior redesign, which is bad. The Soul also rated Poor on the IIHS small-overlap test, which is very bad! The xB was made well. It had all the standard build-quality hallmarks of Toyota. It was an IIHS top safety pick. Why didn't they lean on any of that to fight back against Kia? They easily could have. Imagine this: A xB commercial that has some other kind of creature, perhaps a small cat, in their xB, driving into the city towards a huge, lit-up party or club, passing all of these various rapping hamsters on the side of the road in their broken down cars that for some reason, look like Kia Souls. And as the cat drives past the last hamster, the window rolls up, and Kanye West's new song Power starts to play. Cut to black. Some slogan about individuality flashes. Then some award, maybe Top Safety Pick. The Scion xB. Starts at $16 thousand-whatever it was. I feel like that could have worked. Even outside of the IIHS rating, awards are easy enough for manufacturers to get once they decide they want one. Heck, that little half-year redesign that the Soul got because the interiors were so bad? Yeah, that redesign won Kia the coveted, uh, Ward's Auto Interior Design of the Year Award. I'm sure Toyota could have grabbed something if they wanted to, maybe even from J.D. Power. Or, if marketing wasn't enough, why didn't Toyota reach over to the fresh corpse of the Matrix, and come out with an AWD xB? Or a sport version to go with the manual transmission? Or they could have beaten Jeep to the punch and released a lifted, "offroad" xB. Any of those would have moved metal for Toyota, for a certainty. The Hyundai Kona, the Soul ! (yes, seriously, that's the fast one), and the Jeep Renegade prove it. It was right within their grasp! Come ON Toyota, why did you give up?
Let's see if we can find a pattern by looking at another Toyota with a similar story: the Toyota Venza.
In my mind, the Toyota Venza was a shot aimed directly at the Subaru Outback, and it almost worked, too. In 2008, Toyota brought a brown wagon to autoshows across the US. Except, it wasn't a wagon. The Venza was a mid-size five-seat Crossover built on the venerable Toyota K platform. In reality, the Venza was absolutely a wagon, but just like the Outback, it was never sold as one. The Venza rode about as high as the Highlander, but the roofline is lower, and the interior was made to look modern and sleek instead of inoffensive like the Camry. It was a vehicle made to sit in the middle, and in its base trim, that's exactly what it did. But the Venza also brought some spice in the form of a V6, AWD trim, which somehow was the hottest seller. Can you imagine that?
Actually, let me not play coy. The V6 AWD Venza was Toyota's attempt at stealing sales from directly from Subaru's cash cow. The Subaru Outback had slightly higher ground clearance, but the Venza could tow more. The Venza cost slightly more, but came with more tech than the Outback. The Outback had more cargo space, the Venza had more passenger space. The two even cut nearly identical figures, with the Venza measuring 189" x 75" x 63.4", and the Outback measuring 189.6" x 72.4" x 66.1". And for a very short while, the look worked. In it's first full production year, the Venza fell short of Outback sales by only 955 units. But 2010 brought a fully re-designed Outback, which stormed back and more than doubled the sales of the 2009 Outback, while Venza sales declined. Subaru hasn't sold fewer than 100,000 Outbacks per year ever since, and the Venza was killed off in 2015. Did they push back against their surging rival? They did not. Once again, Toyota tapped a market, got some pushback, and just gave up. Even though Toyota knows how to market specifically against Subaru. They've been doing it for years with the Camry against the Subaru Legacy, you know, the sedan version of the Outback.
I said that the look of the Venza worked for a short time, and I think that was the real problem with the car. It only looked like the Outback. It only played the part. You see, the base Venza was...kinda bad. The front wheel drive and small engine worked fine in concept, but really, the 2.7L 4 cylinder was too anemic to meaningfully move the car along, especially on the freeway. Also, for some reason, Toyota chose to give AWD Venzas a part-time, torque-on-demand AWD system, instead of the full-time symmetric AWD system that already existed on the platform-shared Highlander. In fact, the Highlander and the Venza shared almost everything. Toyota used the same engines, the same chassis, the same transmissions...and different AWD systems. Subaru, with the Outback and the Forester, had long-proved that two similar crossovers can happily exist on lots as long as they are slightly different shapes. Toyota could have reworked the Venza and kept the Highlander without cannibalizing the business for either model, there is precedent. In the end, the Venza was something of a mirage. It had all the stats, but it didn't have the heart. It had the look, but not the guts. Customers noticed, and flew back to Subaru in an instant. They even brought their friends and family with them.
So what we have are two vehicles, both in the highly-coveted SUV market segment, with both having made a meaningful impact on different parts of that segment, and both coming from the manufacturer of the most popular SUV right now. Yet both the xB and the Venza still failed, or were left to die, and both under similar circumstances. Both vehicles should have been aggressively updated using platform-shared mechanicals and technology that already existed inside the very factories where these two vehicles were manufactured. But instead of trying, Toyota did nothing.
I have a theory on why Toyota gave up on the xB and the Venza. And it's the RAV4. I'm not talking about a "steal sales away" kind of thing, but a commitment thing. Toyota brought the RAV4 to the US in 1996, where it was an immediate sales success. But Honda launched the CR-V in 1997, which then outsold the RAV4 from 1998 until 2017. I think that Toyota wanted their crown back, and I think they chased Honda and the CR-V down for almost 20 years at a pretty high cost. The two brands have battled back and fourth every single year: generation to generation, facelift to facelift, and feature to feature. Throughout the last two decades, Toyota have put everything they had into the RAV4 to keep it as a segment leader, and they were rewarded with the number one spot in the hottest segment right in the thick of the SUV revolution. I doubt they would change anything about what they've done to get themselves here, even if it did cost a few niche SUV models.
But still, I do think it's sad that the xB and the Venza died before they should have. I believe both of those models had untapped potential, and could have reshaped the SUV market before it hit its most recent stride. Who knows what the market would look like right now if Toyota held the Compact SUV market along with the Midsize SUV market, and then also had carved out a chunk of the Crossover/wagon market from Subaru. I know it's weird to talk about the failings of a market giant, and it's even weirder to be excited about a dominant company possibly being more dominant, but dynasties are boring if they're never truly challenged, the sales show that the Soul and the Outback are dynastic. I think Toyota could have been the challenger to make it stick. But they chose a different path.
In 2017, McLaren Competition Director Eric Boulier met with McLaren CEO Zak Brown shortly after taking the job. Brown asked Boulier a simple question: “What does your perfect team look like?” Boulier answered “Any team with Fernando Alonso”. Brown's response was simple: “Okay then. Go get him”.
McLaren was right to go after the Spaniard. Alonso is considered one of the most talented drivers of this generation. In 2003, in his 2nd start for Renault F1 Team, Alonso raced his way to the podium. His first career win followed later that year. 7 wins each in 2005 and 2006 propelled him to consecutive world championships. At the time, he was the youngest in history to win a race and a season championship. By 2017 he had amassed 32 wins, 22 poles and 97 podium finishes, a legendary resume that McLaren - a team with lots of resources but not a lot of recent results - desperately needed. McLaren found themselves reeling in the wake of several unusually tumultuous years. Historically, McLaren is a team of winners. From Hunt to Lauda, to Prost and Senna, through Hakkinen, Kimi, Montoya, Button, and of course Hamilton, throughout its history McLaren Racing has consistently put the best drivers in the world behind the wheel of their cars. They weren’t used to the struggles they endured in this new hybrid engine era, and so the team brought in Zak Brown and Eric Boullier to right the ship. They inked a new deal with Honda to supply engines, recalling the glory days of Senna. And on top of all that, they lured in Fernando Alonso, hoping that “El Nino” would return them to their past glory. They were wrong
The McLaren-Honda deal from 2015-2017 was a complete disaster. The two sides were never able to come together and put a reliable package together for Fernando and his teammate. In 81 starts in these 4 seasons, Fernando was only able to finish 47 races. I’ll say that again: FORTY SEVEN out of 81 races finished, or 58%. That’s dismal. In those 47 finishes, there were 0 podiums. He did amass some points, because he has an innate ability to outdrive the equipment he’s given (see his 2011-2014 run at an underperforming Ferrari for proof), but Alonso was at wits’ end from the time he ran his first test in 2015 until the time he retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2018. So, why did he stay for 4 years? A driver with his credentials would be able to any team he chose to try and find a car more worthy of his talents. What kept him in the turmoil of McLaren Racing? The answer was also, I think, the problem: Zak Brown.
Brown, a former racer from California, found great success in the business world once he stepped out of sportscar racing. When he sold his company Just Marketing International, it was the largest motorsport marketing company in the world. Brown has won multiple marketing awards, and the sports car team he co-founded with Richard Dean, United Autosport, has been successful in both GT and prototype cars. So why the struggle in his time as CEO at McLaren? I think it's because Brown is an expert at commercialism, not building race cars. Endurance racing is all customer-based: you buy a vehicle from a manufacturer and it comes delivered to your facility ready to race. But F1 is different. Instead of buying a car from a factory, F1 teams have to build almost everything from scratch. Brown didn’t have any experience leading a team of engineers building wining cars. He is, however, a brilliant salesman. He’s fantastic at building and maintaining high-level business relationships. True enough, he did inherit a shit show at McLaren when he became the top dog, but even then he used his marketing expertise to position the company as a heritage brand, selling sponsors on the team’s storied history. McLaren = Winners. McLaren = History. McLaren = Tradition. And it worked. Brown's successful re-brand is what brought in the sponsorships despite the poor on-track performance, and it also brought in Alonso.
But the bravado that McLaren presented to the media and sponsors also impacted the attitude internally when things started going south with Honda. According to multiple sources (look them up yourself if you want all the deets, I’m not going to list them all here), Honda found McLaren hard to work with when - not to be too coy - the rubber met the road. McLaren would tell Honda, “We need the engine to do X” and Honda would say, “Okay, but to maximize our efforts we need Y and Z changes to be made to the bodywork, or cooling, or aero, or engine mount points, etc.” McLaren’s response? “No. Fuck that. We’re McLaren. We didn’t do anything wrong. YOU fix it.” But that's not how engineering works. That complete unwillingness to bend caused a massive rift in the McLaren/Honda relationship, and ties were finally severed after the 2017 season. Honda has moved on to Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Torro Rosso, where they have immediately seen improved results. Red Bull’s young driver Max Verstappen even put Honda back on the top step of the podium in Austria. As for McLaren? They decided to use Renault power for 2018 and 2019. Still no podiums. Still a midfield car on a good day. Maybe Honda wasn’t the problem, huh, Zak?
So much for the cars, but what about Fernando Alonso? Somehow, SOME WAY, he's is still on McLaren’s payroll (EDITOR'S NOTE: Literally until today, 7/5/19. Yeah, we're that good. It seems like Alonso signed a deal to the McLaren brand either in addition to or instead of to the F1 team - more smart marketing work on Brown's part). Because as I mentioned, Zak Brown is an expert salesman, and he kept selling McLaren to Alonso. When Alonso started to voice his displeasures publicly, Brown caved and let Fernando do...whatever he felt like doing. You wanna start a lifestyle and clothing brand? Sure! McLaren will back it and we'll promote it in every race series where United Autosport runs a car. You want to go run sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona? You can use my car! You want to skip Monaco, the biggest race on the F1 calendar, to go race the Indianapolis 500? Be my guest! You want to run the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, too? Here, let me make a few phone calls and get you in the best car on the grid, because I can’t give you shit in F1, Alonso, and we both know it.
Zak Brown is the perfect Chief Marketing Officer for any race team. He would be a fantastic VP of Public Relations. But he is not an ideal CEO because he lacks the experience necessary to establish and maintain a productive culture in the engineering room. Sure, his United Autosport outfit does well, but that’s because he has a partner. Former race driver and sportcars champion Richard Dean heads the competition side of that business, while Zak does the business deals. Brown doesn’t have to worry about making the cars fast, that’s what Richard does best. Zak makes the phone calls, he sets the lunch meetings, he does the talking. Just like he did when he talked his way into a CEO position for an F1 team he had no business running. Just like he did when he talked Fernando Alonso onto a team he had no business joining.
Fernando, I get that loyalty still means a least a little bit from time to time, but PLEASE sever the ties with McLaren! You talent was heinously wasted for the past 5+ seasons and you don’t’ have that much time left before you hang up your helmet for good. There are plenty of teams with plenty of cars that would KILL to have you strap in for them. Do like LeBron did. Take your talents elsewhere.