Here in the land of plenty we have almost too many choices. Just trying to decide what kind of running shoes to buy can be a project; should you get, say, the Nike Air Max Tailwind or the Asics Gel Cumulus? It's just mind-boggling. This can be bedeviling not just to consumers but also to companies that face an ever-increasing number of competitors.
And so it is within the automotive marketplace. We have to say that we were surprised when Toyota decided to go to the trouble and expense of spinning off another brand, namely Scion, rather than just introducing those two models (the xA and xB) as Toyota products. It's not as if Toyota doesn't have a popular name and solid reputation. The company has stated that the reason for the separate brand was that it wanted to hit the younger generation ("Y" or whatever it may now be) with personable vehicles intended for their active, fun-loving lifestyles and felt that the practical Toyota name didn't foster that impression. We're not sure we agree the company does make the Celica and the MR2 Spyder, does it not? But who are we to question the business decisions of a very successful company? Let's get to the car.
Scion staged its latest introduction in Washington D.C., which allowed for the cute "tC in DC" tagline (and obligatory baseball cap) for the event. It also allowed the car to be driven in an "urban" environment, as that is part of the intended demographic for the tC. Loosely translated, that meant congested city streets (complete with working road crews and plenty of orange cones), gently winding parkways and fast-moving four-lane freeways.
Unlike the xA and xB that look like they could've come out of a comic book (and we mean that in a good way we like their funky yet practical style), the tC is a more mainstream design. Somehow managing to look a little pudgy yet sleek at the same time, the tC has a generic rectangular grille, headlamps with BMW-like "eyebrows" and a body that boasts crisp, clean lines. Still, there are a few head-turning elements. One is the deeply tinted glass panoramic roof that features a power sunroof above the front seats and a fixed glass portion above the rear compartment. Another is the set of double-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels that to our eyes looked as good as anything in the aftermarket. Both of these high-end features are standard.
Speaking of standard equipment, the tC, like the other Scion models, comes in one trim level and is chock-full of unexpected goodies such as one-touch up and down power windows, cruise control, air conditioning, keyless entry, mirror-mounted turn signal lights, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and a 160-watt Pioneer sound system with CD player that is satellite (XM) radio ready.
Although the tC is a compact car at just 174 inches long (about the same as a Honda Civic coupe), a relatively long (106.3-inch) wheelbase provides more than ample legroom, especially for those riding in the back. Rear passengers will also enjoy the split seat backs that can individually recline up to 45 degrees. Although it looks like a coupe, the tC is actually a hatchback, which means flexible cargo capacity. By folding down the rear seats as well as the right front seat, a load floor that stretches 103.6 inches is created, ideal for snowboarders and surfers. At nearly 3,000 pounds (2,970 for the automatic, 2,905 for the manual), the tC's curb weight is a few hundred pounds more than we expected, but considering how many features are packed into the car, it's not out of line.
One of the design objectives for the tC was to give the car an upscale look and feel, and in the cabin it's evident that Scion's designers achieved that goal. High-quality materials abound, and features such as metallic accents, damped compartment doors, height- and thigh-adjustments for the driver seat and an outside temperature display further this impression. An elegant "waterfall"-style center stack flows into the center console and both front seats slide forward to allow folks to get into the backseat. We're still on the fence about the "rice paper" texture of the dash and door panels, but overall, we felt that the interior was as nice as that of cars costing $10,000 more. Safety features include a first aid kit, triple side door beams, a driver knee airbag and the option of a package that includes side- and head-curtain airbags.
On the move, the tC feels eager to run. The big reason (literally) for the tC's puppylike demeanor is its 2.4-liter inline four. Borrowed from the Camry, this is a big engine for this class of car, where 1.7 to 2.2 liters is more the norm. With 160 horsepower and 163 pound-feet of torque, the tC's motor handily beats what you'll find in cars like the Civic EX coupe (127 hp and 114 lb-ft), Saturn Ion (140 hp and 145 lb-ft) and VW Golf (115 hp and 122 lb-ft). Out in the real world, the tC's performance makes good on the promise of the spec sheet numbers. A broad power band means that there's strong pull down low and through the midrange, and when coupled to the sweet-shifting five-speed manual gearbox, the tC feels sportier than one might expect. We also briefly sampled the four-speed automatic, and its smooth and responsive nature preserved the spunky character of the engine.
Prior to jumping behind the wheel, we were told emphatically that the Scion engineers made steering feel and handling big priorities. To that end, the tC features a fully independent suspension (with a double-wishbone setup in the rear that maximizes interior space) and the same tires that are on the Lexus IS 300 Z-rated 215/45R17 Bridgestone Potenzas wrapped around those eye-catching 17s. The results of the engineers' late nights are a precise, well-weighted feel in the wheel and flat, composed cornering when zigzagging along a parkway. The tC's ride quality is firm, but compliant enough to absorb some of the potholes that were served up by battered city streets.
Although our exposure to the tC was relatively brief, we came away impressed. If this car was slated to be priced at $18,000, we'd predict another hit for the company. After all, there's the strong Toyota reputation, the spacious and comfortable cabin, fine build quality, entertaining driving dynamics and plenty of standard niceties. With a price tag of $16,500, we'd bet that Scion is going to hit another one into the cheap seats.