Though it came first, the front-wheel drive Scion tC plays second-fiddle these days to the hot, new Scion FR-S in the eyes of enthusiasts. Even I've asked myself, "Why would anyone even consider the boring old tC when the FR-S is sitting on the same lot for just a few bucks more?"
It turns out that the older sibling isn't without charms of her own. It's no sports car, but the coupe is very easy to live with and not at all a poor choice for a young driver, even if the FR-S is more appealing from a performance standpoint. If the measure of a car's "goodness" is how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do, then the 2014 Scion tC is probably the best kept secret under the Toyota Motor Company's banner.
What it is, and what it isn't
The 2014 Scion tC not a bad-looking car from any angle, and the new front end is angular and aggressive without being overly so. The blacked-out A pillar gives the tC the illusion of having wrap-around front glass when viewed from a distance. Despite a thick C-pillar and no rear camera, the tC offers pretty good 360-degree visibility. The tC is sporty in appearance and performance without going the extra mile and actually being a sports car.
That's not a knock against the tC. The coupe is still fun to drive when you're not racing the clock and offers a few advantages over the FR-S as a daily driver.
For starters, the tC is a coupe with back seats that you can fit two adults into. Legroom on the second row was plentiful with the front buckets adjusted for my 5-foot-10-inch frame, and backseat headroom isn't bad either. The tC also offers the flexibility of a hatchback, allowing owners to fold the front seats flat and fit long, bulky items, such as flat-packed Ikea furniture. Just remember to spec the optional cargo cover when you're at the Scion dealer. It's only $79 bucks, but it's worth it for the security of keeping prying eyes away from your stuff when parked.
I also appreciated that the tC is an inexpensive car, but not necessarily a cheap one. Hard, hollow plastic on the dashboard and a flimsy vinyl sunroof cover won't be fooling you into believing that this is anything but an economy car, but the fact that you get a dual-panel moonroof and a premium audio system (well, premium for this price point) as standard features are nice touches. Plus, as we'll soon see, Scion didn't cheap out on the construction of the chassis beneath the interior or the powertrain that motivates it.
Under the hood, you'll find Toyota's 2.5-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder engine, also known as the 2AR - FE. This mill is good for a stated 179 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque, which isn't bad for coupe with a curb weight of 3,124 pounds (for our automatic transmission-equipped model).
That engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that features a Sport/Manual shift program that never really gives the driver full control of the gearbox, but helps to make up for some of the shift programming vagueness and indecision when automatically selecting ratios. The tC is also available with your garden variety six-speed manual transmission.
The EPA estimates the tC will do 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway, with a combined average of 26 mpg. These numbers are identical whether you opt for the automatic or the manual transmission. I averaged 24.9 mpg over the course of a week that featured lots of stop-and-go traffic, quite a bit of the Sport transmission program, and a few hours of idling during photo and video shoots.
The tC offers great off-the-line acceleration and responsiveness with a healthy helping of midrange grunt. However, the powertrain runs out of steam near the upper reaches of the tachometer or the speedometer. In practice, this means that you've got a good amount of power on tap for city driving, but a simple highway speed pass will require a downshift -- usually down at least two gears. The automatic model's tendency to take command when in the "manual" shift mode, and its general indecision when hunting around for gear take it out of the running as my car of choice for any sort of autocrossing or amateur track day event, but the manual model (which I was unable to test) may fare better.
Between the thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed steering wheel and the 18-inch wheels is an electric power steering system. So the fingertip feel when piloting the tC around a corner isn't great. Thankfully, the vehicle still manages to feel responsive enough when changing lanes and dodging potholes, and light low-speed steering is welcome when guiding the tC into a parking space.
The tC uses a MacPherson strut front suspension with a double-wishbone rear setup. It's good to see that Scion didn't cheap out on the rear axle, even while its competitors often save money using torsion-beam rear setups on their budget compacts. The result is that this is one well-behaved front-driver with predictable and progressive handling. The ride is firm but controlled, especially over midturn bumps. It's difficult to get the tC out of sorts at sane speeds on public roads, and even then the standard traction and stability-control system won't let the vehicle get bent out of shape. The ride inspires confidence, even if it tends toward understeer as you approach its predictable limits.
After a week behind the wheel, the tC reminds me quite a bit of my old 2004 Acura RSX Type-S, only with better low-end, daily-drivable torque at the expense of the high-revving, high-power VTEC hijinx.