The Sport Coupe, Evolved
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.