SAN FRANCISCO — Remember those hand-me-down Chevy Vegas? How about the rusted-out VW Rabbits or third-hand Chevettes? That's what kids used to drive — way back when.

As of late, the auto industry has churned out plenty of vehicles targeted at the new “youth market.” But the question remains: How can teens and young adults pony up a minimum $20,000 for contemporary pocket rockets and cute-mobiles?

Obviously, some parents don't mind plunking down big bucks so their junior driver has the newest and coolest ride. But even the most generous parent would welcome a more economical alternative.

That's why Scion promises to be a crowd-pleaser. Toyota Motor Corp.'s new brand for the young and hip answers the affordability question definitively: Its first-ever models are two subcompacts priced to sell.

Scion has set pricing of its xA and xB at $12,480 and $13,680, respectively — much lower than the $16,000 target Toyota has been touting for the last year. Prices rise with automatic transmissions, to $13,280 for the xA and $14,460 for the xB.

And these are not your basic subcompacts. The staggering standard-features list includes not only air conditioning and power windows and door locks, but also a 6-speaker Pioneer audio system with CD player, and even vehicle stability control with traction control on the xB — a first in the segment.

The only available options are an upgrade to a 6-disc, in-dash CD changer and choice of color and wheel covers. Side-seat and curtain airbags are available only on the xA.

Of the two vehicles, the xB will become the face of Scion. And its boxy, anti-cool looks may be what pull the target market — 22-year-old guys who partake in “extreme” sports and listen to techno music — into the showrooms.

Based on Toyota's Japanese bB, the xB caused passers-by to stop and stare, mouths agape, on a recent test drive here. And everyone, from neighbors at red lights to the tollbooth operator at the Golden Gate Bridge, wanted to know, “what the heck is that thing, anyway?”

It's this notice-me styling that will attract the trendsetters of Generation Y, Scion officials say. The more mainstream likely will be drawn to the xA, based on the very popular Japanese “ist,” and cut similar to a slightly smaller Matrix. (A third model — a sporty coupe that Scion says redefines utility in its class — comes in June 2004.)

Looks are one thing, but the surprise is these cars aren't just cheap and trendy; they're also incredibly solid.

Toyota's launch of the new Scion brand may be a blatant attempt to ditch the Toyota name in an appeal to Generation Y — which views Toyota as Boomers see Buick. But their parents can rest assured that Toyota hasn't tossed aside its legendary focus on quality.

The auto maker kept development costs low by basing the first two products on existing Japanese-market vehicles — which themselves were brought to market at much lower development costs than standard Toyota products, officials say.

Toyota's bB, for example, was the first vehicle not to use any hand-built prototypes, or shisaku units, in its development. Most vehicles require 30-50 shisaku units, officials say.

And systems such as virtual assembly, virtual crash testing and pull-ahead production tooling allowed Toyota to achieve cost reductions without any serious decontenting or loss of quality.

In fact, some materials actually appear more high-grade than in Toyota's own Echo subcompact. Gone are the days, officials say, of the “mouse fur” upholstered seats and side panels, as Scion opts for richer materials and Lexus-like color palettes.

Special attention was paid to the interior, where center-mounted gauges look far more at home in the xA and xB than in the Saturn Ion, which is competing for the same crowd.

Seating in both Scion vehicles is high and comfortable, offering an almost SUV-like view. Rear seats can be easily removed and configured — attractive to young people who are said to practically live in their cars. If so, interior space will be a plus. Despite tight dimensions, the xA is relatively roomy, and the xB feels downright spacious.

The fairly dismal engine specs should ease the minds of fretting parents. The 1NZ-FE 1.5L 4-cyl. produces a mere 108 hp at 6,000 rpm and 105 lb.-ft. (142 Nm) of torque at 4,200 rpm. The power manages to be adequate — even on San Francisco's legendary ascents — thanks to the vehicles' sub-2,400-lb. (1,089-kg) curb weights. The engine can be mated to a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual transmission.

There are very few performance enhancements — just a cold-air intake kit and anti-roll bar are available as accessories. The standard suspension, though stiffened up from the Japanese version, won't lure the Fast and Furious crowd but is perfectly acceptable for basic transportation purposes.

Other features sure to attract young people: a high use of recycled and recyclable materials, fuel economy in the low-30 mpg (8L/100km) range, and low-emissions certification.

But while being kind to the environment is a plus, what's really supposed to lure young buyers are Scion's myriad accessories — a feature Toyota and its dealers are taking to the bank as a main profit driver, with expectations of selling $1,000-$3,000 worth per vehicle.

Each Scion model can be equipped with some 40 accessories, ranging from $49 for a carbon-fiber shift knob to $595 for satellite radio. Toyota-authorized tuner parts include sport pedals for $79; a rear spoiler for $335; plus many different features to decorate the vehicle, such as color-lighted cupholders and large decals for the exterior. All are affordable and can be added over time.

The attractive pricing and all-around decent package is bound to silence the skeptics and make the car all the more popular among the coveted Generation Y customer.

But what Scion hasn't realized is that a well-made $13,000 car may actually stand between the new brand and its aggressively youthful targets. After all, older adults know a good deal when they see one, too.