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Scion was a dumb millennial brand, and I loved it

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Travels with Gordita

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In June of 2006, on my way to an assignment in Phoenix, a man who was under the influence of methamphetamines crashed his car into mine. He had crossed the center median, struck an 18-wheeler, and ricocheted into my Honda Civic, which I had finished paying off just three months previously. The impact pushed my car onto the sidewalk, through a water main, into the sign for a Taco Bell. Having never been in a real car accident before, and having seen too many of them in the movies, I immediately became terrified that my car was about to explode. I got out of the car and took off running.

Fortunately, no one was hurt too badly, though the man who caused the crash was later convicted of driving under the influence. The Civic did not explode, but it was totaled. When I stopped running, the employees of the Taco Bell approached me with great gratitude, explaining that because of the broken water main they would get a paid day off of work, and encouraged me to come back for free nachos whenever I liked. It was a minor consolation. I was about to turn 26, had negligible cash reserves, and desperately needed a car to do my job. My insurance would not cover the cost of a rental. I swallowed hard and rented one anyway. And I began to research buying a car.

I Googled 'how to buy a car'

A few days later I found myself at a Scion dealership in Scottsdale. Hours before, nursing a sore shoulder, I had Googled "how to buy a car." The first time around, my dad had helped me with the purchase. This time, I wanted to do it myself. According to the internet, there were two approaches to buying a vehicle. The first involved an elaborate tactical campaign that closely resembled a hostage negotiation. You would plumb the depths of the web to learn the true price of your desired vehicle, visit a dealer on the last day of the month when they were desperate to meet their sales goals, and use psychological warfare to wrest away the car for a hundred dollars more than they paid for it. This approach seemed to presume that a vehicle’s true price could be determined only by a fistfight.

The alternate approach was to walk into a Scion dealership and pay the price on the window. The Toyota-owned brand, which its parent company announced today is shutting down, was aimed at a younger, lazier generation. We would gladly pay a $200 premium to avoid an hourlong standoff in the manager’s office, even if we didn’t really have the $200. What marked Scion as a youth brand was that everything seemed different for difference’s sake: the sales process, sure, but also the angular, alien logos, and the strange shapes of its vehicles. It felt bratty. I liked it.

Gordita

Gordita

At the dealership I was met by a pair of graying doofuses whose primary connection to the millennial generation likely did not extend beyond trying to buy the pretty ones drinks at happy hour. I first climbed inside the tC, a sport coupe that I imagined might impart a certain fast-and-furiousness into the life of a young reporter. I barely fit into the thing — I’m 6’5" and barely fit into anything — but just maybe, I thought, I can make it work.

A stereo on wheels

The tC had the factory-installed stereo, though, and I figured if I had to buy a new car it should at least deliver thundering bass at ear-splitting volumes. As it so happened an xB on the lot had an upgraded stereo, and the salesman ushered me inside to give it a listen.

From the moment I sat down inside the xB I knew it would be mine. From the outside it appears to be a relatively compact car. But inside, it feels as vast as a spaceship. My legs stretched comfortably into the cabin, my spiky hair barely grazing the roof. On a test drive the strangest thing about it was that instrument panel, slapped awkwardly in the center of the vehicle. Maybe I’ll get used to it, I thought. It’s been 10 years. I’m still waiting.

I drove the xB off the lot the following day. I didn’t know it then, but I was buying at the peak of Scion: Toyota sold 173,000 of them that year. Last year it sold 56,000. On the subject of alien logos and strange vehicle shapes, the market appears to have spoken.

Because she was little and fat and I had gotten her after crashing her into a Taco Bell, I took to calling my new car Gordita. In a 2003 review of the xB, the great former Los Angeles Times auto writer Dan Neil called Scions "a kind of stereo on wheels," which describes precisely how I used it. You could plug an old clickwheel iPod into it and control your stereo right from the device. I treated Gordita as if she were my private karaoke booth, singing the National and Beach House and Dirty Projectors from Flagstaff to Tucson.

What moves you. That was Scion’s slogan, repeated over and over again in a long-running campaign on This American Life. I never quite liked it: It suggested something emotional about the experience of driving the car that struck me on some level as phony. I liked my Scion, sure, but I would have liked half a dozen cars just as well.

What moves you

But when I read this morning that Scion was going away, I was hit hard by nostalgia. I thought about all the times I had escaped the summer heat in Gordita, driving north through the desert until we reached a friend’s cabin in the woods. I thought of the road trip I took with my first boyfriend to Disneyland, singing Smashing Pumpkins together and stopping for roadside hamburgers. I thought of driving Gordita over the Bay Bridge the day I moved to San Francisco to start a new life writing about tech, staring at the city skyline from the tollbooth, wondering what was to become of me.

The nostalgia comes easily because even though I still own the car, Gordita died the moment I arrived in a city where I didn’t need one. So much of the appeal of San Francisco was that it was built for humans rather than cars, making it easy to get around on foot, bus, and, train. When Lyft and UberX came along, car ownership suddenly felt like a thing of the past.

I think of selling Gordita all the time. I’m convinced the constant stress of looking for street parking is taking years off my life. If I didn’t have to travel to Silicon Valley a couple times a month, often on short notice, I would have sold her long ago. And until today I couldn’t have imagined missing her. What I didn’t consider was that every old car connects you back to the person you were when you bought it, and to every adventure that came afterward. Every week now for five years I’ve fantasized about getting rid of Gordita. Today all I want to do is drive her.

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