LOS ANGELES -- Can there be only one boxy car? Will square be cool only as long as there are one or two entries?
Those are the questions posed by product planners as they study the launch of the right-angled Scion xB hatchback and Honda Element - both aimed at younger buyers.
The cautionary note: With Generation Y, or any young generation for that matter, comes the worry of fickle fashion. What is a success for the first and second entrants becomes a killing floor when everyone tries it.
"By nature, the shape is a bit repugnant, so it's only appealing for novelty's sake, not for aesthetic appearance," says Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab consultancy in Orange, Calif.
"It's like any trend. If a few people in Manhattan do it, it's cool. Once a bunch of people do it, it's just a bunch of dumb Midwesterners. As soon as too many people buy it, they move on," Noble adds.
Jim Farley, Scion general manager, agrees: "Vehicles like the xB, Chrysler PT Cruiser and VW Microbus are interesting for their shape and packaging. There is a fine line between having too few and too many. But there's enough utility to justify their sales staying solid year after year, so it's not as fickle as the coupe market."
Farley goes so far as to suggest that the xB may be a one-generation effort: "Just because the xB is doing well now does not mean there will be a linear product replacement."
Tom Matano, director of industrial design at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, and former head of design for Mazda R&D of North America Inc., says American buyers don't need the function of a boxy vehicle, so then its only hook is its looks.
"In San Francisco, maybe there's a reason for functionality and space utilization, but in L.A. or Kansas, the box doesn't have to be that way," Matano says.
Eric Schumacher, who designed the exterior of the Honda Element, sees it differently.
"With Element, you're drawn to it, and you see a new proportion and styling language," he says.
"It's all about choosing the right forms for the realities of the buyer and the realities of the package. Part of it scares and repels people, but I haven't heard a lot of people say it's just ugly."
Jack Collins, vice president of product strategy for Nissan North America, says the automaker got interesting results when it did market research on its rectangular Japan-market Cube during the 2002 auto show season.
"We used it as a stimulus to get a better understanding of Gen Y and of vehicle concepts and certain features," he says. "There were elements of the vehicles that were attractive but maybe not as a design exercise."
Schumacher doesn't see boxy design as a trend: "It's not like we woke up one morning and said, 'Round cars are over.'
"It just kills me when I hear that we've done round cars, so now we have to do square cars or linear cars."