- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

As with many things automotive, Scion started in California.

It was deliberate. Japan’s Toyota, the purveyor of sensibility in cars, trucks and SUVs, decided it had to reach out to the young folks, the so-called Y generation. So it created a new brand called Scion, and stocked it with two funky models, the xA and xB.

The xA is a diminutive hatchback with a price tag ($12,965) to match. Its sibling, the xB at $14,165, is a small, tall wagon that looks a bit like a shoe box on wheels. Despite their limited reach, they did reasonably well, accounting for nearly 11,000 sales in 2003. In 24 states in 2004, sales have been averaging about 5,000 a month, the company says.

Now the Scion has gone nationwide, and Toyota is sweetening the lineup with a new hatchback coupe, the 2005 tC.

At first blush, the idea looks dicey. Small coupes recently have been about as popular as radishes in chocolate mousse, and Toyota itself had to deep-six an economy coupe, the Paseo, for lack of buyer interest. But spend a little time with the new tC and it begins not only to make sense, but also to spark a few stirrings in young bodies, especially those loosely described as “the tuner crowd.”

For one thing, it’s a whopping bang for the bucks. The sticker price is $16,465, including the destination charge. That’s for a fully equipped car with a five-speed manual gearbox. There are only two factory options — $800 for a four-speed automatic transmission and $650 for side air bags and side-curtain air bags.

The standard equipment includes an all-glass panorama roof, the front half of which opens to the sky; four-wheel disc brakes with antilock and electronic brake distribution; 17-inch alloy wheels; air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and locks with remote locking; a CD-equipped stereo that can be upgraded to handle XM satellite radio and MP3 players; cruise control; a height-adjustable driver’s seat, and even a first-aid kit.

The upholstery is a tough, knobby cloth. The front seat backs fold flat and the 10-position rear seat backs recline, creating a double chaise lounge for use while parked on the beach or elsewhere.

A Scion official, fooling no one, described the setup as “a very interesting conversation space.”

At least as interesting is the tC’s motivating force. Instead of the 108-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine that powers the xA and xB models, the tC gets a 160-horsepower 2.4-liter four-banger right out of the midsize Toyota Camry. That means the tC can scoot to 60 mph in about eight seconds.

That’s not quite sports car or sports sedan territory, but it means the tC should never be completely outclassed in the stoplight sprints.

Though it comes as a fully equipped car, the Japan-built tC does have plenty of accessories available — about 40 at introduction time. But they are of the performance and custom variety, installed either at the port of entry or by the dealer.

The idea is to get at the young folks who buy cars such as the 1995 Honda Civic coupe and trick them out with special wheels, aftermarket exhaust systems, spoilers and other appearance items, and roof-bending sound systems.

The test tC provided an example. Its post-production accessories included an in-dash six-disc CD changer at $395, a custom shift knob at $59, under-dash mood lighting at $279, a giant subwoofer for the stereo at $450, and carpeted floor mats at $110. They brought the sticker price up to $17,762.

For those who must have more muscle, a supercharger is available that boosts the horsepower to 200. Other performance items available from TRD (Toyota Racing Development) include stiffer shock absorbers, a kit for lowering the springs, a performance clutch, a sport muffler, a modification to shorten the throws on the manual shift linkage, and 18- or 19-inch wheels with high-performance tires.

Inside, the driver and front passenger are cosseted in firm and comfortable seats with side bolsters for lateral support. Headroom is somewhat limited by the sunroof, but at least the driver’s seat can be adjusted downward for taller occupants.

The surprise comes in the back seat. Because of the reclining seat backs and an elongated passenger compartment, a couple of 6-foot-tall adults can actually stretch out for a nap back there, with plenty of knee and head room, though their heads wind up located under the unyielding rear window.

With the seats up, there’s nominal cargo space out back, about 13 cubic feet. But access is through a hatch that opens high enough to keep the loader from head bumps, and the seat backs also fold forward to increase the cargo area.

The interior is typically Toyota, with high-quality materials and evidence of careful workmanship. Even the center storage console is padded to make a comfortable rest for the driver’s right elbow, and the back seat has large side pockets with cupholders.

In the face of some skepticism, Toyota officials say the Scion tC is profitable because they kept the costs down by starting with an existing platform — the European Toyota Avensis — and borrowed the engine from the Camry.

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