With a starting price of just $20,000, the Scion tC has always been an interesting option for college kids looking for a sporty – yet reliable – ride. I graduated college in 2003, which was the same year we started getting pictures and online buzz about this new, affordable coupe. The first generation tC went on sale as a 2004 model and at that time the base model cost only $17,670.
Although I was incredibly interested in this, I was a recent graduate looking for a good paying job with a mountain of student loan debt; for me a new car was still out of the question. That initial interest, though, has kept me a fan of the tC, and I’ve had the opportunity to drive many of them throughout the years. I’ve always enjoyed driving the car, especially when equipped with a manual transmission. Of course, now it’s 2015 and we have something called the FR-S as well. This is yet another affordable sports car from Scion but in the FR-S you get rear-wheel-drive and much more sporty dynamics. Our tC with all the TRD goodies attached came in at just over $25k and with the FR-S starting at $26k, why would you still want to buy the tC? Let’s give it a fair look – and some real seat time – with a trip to Houston and see what’s what.
The outside of this car hasn’t changed much in the past few years but it’s still a bold and aggressive look, especially when compared to the previous generation. If you’re judging it against Scion’s FR-S, though, the tC looks big and fat. The bulging fenders and big hatchback are a far cry from the sleek and stretched sheetmetal of the more sporty Scion.
The interior, like all Scion products, is very minimalistic; keeping the price low means using cheaper plastics and materials throughout the cabin. Although it’s not filled with leather-covered everything (or leather-covered anything…) it’s not horrible. The things you touch are typically good quality, like the beefy steering wheel and gear shifter.
One thing that definitely wasn’t great quality was the button added to change the interior’s lighting color. This makeshift button was placed on the center console area just behind the shifter, and it attaches to the plastic console with some double sided tape. In our Texas heat the adhesive just wasn’t holding up and the button flopped around the console being held by a thick bundle of wires. Obviously this could have been just a symptom of our tester vehicle being abused, but either way the implementation of this was definitely an afterthought not implemented well.
Under the hood of the tC is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine pushing 179 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque. This really isn’t a lot of power when compared to the FR-S; in that you get 200-hp in a much lighter overall vehicle. The saving grace for our tester was that this powertrain was matched up with a 6-speed manual transmission. This allowed you to have a little more fun with the car and really get the most out of the (relatively) weak numbers. This combination will also allow you to achieve 23-mpg city and 31-mpg highway. During our week we averaged just under 25-mpg total which was pretty good considering how much we tried to abuse the engine.
Our tC was packed with all the best goodies from TRD (Toyota Racing Development), making this one of the more aggressive setups you can get from a Scion dealer. Under the hood was a TRD intake giving the engine more air and power. This also gives you cool sucking sounds under the hood as you hear the air being sucked in and drawn faster into the engine. The car also had TRD red brake calipers for some extra stopping power. We also enjoyed the TRD exhaust, giving our Scion a deeper and more sporty sound.
I’m not sure on how much horsepower difference all these add-ons really make, but the tC was definitely a little more enjoyable because of them. Hearing the sucking of the intake and the growling of the exhaust makes you want to push the car more and more. Pulling from a dead stop and giving the car a quick shift into second will easily squeal the tires, and we all know the girls love it when us guys do things like that. The car also feels very composed and fun in the corners and having that beefy steering wheel with a flat bottom builds the appeal.
It’s not all about fun, though, and after a week I think I began to understand the car for what it was. I keep comparing it to the FR-S and of course the FR-S is a more sporty and fun car to buy – where the tC really shines is in the day-to-day driving and long road trips. In essence, the FR-S is a sports car and the tC is more of a Grand Touring car offered by Scion. Sure it’s not your big, muscular GT car but out of what Scion offers this is what I’d choose to take a road trip in. There’s plenty of space inside the cabin and in the hatch, it’s comfortable to be in for long periods of time and gets good gas mileage on the highway. And when you really need some fun the tC can be fun, too.
So, after a week with the car and a roundtrip to Houston I’m less confused on where this car fits. For me it’s not really trying to be a sports car to compete with the FR-S, and it simply won’t compete on that level. What it is, then: A great touring car able to take you on long hauls in comfort with good looks and lots of room for you and luggage. In short, it’s a budget GT. If you’re looking for a fun and always-on-the-edge sports car, you want the FR-S. If you’re looking for a good-looking coupe that will be good for day-to-day driving and still allow a little fun, then this tC is a great choice.