The Scion tC is an affordably priced but thoroughly practical and well-equipped sport coupe. It benefits from Toyota's attention to quality, durability and reliability. The body panels fit tight and straight, and quality construction is evident. Interior materials are first-rate, and show attention to detail. The bucket seats are comfortable and there's enough room to suit tall drivers. A 160-watt stereo is standard.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine generates 161 horsepower and, with the optional automatic transmission, gets an EPA-rated 29 miles per gallon on the highway. It is quiet, smooth, and plenty powerful. Its steering, ride quality and handling are commendable. Its four-wheel disc brakes are powerful, and ABS and Electronic Brake-force Distribution come standard. A full array of airbags is available to enhance safety.
The Scion nameplate may represent Toyota's next-generation future, but in some ways the 2008 Scion tC brings a welcome blast from the past, when sport coupes were often regarded as a kind of blank canvas for personal expression. Factory options are few, but the tC offers an extensive menu of dealer-installed accessories that allow owners to build a tC unique to their tastes. There's even a stripped-down, extra-value-priced Spec Series model, with downgraded wheels and seats, just good enough to get you from the showroom floor to the tuner shop.
Scion tC Spec Series manual ($15,300); Spec Series automatic ($16,100); core series manual ($17,000); core series automatic ($17,800)
Most changed is the front end, where the headlight housings now contain three sharply defined separate lenses for high beams, projector-type low beams, and amber turn signals, all arranged in a subtle diagonal. The top and bottom grille textures no longer match, with a fussy diagonal-oval mesh up top that fades to solid at the sides; and horizontal slats down below. It's a bit busy to our eyes, and spoils the simplicity we admired in the previous design.
The diagonal three-element theme continues around back, where each smoke-gray taillight housing contains three small round lenses, the larger two of which overlap. As before, a thin, LED center stop light appears gray until it lights up; and the bottom edge of the bumper sports a prominent horizontal pout.
Otherwise the outside isn't much changed, and that's a good thing. Even the standard six-double-spoke alloy wheels are carried over from last year.
The doors are quite long for such a small car, and the door handles are of the reach-around-and-pull variety that we like. The long rear side window suggests a two-door sedan more than a hatchback coupe, and makes the design flow from front to rear gracefully. Wheel arches are exaggerated, suggesting that larger tires and wheels will be fitted as soon as the car is bought. (Or the buyer can opt for the 18- or 19-inch wheels from the dealer).
One of the most surprising bonuses the tC brings is its panoramic glass sunroof, designed without gaskets for a tight, no-creaks fit. It filters 97 percent of UV rays and 100 percent of infrared to avoid sunburned occupants. All of the body panels fit tight and straight, and quality flows from every pore.
The front bucket seats look and feel like they were designed for racing, but that doesn't mean to say they're too narrow or too hard. We found them very comfortable, with enough fore/aft adjustment to suit tall American drivers regardless of age (including our tall and, shall we say, experienced correspondent). The driver's and shotgun seats can be reclined all the way down into what Scion calls a sleep position.
The core model's rear seats recline through 10 stops and 45 degrees to convert the interior into a conversation bin. With seats up, there's more than 26 inches of cargo length there; with the second seats dropped, almost 60 inches; and with the front passenger seat folded over, almost 104 inches of cargo length available.
Attention to detail is evident in the mechanical seat position memory on the front bucket seats, the 60/40 split folding rear seat, the dead pedal for the driver's left foot, fully closing vents, and a cover for the stereo faceplate.
The three-pod instrument panel is amber-illuminated, deeply tunneled and easy to use, day or night, as are the balance of the instruments and controls. The metal-tone center console features a cast-aluminum temperature control dial flanked by soft-touch electronic buttons and an LCD display showing exterior temperature, seven fan speeds and a clock. Shutter-type flush-closing dash vents complement the center console's waterfall design.
The Pioneer single CD system that comes standard on all Scion tCs (even the Spec Series) features a user-customizable welcome screen, MP3 capability, four speakers and 160 watts. Sirius and XM Satellite Radio are optional.
The head unit allows iPod owners to listen to their tunes through the car speakers and to control song selection and read stored information through the head unit's display. Also standard (on core models) for 2008 is a Pioneer six-inch subwoofer with 35-watt maximum power, tuned specifically for the tC. This compact unit is mounted in the under-floor storage area, keeping it out of sight and leaving the cargo floor clear.
The optional premium audio adds the ability to download skins to play on the head unit's organic electroluminescent (OEL) faceplate. These so-called skins include images, four-second video clips, and eight-second movies from Pioneer's website. Pioneer software also allows customers to burn their own images and movies onto a CD and upload them onto the head unit.
The premium audio system comes with rear head unit outputs, allowing the addition of external amps to boost power to additional speakers and subwoofers. Scion claims that none of these modifications will affect the operation of head unit's standard features.
Both the standard and premium head units feature Scion Sound Processing (SSP), which allows listeners to choose from three pre-set equalizer settings; Automatic Sound Leveling (ASL); and Sound Retouch Technology (SRT), which provides clearer CD sound quality.
The 2.4-liter double overhead cam, 16-valve engine is tuned to 161 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque. This engine has been around Toyota in one form or another for many years, and it has been continuously improved for power, torque, quietness and reliability. It comes with electronic variable valve timing for good low-end torque, and twin balance shafts for smoothness. The tC is certified as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV).
Choosing between the five-speed manual and four-speed automatic involves tradeoffs. The automatic is easier and, because of how it is geared, more efficient. But the economy gearing of the four-speed automatic means it's not the hot setup for drag racing, with a maximum overall ratio of around 10.8:1. The five-speed manual offers quicker acceleration performance, with an overall ratio of nearly 15:1 for much quicker acceleration in first gear. However, the automatic does move out smartly. And it's obviously much easier to live with in the stop-and-go and slow-and-go, eliminating the need to exercise your left leg on the clutch pedal. Unlike most cars, the tC gets slightly better highway mileage with the automatic, again because the manual has a lower 4.235 axle ratio.
The steering, ride quality and overall handling of the Scion tC are commendable. Ride quality and stability are enhanced by its 106.3-inch wheelbase, longest in the class. It steers with a hefty touch, but accurate pointing, and transitions are easy and without drama. That's because the tC has a low-cost MacPherson strut front suspension coupled with an expensive independent double-wishbone rear suspension not found on many cars in this price class. Bridgestone Potenza tires are standard on core models.
The brakes are quite powerful for a car this light. The pedal feel and travel is very much to our liking, with almost no dead space at the top of the pedal travel. A two-step servo increases power assist in proportion to pedal force to provide precise pedal feel. The ventilated front and solid rear discs are generously sized (10.8 inches front, 10.6 inches rear) and, as mentioned, ABS and EBD come standard. ABS allows the driver to brake and steer in a panic braking situation; EBD automatically balances braking forces front to rear, improving stability under hard braking and helping reduce stopping distances.
The 2008 Scion tC delivers on the promise of stylish and sporty transportation at affordable prices. A long list of options and accessories let owners personalize it. The Spec Series model, particularly, offers a good foundation for owners who want to customize its appearance or increase its performance capabilities.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw is based in Dearborn, Michigan.