Scion tC: Honey, they shrunk the fun!

July 3, 2008, 8:40 PM UTC

The words “Toyota” and “fun” are natural opposites, like “government” and “intelligence.” Toyota cars are well-made, durable, sensible, economical – but seldom whimsical, engaging, or thrilling.

So it is with the Scion tC sport coupe that I borrowed for a weekend’s driving. In

logging more than 150 miles on a combination of highways and back country roads, it never failed to perform reliably. But by the time Sunday evening came around, I felt like our relationship had run its course. There was nothing more that I could learn from the tC.

Admittedly, I could be in the minority here. After all, I’m hardly part of Scion’s target audience. The brand is aimed at much younger buyers and it has been successful at luring them into the Toyota (TM) tent. What’s more, the tC continues to sell briskly after three years on the market – a remarkable achievement in this fashion-conscious segment where popularity has a half-life of 18 months.

Based on its specifications alone, the tC is appealing. It has a big-for-its-class, 2.4 liter engine and a sporty five-speed manual transmission. Now that skyrocketing prices have made us all more conscious of fuel-efficiency, the 20 mpg city (27 mpg highway) is highly appealing. And I have no complaints about the price: $17,000 stripped; $19,661 as tested.

But while the tC should have been a gas to drive, the the fancy graphic display that greeted me when I turned on the sound system didn’t translate into dynamic appeal. The tC didn’t feel particularly quick off the line and, even though my car was equipped with the optional sport muffler ($171), its exhaust note was surprisingly subdued. The front-wheel drive platform, while perfectly competent, isn’t likely to make anybody give up their BMW 1-series. I’d take a hard look at the Honda Civic (HMC) or the more expensive Mini Cooper if I were shopping in this category for a car with more pizzazz.

And there is something else. Friends often ask me what kind of car they should get their teenage children. In theory, the tC would be at the top of the list. Its classic looks will last for years, its Toyota heritage makes it hard to break, and it should have good resale value. But since teen drivers often make mistakes, they should be driving cars that help keep them out of trouble. That means, according to David Champion, the ace car tester at Consumer Reports, young drivers need electronic stability control to keep their car on the road if they go through a turn a little too quickly, and side curtain airbags in case they lose control. The tC has the airbags, but, surprisingly, not the stability control – either as standard equipment or an option.

Whether Toyota will update the tC in a couple of years, or replace it with something else, is unclear given Scion’s unconventional product cycles. Whichever it is, let’s hope that the next version is a little safer – and a little more fun.