Battle of the Boxcars

Both vehicles are unusual, box-shaped hipmobiles for 18-24-year-olds. Both have souped-up sound systems and design twists test-marketed to gauge their “coolness.” Both cost less than $20,000.

Still, for all their similarities, the Scion, from Toyota Motor Sales USA, and the Element, from American Honda Motor Co., are traveling different marketing paths.

“The Element is for the Malibu surfer dude. The Scion is for the hip urban guy who is more interested in squeezing into a parking space than climbing a hill,” said one Toyota dealer.

The Scion is a compact vehicle with an interior designed to complement the sound system, and offers numerous customization options. The Element is more of a light truck, with “suicide doors” that open in the middle and fold-away seats. Its all-wheel drive and durable design make it more suited to mountain climbing that club hopping, said Larry Postaer, evp and director of creative services at Honda agency Rubin Postaer and Associates in Santa Monica, Calif.

The unconventional styling is a major selling point for both vehicles. “It’s more fashion than design,” said David E. Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. ” ‘How do I look when I “wear” the car?’ And for young people, ‘How are my peers going to think of me when I’m wearing that vehicle? Am I going to look cool?’ ”

Cole said the Element strikes him as a “minivan for young people.” He said he sees the Scion as an experiment. “What they are looking for is young people who aren’t afraid to be a little bit outrageous with the shape of the vehicle,” he said. “They are sort of anti-conventional in just about every respect.”

The Scion’s marketing plan is more experimental, too. While Honda launched the Element nationally, Toyota is selling the Scion only in California until a national rollout in 2004. And while Honda tapped longtime agency RPA to create and place the Element TV spots, which broke in December, Toyota bypassed its agency of 26 years, Saatchi & Saatchi in Torrance, Calif., in favor of Attik, a San Fran cisco boutique. Last week it handed media chores to Zenith Media USA, the agency that handles all of its buying, after a highly competitive review.

Attik president William Travis said the idea for the Scion is to rely on guerrilla marketing instead of more traditional types of advertising. A TV spot will air in the spring, but much of the campaign will involve extensive on-site promotions, including “tuner” events devoted to people who customize their cars, Travis said.

RPA is focusing more on TV, shooting two spots in what Postaer called an “almost documentary” style. Each features a young man cheerfully recalling a road trip with friends while flashbacks suggest his memory is selective.

The Scion is receiving about $15 million in media support, the Element about $20 million, sources said.

The cars arrive at a time when people under 24 are making just 6 percent of new-car purchases, compared to 10 percent a decade ago, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Toyota and Honda “may not make much money marketing to young people [now], but they are looking at the market of the future,” said J.D. Power partner Tom Healy.

“It’s the most elusive group,” said Zenith CEO Rich Hamilton. “They use less TV, and they relate to TV differently. Music is incredibly important to them, and they are bolted to the Internet.”