Toyota launched the youth-targeted Scion brand with two distinctive vehicles transplanted from Japan, the xA and xB, but the range gains depth for 2005 with the exclusive tC sport coupe. Where the other budget cars are derived from the diminutive Echo platform, the tC draws upon more robust parts-share partners, with a chassis adapted from the European Avensis and the powertrain from Camry. Introducing robust mechanicals into the portfolio elevates Scion from a "funky but slow" niche, and just as important, the purpose-built Scion allows engineers to expand on brand notions to integrate clever, even upscale, features into the hatchback form.
The sport coupe market tends to be fashion driven and fickle, but the tC offers a package that should provide extended appeal and help anchor the burgeoning Scion brand. These are key manufacturing motivators, as Toyota has phased out the small, wedge-shaped Celica, leaving the tC to represent the sub-$20k sport coupe market for the corporation. A hatchback hidden within a coupe form, the tC has several tricks -- like the dual sunroof -- to give it showroom appeal, and a long roster of dealer-installed accessories to bring personalization to the street.
Developed in a blazingly quick 13 months from blueprint to production, the tC has both an upscale and somewhat bathtub-shape, with more than a hint of BMW influence. The tC is low and wide, with a 106.3-inch wheelbase and 69.1-inch width, making it a notch bigger than the Acura RSX. Its eager stance is augmented by 215/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 tires, the same spec as on the Lexus IS 300, rather than the conservative 15-inch tires used on other Scions.
The stocky car doesn't jump out in traffic like the xA and xB, though its more mainstream design will broaden its appeal. Enthusiast buyers will gravitate to the optional $995 ground effects kit, which visually lowers the car and grants it the fast and furious presence it warrants. Notable standard equipment includes power side mirrors with directional lights in the housings and panoramic roof glass, combining a power moonroof for front passengers with a fixed sunroof in the rear.
Opening the door reveals a better-conceived, more feature-rich, interior than inside the other Scions. Rather than a cyclopean center dash speedometer, the tC uses a more conventional three-pod instrument panel with attractive, brushed metal faces. The silver center stack reminds of the Infiniti G35. Climate controls are tightly positioned in the narrow column, with a central aluminum dial for temperature. Above this is a door that conceals the 160-watt, MP3-capable Pioneer AM/FM/CD stereo, which can be upgraded to a unit with an in-dash disc changer. The tC has a full complement of standard amenities, such as windows, door locks, mirror, cruise control, exterior thermometer, and tilt steering wheel. All controls are Toyota logical and well placed.
The cloth-wrapped bucket seats are mildly bolstered, though grippy two-tone fabrics effectively keep the driver in place. The seats lean to the firm side and were found to be supportive, however, the base on these standard power buckets would not lower enough. An average-height driver's eyes remain high on the windshield, with hair tickling the headliner, unless adopting a laid-back urban reclined cruise position. Workable, but surprising given the car's outwardly roomy appearance.
Access to the rear seats is superb, with a simple lever tilts and slides the front seat. However, once inside, the reclining rear bench is quite restrictive due to the curved roof shape. We estimate that it would be uncomfortable for a passenger much over five feet.
Interior storage up front includes a double-layer center console, lockable glove box, and large map pockets that are difficult to reach into. The large hatch provides easy access to the 12.8 cu ft cargo area, with a low lift over and wide opening. The rear seats split 60/40, folding forward, but not quite flat. The front passenger seat does fold forward, permitting an eight-foot object to be carried within the car. Close the doors to a satisfying thump, revealing the solid feel of the car and all its elements. While we may not favor the Elephant skin dash textures, there is no debating that this car feels very well constructed and devoid of overt cost-cutting measures common at this price point.
For a budget-minded compact, the tC comes with a solid roster of standard equipment, such as four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, driver's knee airbag, and first aid kit. A recommended $650 option, front seat-mounted side airbags and front/rear side curtain airbags are available.
While the xA and xB make do with anemic 1.8L/108-hp I-4 engines, the tC proudly packs an all-aluminum 2.4L four-cylinder with 160 horsepower and 163 lb-ft of torque. Certified as an Ultra Low Emission Vehilcle (ULEV) engine, this powerplant is the sole offering for the tC, and it can be paired with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. For those who want an even more potent Scion, a Toyota Racing Development (TRD) supercharger is available through dealers, elevating output to 200 horsepower.
At idle, we were a bit surprised at the droning engine sound, exacerbated by the optional TRD Performance Exhaust on our test car that contributed to the mechanical din. The grabby clutch on the five-speed models requires practice, but properly engaged, the car accelerates with verve. The torquey four-cylinder engine has true grunt to get the car rolling, where competitors have high-revving powerplants that sing more than dance. The notchy shifter has short throws, for quick, satisfying gear changes, and the optional chrome knob on our car was routinely scorching hot in the summer heat.
At a vigorous street pace, the tC is flat and predictable, delivering exactly the right dynamics for its target audience. The ride is firmer than other compacts, such as the Civic, and the steering is heavier. With its sporting demeanor, the tC still manages to retain good ride comfort with the standard wheel/tire package. Temptations to upgrade to 18-inch or, gulp, 19-inch wheels should be tempered by the knowledge that it would negatively impact both ride quality and straightline performance. When driving, the mechanical symphony is modest and keeps with the car's character, though wind and road noise is relatively non-existent.
Owning a Scion is about making a statement with the car choice and how it is later customized. Dealers offer a long roster of cosmetic and performance enhancements from both TRD and respected aftermarket companies, making it easy to purchase a tweaked ride and finance the entire cost, without later requiring a credit card to place an online order. Suspension, clutch, body kit, lighting, the whole works, makes ordering a tC much like building up a car in a "Need for Speed: Underground" video game.
Beyond the halo of Toyota's reputation, the Scion is covered by a standard 3-year/36,000-mile warranty, as well as a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain and 5-year/unlimited-mileage corrosion warranty. At 22/29 mpg, city/highway, the tC fuel economy trails similarly priced coupes, though few can rival the powertrain's immediacy. For the asking price, the tC offers a lot of car, quality, and features, though research has shown its five-year cost of ownership to be Average.
The heir to the Celica is a more complete and mature take on the sport compact segment, offering more torque, space, and dealer options. This is a boundary-pushing car at an affordable price point that will delight bargain shoppers.
Torquey I-4 Clever features Abundant personalization options
Chunky styling Headroom, f/r Elephant skin interior textures
The tC is an all-new car for Scion, with the only significant late addition being the optional TRD supercharger, good for 200 horsepower total.
A Scion is all about presence and personality, making the ground effects body kit an appealing addition at $995. Other cosmetics such as aluminum pedals, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and exhaust tip can affordably dress up the car further. A prudent choice would be the side and curtain airbags for $650.