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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
November 12, 2004
If you haven't heard of Scion (pronounced "sigh in"), it's a brand Toyota founded to target younger buyers, for whom the name Toyota represents a vehicle driven by their parents and other people who, in their estimation, are at death's door. If you find the word a bit clunky, scion means descendant, so at least it has some meaning behind it. And somewhere, at some time, a focus group must have liked it. Before the 2005 tC coupe's debut earlier this year, Scion imported two small, four-door Japanese models rebadged for sale here: the sporty-looking xA and the boxy xB, the latter of which was a surprise hit with young buyers, to whose sense of absurdity it must have appealed. (That, or they had always wondered what it would be like to drive a toaster.)
A whole different story, the tC was designed for the United States buyer and will be sold here exclusively. Compared with the other models, its price and quality are higher, its design is more conservative and its appeal is broader. I found it to be surprisingly sporty and versatile.
Scion models come in one trim level, and the tC offers just two factory options: a four-speed-automatic transmission and a package including side-impact and side curtain-type airbags. But there are many dealer-installed options from Scion, TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and aftermarket manufacturers. Most of these options are priced à la carte, which is how young buyers seem to want them. My main test car came with the airbag option, a Pioneer AM/FM stereo with an in-dash six-CD changer, floor and cargo mats, and OBX brand silver pedal covers, which raised the suggested retail price of $16,465 to $17,734 (both totals include the $515 destination charge). Exterior & Styling Scion gave the two-door hatchback a sleek look with some BMW-like design cues. The dual-lamp headlight clusters behind wraparound lenses and underneath "eyebrow" turn signal lights are darn near a replica of those on the current BMW 5 Series and they look good.
The tC comes with beautiful 17-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment. (Dealers offer optional Enkei brand 18-inch alloy wheels and 19-inch alloys built for TRD by Racing Hart.) Additional upscale touches, the door handles and side mirrors are body-colored, and the mirrors include turn signal lights. Items such as a rear spoiler, bumper trim, ground effects and mudguards are dealer-installed options. Ride & Handling Scion describes the tC's suspension tuning as European and says the BMW 3 Series was the benchmark car whose performance they tried to match. The four-wheel-independent suspension uses MacPherson struts in front and double wishbones in the rear, the latter of which are believed by performance enthusiasts to be among the best configurations for sporty driving. I tend to emphasize the performance over the mechanicals, and here the tC avails itself very, very well. The rear end, in particular, is very well behaved. When pushed hard, the tail loses traction gracefully and controllably. Overall, the car feels very balanced, but the engine's considerable torque makes it easy to loosen up the front end and exaggerate the oversteer. In terms of ride quality, Scion's engineers have done a good job emulating the BMW. For handling, though, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison because the characteristics of this front-wheel-drive car and the BMW's rear-wheel drive are, as always, different enough to overshadow any amount of suspension work. That said, its roadholding is impressive.
Much of the car's surefootedness can be attributed to the standard rubber, Bridgestone Potenza RE92 all-season performance tires rated P215/45ZR17 (see tire codes). The trade-off is that these tires' 160 treadwear rating represents below-average longevity. (The highest numbers are above 500, and the average is somewhere in the middle.) The torquey engine and aggressive driving would burn through these shoes pretty quickly, and replacements aren't cheap. Tirerack.com lists them at $149 apiece for direct replacements.
The optional 18- and 19-inch wheels come with lower-profile tires 40-series and 35-series, respectively for sharper response and increased road feel.
The tC's steering has a well-matched ratio and provides decent feedback. The car's longish wheelbase improves the ride quality, but it also contributes to a turning diameter of 36.1 feet. For comparison, the Honda Civic coupe turns a 34.1-foot circle and the Volkswagen Golf does it in 35.8 feet.
For those who want a sporty feel or look, TRD offers pearl white springs that lower the car 1.1 inches in front and 1.3 inches in the rear. Replacement struts and shock absorbers tuned to work with the springs are also available. Though there are stabilizer bars, front and rear, TRD offers a larger one for the rear suspension to diminish body roll, which isn't that bad to begin with. Going & Stopping One of the tC's defining features, and a departure from the two earlier Scion models, is its 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the same power plant that's standard in the larger, heavier Toyota Camry. It employs variable valve timing for even power delivery, smooth idle and all that good stuff, but the real issue here is its displacement, which results in more torque at lower rpm than one could expect from a smaller engine.
tC Engine Specifications
160 @ 6,700 rpm
163 @ 4,000 rpm
Regular unleaded (87 octane)
In practical terms this means the tC steps out from the line with real oomph and requires less rowing of the standard manual transmission, a five-speed. I regularly accelerated out of turns in 3rd gear rather than 2nd. The tC is quick overall, with 0-to-60-mph acceleration times of about 7.5 seconds. This stands in contrast to the 1.5-liter four-cylinder-powered xA and xB which, even in my conservative estimation of such things, are underpowered.
I like the manual transmission's easy clutch and well-chosen gear ratios. The shifter is medium in height and has medium-length throws. The standard gearshift knob is so plain, it cries out for replacement. Naturally, TRD has you covered. If you want to go sportier, they also offer a short-throw kit and a TRD performance clutch for people who expect to drive the tC hard.
Speaking of driving hard, Scion plans to offer late in the model year a TRD supercharger that will boost the engine's output to 200 horsepower. Because the supercharger is belt-driven, its influence should be felt at low engine speeds, preserving the character of the normally aspirated motor. The kit will include new fuel injectors and an engine-control computer upgrade. The benefits of this option are clear: It was engineered by the people who know the hardware best, and it will be included in the warranty when installed by the dealer. This is not the case with aftermarket gear.
If there's a trade-off for all this punch, it's fuel economy. The current, 160-hp tC earns an EPA-estimated 22/29 mpg city/highway with a manual transmission. The automatic is actually better, at 23/30 mpg.
The line of Civic coupe models (which excludes the Civic Hybrid) starts at 29/38 mpg and goes as high as 36/44 mpg. The Mazda3 s, with a 160-hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder, earns 25/32 mpg with the manual and 24/29 mpg in automatic form.
I also drove an automatic tC briefly, and the four-speed is impressive. Toyota is excellent at mating automatics with small engines. In actuality, this engine isn't so small for the car, so it performs even better, with smooth shifts and quick kickdown. For an extra $800 (retail price) and better fuel economy, this isn't a bad deal at all.
The standard brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution. They have a nice, linear action with good pedal feel. The Inside This is where the story gets really interesting. The interior has exceptional roominess, quality and versatility. The materials quality is good throughout, though I could live without the center stack's faux aluminum which one could say of virtually every other new model regardless of price. The dashboard has an interesting texture that, Scion says, is based on a type of Japanese paper. It's a welcome departure from the usual smooth and often too glossy plastic, but I suspect it will collect dust more easily.
The driver's seat has a manual height adjustment, a ratcheting jack lever that I think is the simplest type to operate. Its range is generous, with plenty of lift for shorter adolescents and even adults. There's also a knob for varying the cushion's tilt. Power and leather aren't offered, but the seats are clad in quality cloth and bear prominent side bolsters for sporty driving. The tC seems to favor adjustments that facilitate safe driving but hold back on some of the comfort items, such as lumbar adjustments. I'd like to see the steering wheel telescope as well as tilt, which helps drivers of all sizes distance themselves properly from the airbag.
The ergonomics are quite good with the exception of the oval disc that selects the audio source on the optional stereo. Its silver finish makes it illegible in sunlight. Visibility is good all around. The C-pillar is chunky, but not enough to obscure a whole car.
For a coupe, backseat access isn't bad. Both front seats tilt and slide forward easily. Though it's configured for three occupants, the center position is raised and not very comfortable. The outboard seats, however, seem to defy the rules of geometry. Legroom is generous without requiring the front occupants to give up much of their own legroom. Headroom is decent. At 6 feet tall, I just fit. It helps that the backrests recline across 10 positions.
I picked up three friends for a trip to Manny's deli on the near South Side of Chicago. Joining me in the front was a 6-foot-4-inch guy, and two others not as tall but adult males nonetheless climbed in back. They marveled at the roominess. One said, "This car is all seat." To be clear, this was a step above the usual coupe accommodations where you can squeeze in for short trips. We were all comfortable.
I'm being charitable in saying our average weight was above 200 pounds. Even with this load, including the post-corned-beef leg of the journey, the four-cylinder proved to be the little engine that could. It was definitely not as quick as it was with one occupant, but it still had the oomph to get us going without strain. I don't think the engine is less noisy at full throttle than those of comparable cars in part because there's a variable valve in the muffler that opens at about 3,000 rpm but the available torque means you rely on full throttle far less in the tC. The result is a quieter ride.
I asked these fellows how much they thought this car cost. Knowing nothing of the Scion brand and what it represents, they guessed $33,000, $30,000 and $28,000. Despite being friends of mine, these guys are actually rather bright, and the tC fooled them good. Safety Standard safety features include dual-stage front airbags that deploy at one of two speeds depending on crash severity. Also standard is a knee airbag for the driver. These protect the driver's legs and prevent submarining, where the occupant slides down and forward under the seat belt. The aforementioned factory options include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain-type airbags that deploy downward along the front and rear side windows.
All five seats have lap-and-shoulder seat belts and head restraints that raise high enough for an adult even the center rear one. The front pair adjusts for height and pitch. Nice. The backseat is contoured, which makes child-safety-seat installation a challenge, but the roominess makes it doable. Cargo & Towing The secret to the tC's interior roominess is the way it shares space between the cabin and the cargo area, something pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles have been doing for a while. Folding, 60/40-split backseats aren't something new, but cars often divide the area behind the front seats into a backseat and cargo area that both represent compromise. In the tC, you get a roomy backseat or a roomy cargo hatch. The cost is that you don't get both at once. With the backseat raised, cargo volume is about 12.8 cubic feet closer to that of a trunk (the Civic coupe has 12.9 cubic feet). Though the liftgate opening is nice and large, the cargo floor is rather high near the back. When the seats are folded, however, the volume more than doubles, with a cargo floor that measures 59.7 inches from the liftgate to the front seats.
Scion says the tC is not intended for trailer towing. Features Lists of all the standard and optional features are available by clicking on the categories to the left. Take a look and you'll find a generous helping of standard features. There are some you'd expect to be options or to find in a more expensive car, such as one-touch up/down windows, a tire pressure warning system, dual moonroofs (the front of which vents and slides open) each equipped with a retractable sun shade, side-mirror turn signal lights, remote keyless entry, an MP3-capable CD stereo, a cargo cover, and damped motion of the glovebox door, grab handles and the stereo cover.
There are features missing here and there. The side mirrors don't fold. Heated seats aren't offered. The visors, though covered in nice cloth, don't extend and have non-illuminated mirrors.
The dealer options are too many and diverse for us to keep up with. Many are appearance and performance upgrades. The more mundane but functional ones include front fog lamps, an in-dash six-CD changer and a Bazooka brand subwoofer. tC in the Market The Scion brand may be aimed at young buyers, but this more conventional model has much broader appeal. At last count, 66 percent of Toyota dealerships had taken on the product line and signed the Scion Covenant, which requires, among other things, that the models be sold with no-haggle pricing. Each dealership gets to set the "Pure Price," as it's called, to account for regional differences, but that price is non-negotiable something young buyers value, according to Scion research.
Shortly after the tC went on sale, Toyota announced that it would discontinue the more-expensive Celica after the 2005 model year. That makes the tC the company's only coupe close to this price range and its first in more than 20 years in this affordable class. Honda sells roughly 125,000 Civic coupes per year, and Scion hopes to move 100,000 tCs in this model year. If people catch on to the new brand name and the model's quality and versatility, that number is possible. In my estimation, the tC could easily become a favorite among young "tuners" who got their start by modifying Civics. To this subculture, which was disappointed by the Civic's 2001 redesign, the tC's potential is endless.