Though it came first, the front-wheel drive Scion tC plays second-fiddle these days to the hot, newin 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.
Cabin tech, or the lack thereof
The tC's standard cabin tech setup isn't bad at all, which is good because there aren't many options available.
At the center of the dashboard is a Pioneer touchscreen receiver that features a three-band EQ and three equalizer presets. Audio sources include Bluetooth audio streaming, USB with iPod connectivity, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, a single-slot CD player, and an AM/FM radio with HD Radio decoding. Missing from our example was any sort of satellite radio. I'm not a fan of satellite radio in the first place, so the omission was no big deal. However, if you are, there may be a dealer-installed solution to fill this gap.
Audio plays through an eight-speaker stereo system that is loud enough to overcome the road noise inherent to the Scion's cabin. Up front there's a tweeter, a midrange, and a woofer in each door, while in back you'll find two full range drivers. The three EQ presets offered by the Pioneer system are Normal, Hear, and Feel. I found that Hear was best for spoken-word programming such as sports radio, podcasts, and audio books, while the bass-heavy Feel was best for hip-hop, electronica, and any other thumpity-thumping tunes.
Bluetooth hands-free calling is also standard, however the Scion infotainment system doesn't support MAP text messaging. There are also no steering wheel controls for the hands-free calling or voice command, despite the presence of volume, skip, and cruise controls. So, you'll have to mess with the touchscreen to initiate, answer, or end a call -- not so great.
The receiver features a button for NAV, but that button doesn't actually do anything except bring up an error message unless you have the optional BeSpoke system equipped. We didn't.
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The BeSpoke system adds voice-activated GPS navigation and Aha app integration. Through the Aha app on a paired smartphone, users gain access to Internet radio, podcasts, audio books, social media (Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Trip Advisor), and location-based online destination search.
Safety tech is pretty much limited to airbags, stability control systems, and Toyota's Smart Stop unintentional-acceleration-prevention system, which prevents the car from accelerating if you stomp both the gas and brakes at the same time. There's no collision prevention or warnings and no blind-spot monitoring. Then again, what do you expect at this price point? I suppose I'd like the option to add a rear camera.
One of the best things about any Scion vehicle is the upgradeability. The stereo system uses standard double-DIN sized receiver and isn't deeply integrated with the rest of the vehicle's systems. So it's easy to yank out and replace with a better aftermarket setup. That's a rarity these days.
No, it's not the Scion FR-S, but that doesn't mean that the Scion tC is a lesser car. Judged within the constraints of its mission, the tC is a fantastic car. Drivers who are looking for an easily upgradeable vehicle will appreciate the use of standard-size car audio components and Toyota/Scion's encouragement of third-party parts manufacturers. Drivers looking for an inexpensive car that invests its budget into a flexible powertrain and a suspension setup that doesn't cut corners, rather than gee-whiz gadgetry, will appreciate that simplicity is the tC's strongest feature. New owners intimidated by the car-buying process will appreciate Scion's simple one-price, haggle-free pricing structure.
The 2014 tC starts at $19,695 for the manual transmission or $20,965 for our automatic shifting example. Our example arrived with no options, and the destination charges are built-in, so that's also our as-tested price.
You'll want to add $79 for the cargo cover, which we didn't have. There are also options for floor mats, exterior graphics, spoilers, and fog lights to customize your ride. TRD accessories such as exhaust and suspension upgrades can add moderate performance and styling upgrades. Scion also offers a variety of special editions as part of its Monogram, Scion10, and Release Series programs.
For CNET's purposes, the only option worth discussing is the $1,198 BeSpoke infotainment upgrade that adds voice-activated navigation and Aha app integration. For that sort of money, you can just pop the stock receiver out and add something better from the aftermarket -- such as a Pioneer AppRadio 3, which lets you simply use your phone to fill your media and navigation needs, and Pioneer's optional rear camera -- so shop around before checking that box on the dealer's order sheet.
|Model||2014 Scion tC|
|Powertrain||2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, direct injection, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 26 mpg combo|
|Observed fuel economy||24.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional BeSpoke navigation, not equipped|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, voice-activated|
|Digital audio sources||USB/iPod, Bluetooth audio, CD player, HD Radio, optional Aha app support|
|Audio system||Eight-speaker Pioneer audio, touchscreen|
|Price as tested||$20,965|