2005 Scion tC: Scion’s Latest & Greatest-The Versatile tC

If you’re over 30, you can be forgiven for missing the ‘buzz’ surrounding Toyota’s new youth-oriented Scion brand–after all, they’re not marketing to you. The line, first populated by funky little econobox xB and xA models, is aimed squarely at twenty-something and younger buyers, many of whom will be plunking down their first new-car dough for a Scion. Toyota fervently hopes these early converts will become loyalists for life, moving up along the line through Camrys, Avalons and finally Lexus models throughout their auto-purchasing career.

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However, like so many automotive campaigns targeted to the young, Scion has in one way missed its mark–the cars are terrific values for buyers of all ages, and have appeal far beyond their planned demographics. The xB and xA are straight from the Japanese domestic market, and have the offbeat looks to prove it, but offer plenty of space and utility in a rather enjoyable package, backed up by the promise of Toyota reliability. The deal is further sweetened by starting prices on the happy side of $13,000 and $15,000, respectively.

The tC, though, is a new sort of venture for Scion–a sexy little sports coupe that packs decent standard equipment and a satisfying drive into an attractive body, again with the proven engineering of what is now pretty much America’s number-one seller of cars. Still, it boasts enough value and utility to appeal to buyers of any age.

We like this car. It’s attractive, fun, versatile, and overall quite probably one of the best buys in automobiledom today. Behind the wheel, the Scion tC is about as fun as it looks. The ride isn’t too firm, as some softness has been built in, although the roughest of roads will elicit a bit of a buckboard ride. The standard suspension getup consists of MacPherson struts up front, a multilink, coil-sprung independent rear, and anti-roll bars at both ends. It responds sharply enough for most prospective owners in most situations, but the most demanding drivers may find the handling and grip to be lacking come track day. For those folks, Scion offers a dealer-installed suspension kit and various ancillary pieces. Still, we think the standard setup is a good compromise between back-road prowess and commuting livability.

The make-or-break part of the deal, of course, is the powertrain. The tC packs a 160-horsepower four-cylinder, which also does duty in the base Camry. It’s torquey, providing plenty of oomph for this diminutive machine. Zero to sixty is achieved in about seven and a half seconds, but even more important is the overall feel of this engine. It’s entirely capable of the type of passing and acceleration maneuvers even the most aggressive pilots will demand of it, and it just hums along freeway jaunts at extralegal speeds without ever feeling stressed. In fact, we took our test car to Detroit, and on the way up averaged nearly 80 mph–including bathroom breaks and tool stops–for the entire drive. The whole way up, the car never missed a step, and managed 27 mpg while doing so.

The 2362-cc VVT-I engine features variable valve timing, and qualifies the tC for ULEV status. It’s mated to either a 5-speed manual with short throws and decent gear engagement, or a four-speed automatic that, while none too sporty, isn’t quite the painful compromise that most slushboxes are in cars like this.

Nice touches abound inside, such as the standard, covered CD-player and all the power-operated stuff you’d expect. The synthetic and woven materials used befit cars costing twice as much, and even the aluminum-look plastic manages a quality feel. Coolest of all, though, is the panoramic sunroof, which consists of glass panels over both front and rear passengers. Of particular utility during our jaunt to Motor City were the varied configurations of the seats. The rear bench reclines, and the front buckets can fold flush with the rears, creating a nearly-flat bed that’s perfect for relaxing or even sleeping on long road trips. Perhaps best of all, though, is the fact that for such a little car, clever packaging leads the tC to feel much bigger inside than you’d expect. There’s as much room within as you’d find in any mid-size domestic coupe from a decade or two ago. It’s quite a feat, and means tC buyers don’t have to compromise on space.

Even rear seat room is sufficient for two adults, although the roofline restricts folks over six feet and the two-door configuration means entry and exit back there is a bit of a contortionist’s act. Mitigating that is the hatchback’s inherent versatility, with 12.8 cubic feet of ‘trunk’ space that almost doubles with the seats folded and clever storage compartments all over.

The tC is an innovative machine, with loads of novel little gadgets and gizmos, especially if you’re generous with the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) parts. A line of dealer-installed accessories that replace traditional options, they’re supposed to appeal to the young ‘tuner’ crowd (think colored lighting packages and body kits). The TRD upgrades play the part of what would be options in other cars; the only actual factory choices are the paint, the tranny and extra airbags in the doors and curtain areas. From a color-changing face on the optional six-disc CD changer, which can project ten different hues to suit the driver’s mood, to a billet oil-filler cap, some of these could be deemed unnecessary. However, the TRD exhaust, various suspension mods, and a 5-psi supercharger (which adds an extra 40 horsepower, for 200 hp total, and could surely be tweaked for even more boost and output) can turn the tC into a true sports car–if that’s what you want.

The Scion’s goodness is evident in the exterior styling as well. Some reviewers have expressed mild complaints about the design’s conservativeness, but we find the lines to be classic, well-proportioned, and evergreen. There are hints of BMW in the C-pillar and rear-end, which is not a bad thing. The 16-inch alloy wheels are standard, and particularly attractive as well. Build quality is evident in the tight shutlines and solid feel of the moveable parts such as the hood, trunklid and doors.

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In fact, it’s so good that the tC has pretty much written the death sentence for the Celica, Toyota’s traditional sporty coupe. The Celica offers pretty much the same shape, quality, and power at a price that starts several thousand dollars up the ladder. Further, the tC brings even better styling and more innovative features. While the Celica has soldiered on for decades as Toyota’s enthusiast offering, it can’t match the tC’s usefulness or value–nor, with the right TRD parts, its sportiness.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that some folks have aired grievances about the fledgling automaker, however. First-year Scions did suffer a below-average Initial Quality rating from J.D. Power, for instance–but that doesn’t apply to the tC, and our problem-free experience with our test vehicle leads us to believe it’ll live up to Toyota standards.

Also, some buyers have complained that although Scions are sold, Saturn-style, with no-haggle pricetags, they still have to deal with polyester-clad glad-handers. Seems that although the possibility of price-gouging has been removed, the financing and insurance sales process remains the same as at any dealership (called F&I, which includes dickering over your interest rate, extended service contracts, etc.). Nevertheless, we dismiss such grumbling as undeserved whining. We think being given a set, low sticker price trumps the uncertain calculus (invoice plus destination minus customer rebates divided by dealer incentives, etc.) involved in most car-buying these days.

For all this, buyers need pay only a scant $15,950. That gets you the base tC, with keyless entry and power windows and locks, a single-disc stereo, manual transmission, and that cool sunroof–the kind of car appreciated by people with the wisdom and experience that age brings. Or, if you live your life like a Pepsi commercial, you can make your tC as flashy and exciting as your youth demands, with the TRD line of 30 or so often cosmetic accessories. While necessary or not, these customization opportunities run from under a hundred bucks to around $2,000 for the blower–perfect for tuners on a pizza-delivery budget, saving up those tips for each and every upgrade. There’s also the aforementioned suspension pieces, which are recommended for the weekend warriors who want their tC to be a true corner carver. Basically, you can have your Scion as a speedy autocrosser, a souped-up hot-rod off the showroom floor, or an attractive economy car with good build quality and value at a nice price. Compared to your average bottom-rung vehicle, well, the tC (like other Scions) really is a Great Leap Forward.

Whichever way you specify your tC, you don’t feel like you’ve made any sacrifice at all. We can easily imagine folks buying this car for its looks, comfort, versatility and driving experience–with the value quotient, high as it is, being only a secondary priority. After all, if a car is this good, you don’t have to be on a budget to buy it. On the other hand, some buyers will certainly be cash-flush twenty-somethings, equipping their tCs with every off-the-rack part available, and thus completely gratifying Toyota’s fondest wishes. Scion’s advertising campaign and intended target demographic may not encompass everyone, but the tC itself sure does.

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