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Published: 10/06/2004 - by Dan Kahn, Contributor
For Toyota, the Scion tC is the latest step in a new direction.
When Toyota started selling cars in North America in the late 1950s, the company offered a limited line of lightweight, nimble and fuel-efficient little compacts that were totally unlike anything American consumers had ever seen before. Detroit only knew how to build decadent flagships bedecked in chrome, iron and steel, and the low-cost freeway fliers offered by the Japanese automaker perfectly filled a need that had been unsated for years — the need for affordable transportation that was both safe and reliable.
Nearly a half century later, Toyota's image in North America has changed dramatically. Once a minor footnote in the Detroit-ruled world of automobile manufacturing, Toyota is now a dominant force to be reckoned with, builder of the best-selling car in the country, and firmly established as a reliable source of safe and sturdy vehicles that appeal to the masses.
While that image might sound like a CPA's dream, it has actually alienated the company from one of the hottest demographics in the country: young people. American men and women under 40 have loads of disposable income just waiting to be spent on a new car and Toyota knows it, but thanks to a long and prosperous relationship with the moms and dads of said young people, they're looking elsewhere for cars and SUVs packed with enough excitement and attitude to set them apart from their parents.
So what's an automaker to do? How about start a new brand, offering a diverse lineup of hip little cars with funky style that can be customized to suit the owner's unique taste, from the wheels and stereo right down to custom paintjobs and stylized mood lighting? Hence the Scion brand was born, and the first two products of the new company were a tiny four-door hatchback with European flair called the xA, and a larger and significantly boxier four-door SUV-type-thing called the xB. Housed inside Toyota dealerships and shown in a Saturn-like no-haggle sales environment, both Scions became instant successes.
The Scion tC is the company's newest effort to round out its model line, a racy little sport coupe sporting a long list of standard equipment and a low price that undercuts the competition by thousands. Then again, defining what exactly qualifies as competition for this vehicle gets a little difficult. The Honda Civic Si hatchback offers similar driving dynamics but with plain-Jane style that blends into the crowd. Hyundai's Tiburon is perhaps the closest match in terms of looks, style and price, but the sleek little Korean coupe can't touch the Scion tC in terms of road feel and power. Lastly, GM's Saturn brand recently released its Ion Red Line sport coupe that can wipe the floor with the tC when it comes to a head-to-head horsepower shootout and Saturn offers the same easygoing dealership experience as the Scion. Unfortunately, the Red Line costs thousands of dollars more and its fit and finish just can't hold up to the Japanese competition. Of course, the closest match to the edgy tC is its sibling the Toyota Celica, which benefits from the same nimble handling characteristics as its Scion stablemate, thanks to shared Toyota DNA. However, the aging Celica suffers from a cramped interior, a shortage of low-end torque, a harsh ride and love-it-or-hate-it styling, all of which have likely contributed to disappointing sales figures.
So what are we saying by side-stepping all of these comparisons? Essentially, that Scion has carved out a unique niche for itself by building a cool little car that offers excellent driving dynamics at a stellar price. That's not to say that all is perfect in tC land, however. Frankly, we were a little disappointed that the car doesn't pack a little more visual punch, especially when one compares the coupe to its wild-looking stablemates. Whereas the wedge-shaped Scion xA and shoebox-on-wheels Scion xB immediately stand out from the crowd with daring in-your-face style that flaunts their distance from the mainstream with glee, the tC looks far more evolutionary than revolutionary. Its rolling-jellybean shape, BMW-esque headlights and Tiburon-like rear quarters all seem fairly standard, but the overall package flows nicely and it succeeds in conveying the sporty image Scion stylists were most likely shooting for. We're not saying we dislike the car's lines, we just expected it to be a little more, well, different.
Swinging open the large and satisfyingly heavy door reveals a broad expanse of textured plastic, soft woven fabric and faux-aluminum trim. Whoever designed the tC's interior did a nice job of tying things together, and the small cockpit actually seems quite spacious for a car this size. Sliding in behind the wheel, the first thing once notices is how comfortable the seats are. Slight bolsters are just big enough to cradle your backside without pinching or becoming uncomfortable on long trips, and the headrests are perfectly placed to support the neck without the need for strange positions or adjustments. Even the unique woven upholstery does a nice job of balancing comfort and grip.
The backseat would be a little tight for full-size adults on long road trips, but it is wide enough to make short hops around town tolerable. Rear passengers are treated to a few goodies in the tC, including three full-size headrests and a small moonroof above the backseat that's perfect for giving passengers a little extra light on sunny days.
The triple-pod instrument cluster houses silver-faced gauges that go nicely with the interior's silver-colored door trim and sweeping center console. The fat three-spoke steering wheel feels like it belongs in a sports car. Other interesting interior styling notes include a gigantic panoramic sunroof and textured plastic door and dash trim that appear to have been designed to look like fine wood grain (and in this particular case, it actually feels pretty cool). Unfortunately, there are a few questionable elements as well, including a clumsy sliding cover built into the center console designed to shroud the radio when not in use, and an odd lack of soft padding on the door panels and center console. Those are minor quibbles, however, and our only serious grievances had to do with aftermarket additions to our particular test vehicle.
In an interesting tip of the hat to the import tuner scene, Scion has taken a unique approach to marketing its vehicles. The 2005 Scion tC is only available with one option, front side-impact and full-length side curtain airbags. Everything else on the long list of add-on customizations and modifications are available as dealer-installed extras, allowing the buyer to pick and choose exactly how they want their car to look and drive over time, without having to make all the decisions and spend all their money before the vehicle leaves the dealer lot.
Our particular tester came equipped with a $145 set of carpeted floor mats that we found rather nice. An extremely well-done faux carbon-fiber appliqué was added to the B-pillar for the cost of $75, and it definitely added some much needed spice to the car's appearance. The other added options weren't quite as wonderful, including a $395 Pioneer stereo that was fairly difficult to operate (see the full stereo review for more), a $449 Bazooka subwoofer that failed to produce much in the way of head-pounding bass, and last but certainly not least a set of blue mood lights strapped into the front footwells with zip-ties and mounted conveniently in the cupholders for added thrills. While we enjoy blue-backlit beverages as much as the next guy, $250 seems a little extreme for our conservative tastes. Factor out the dealer-installed additions, however, and you have a very nicely equipped coupe for around $15 grand, and that's nothing to scoff at.
Of course, even with all the bells and whistles in the world, a car doesn't matter much if it doesn't offer a pleasurable driving experience, and that's one category where the tC truly shines. The 160-horsepower, 2.4-liter four that resides under the Scion's softly curved hood is incredibly smooth and powerful, as it should be considering it was borrowed from the Camry sedan. The tC weighs quite a bit less than the midsize Toyota, however, and the powerful engine combined with a nimble lightweight platform makes for a very spirited little performer. The engine pulls right to its 6,500-rpm redline without a hint of vibration or harmonics. And torque steer is virtually undetectable in this front-wheel-drive coupe. If neck-snapping, tire-shredding horsepower is what you crave, Scion is offering a bolt-on supercharger kit and high-flow exhaust system through its dealer network — adding both can increase power by as much as 50 percent.
The five-speed manual transmission is equally impressive, thanks to a very smooth clutch and perfectly spaced gears that allow for comfortable around-town cruising in fourth gear without the need to constantly row the shifter around looking for extra power. Speaking of the shifter, it is mounted in the dash at a 45-degree angle similar to the way Alfa Romeo used to set up its Spyder. While an aftermarket unit with shorter throws would be a nice option, the standard unit feels very precise and is easy to operate.
There's no better way to really put a car's suspension to the test than to drive the twisty two-lane roads that carve up the mountains north of Los Angeles, and we did just that with the tC on a hot summer day. We found the brakes very strong and easy to modulate, offering excellent feedback through the firm pedal and minimal fade, even after repeated hard stops. The suspension is equally as impressive, benefiting from a combination of firm tuning and very sticky tires (the same tires that are available on the Lexus IS 300). We noticed very little body roll in the corners, yet the ride was surprisingly soft and compliant.
The 2005 Scion tC does not drive like a typical Toyota — it feels extremely nimble and tight, and the harder you push it, the more it hunkers down and grabs the road. Road noise is minimal and wind noise is nonexistent, and the huge three-way adjustable panoramic sunroof is an extremely cool feature that lets in an amazing amount of scenery and a minimal amount of heat. The only odd aspect was the soft fabric retractable shade, but for $16 grand we're not going to make an issue out of it, especially considering a sunroof of any kind is an added expense on any other car in this class.
The tC is just as easy to live with sitting in city traffic as it is carving through canyon roads (although not nearly as fun), thanks to a stellar climate control system that incorporates three simple dials, making quick on-the-fly adjustments to temperature and airflow a snap. The dash vents are set at a strange angle, but once you get used to them, they actually work very well.
Secondary controls such as door handles, window switches and even the turn signal and windshield wiper stalks are well designed and easy to operate and exhibit typical Toyota quality and design through and through. Both interior and exterior panels are fit-and-finished to a high degree, with perfectly aligned panels and even gaps throughout.
Weary travelers can rest assured that the tC is as safe as it is fun to drive, thanks to standard safety features like four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake assist and a driver knee airbag (to aid in side-impact collisions), in addition to the optional side airbag package. Other notable standard features include gorgeous 17-inch alloy wheels and power windows with one-touch auto up-down convenience. All of this adds up to an outstanding value for the dollar, whether you're seeking an efficient little commuter car or a sleek ride that can be tricked out by simply checking a few boxes at the dealership.
After decades of straight-and-narrow business models and cars designed to deliver sensible looks and a reliable driving experience, Toyota has finally gotten back to its roots with this nimble Scion coupe. Unbeatable value for the dollar, grin-inducing driving dynamics and enough options to make even the most jaded gearhead flush with excitement all make the tC a great choice for budget-conscious shoppers and sport-compact fans alike. The styling may be a little drab, but with a bevy of interesting body mods slowly making their way to market, it wouldn't be difficult to turn a tC into a show-stopping piece of automotive art. Whether you like it stock or sizzling, the Scion tC is a worthy addition to the already stellar line.>
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
I'll admit to being more than a little skeptical when Toyota announced its plans for the Scion brand. Marketing cars to buyers who didn't like to be marketed to didn't sound like the most promising business plan, yet barely a year later the first two models are successful both in their sales numbers and the kind of image they project. While I don't foresee a big sales problem with the tC given its reasonable price, commendable performance and well-trimmed interior, when it comes to the image part of the equation, its prospects don't seem so favorable. Yeah, it has the funky interior lighting and the overly complicated stereo, but in most other respects, the tC feels like nothing more than a sharply dressed Corolla coupe. Whether you're sitting in the driver seat or looking at it from across an intersection, there's nothing bold, unique or even eye-catching about the tC. There aren't a lot of other coupes in this class that are much better in this respect, but that's no excuse for Scion to think that the tC can sell on marketing alone. I tried to keep in mind that the tC also offers options like a supercharger kit that bumps the fun factor, but even that failed to elicit much excitement. Bottom line: The tC is an excellent Toyota, but only an average Scion.
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I've been interested in getting behind the wheel of this vehicle since I saw it spinning on an auto show floor. Its affordability and performance possibilities were two of the biggest draws for me. Few cars on the market can boast a package this attractive, and the fact that it's the "new kid on the block" makes it even more enticing. I have to admit I was a little let down by the tC once I got behind the wheel, however, and I hope all the soon-to-be-available aftermarket parts can address the car's ho-hum exterior styling. I wish it had a more aggressive grille and some nice body skirts to really dress it up. The interior has an interesting freshened Celica flavor, as the Scion doesn't do much more than cover the basics and offer a metallic cover for the stereo. The optional colored lights were kind of cool, but considering they're hung in the footwells with plastic ties and that the option costs $250, I don't know if they're that cool. Besides, they don't phase between colors like I've seen in other Scions. I did find myself having a lot of fun driving it around, however. Yeah, it didn't have a lot of horsepower, but I could chirp the tires in second and the great handling made it feel like I was hitting the turns faster than I really was. Overall, the tC shows a lot of promise for such a low price. I think I'll have to wait and see what aftermarket cosmetic kits and performance enhancers become available before I judge its true potential.
"This car is fantastic! Not only is it a piece of art to look at, it's also a gem to own. You couldn't ask for more for your money. The moonroof is amazing. I'd recommend this car to anyone." — brtpinhilo, Aug. 30, 2004
"This car was clearly designed to appeal to people with expensive taste and small pocket books. When I look at it and drive it, I identify with all kinds of European cars that I can't afford to purchase, maintain or insure. I wasn't really going to buy a new car, but when I drove it for a family member who couldn't locate one in their town, I fell in love and bought it. This car has a little bit of everything that I want: great handling, low-end torque, interior comfort/convenience, many safety features and a ridiculously low purchase price. I like that it is made in Japan. I hate the radio and the plastic cover, and they should make side and curtain airbags standard. The interior quality could be better in some areas, but that is part of why the car is affordable and I am more than willing to accept that compromise at this price." — chuck54633, Aug. 30, 2004
"For the price and features combination, the tC can't be beat. The interior build quality and the sleek exterior make this the best sport coupe for Gen-Y drivers. Not only is the car affordable, but it has a ton of features you won't see on other cars in the price segment. I got mine with the ground effects kit and the spoiler, and it looks like an expensive sports car. Suggested improvements: more legroom for the driver, sequential shifting." — tCDriver, Aug. 20, 2004
"I just sold my 1998 1.8 Audi Quattro. Bought the car new and had an engine management chip put in. Though it was fun to drive, I had mucho problems, turbo, brakes, broken timing belt and more. My tC is as much fun, even with an automatic, and my guess is the build quality will far exceed the Audi. Fit and finish is great. The standard features and solid feeling can't be beat and the dealer really knew his product. I'm having a blast. At 66, who says the car is only for kids? Favorite features: Automatic, ABS with EDS, Keyless remote entry, automatic lights shut-off, storage, radio and I can go on and on. Suggested improvements: If the xA and xB can have traction control and stability control, why not the tC? I would gladly have paid extra for this feature." — Jack H., Aug. 29, 2004
"I have now had my tC for about a month and I love everything about it. I am beyond happy with my purchase. The car is nice to look at, quality is excellent and it is comfortable. Performance is excellent with this car. It is quick, handles well and has a nice ride. It could stand to be lowered, and that will be one of the first things I do. As for accessories, I got none, they're all too expensive. Come on, $700 for a XM tuner?" — Dulanic, Aug. 17, 2004
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our Scion tC test vehicle featured two optional stereo upgrades, an AM/FM/6-Disc CD stereo by Pioneer ($395) and a VS Subwoofer by Bazooka Mobile Audio ($449). The head unit features a chameleonlike LCD display that changes colors at the press of a button, with choices including red, blue, green, yellow, purple and orange. The head unit is mounted behind a flimsy plastic sliding cover, and the interface utilizes push-button controls for everything — there were no dials to be found. Six preset buttons, six CD slots and satellite radio compatibility are the highlights of the Pioneer-built system. As for speakers, a tweeter resides in each door panel above the door handle, and midrange woofers can be found in the lower front door panels and above the armrests in the backseat. The well-hidden subwoofer is behind the backseat.
Performance: While the sound quality was decent, it wasn't as crisp and clear as one would expect from a stereo with nearly $850 in upgrades. Sound started to distort at higher volume levels, and the sub added more distortion and interference than pounding bass. The head unit was probably designed to look like an aftermarket unit, but the result is difficult to operate sitting in a parking lot, and trying to make it work while driving is borderline dangerous. Simple controls such as a clearly labeled power button and large volume and tuner knobs may not look cutting-edge, but they make radio operation a much simpler (and safer) task on the road.
Best Feature: The color-changing display looks very cool at night, and speaker placement was perfect for all-around sound distribution.
Worst Feature: Cluttered head unit covered in small hard-to-read buttons, all covered by a big, flexible, hinged faux aluminum cover.
Conclusion: While Scion put significant effort into making the stereo in the new tC as stylish and interesting-looking as possible, the odd design makes for poor functionality and the sound falls short. If excellent sound is a priority, you'd probably be better off spending that extra $850 on a true aftermarket system.
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