Many assumed that with the new FR-S hitting the dealers, it would only be a matter of time before the front-wheel-drive tC was sent out to pasture. However with an average buyer age of 28, the tC is isn’t just the youngest Toyota, it’s the youngest car in America. With demographics like that, product planners would be fools to kill off the tC and so the “two coupé strategy” was born. The last time we looked at the tC, the FR-S had yet to be born, this time the tC has been refreshed in the FR-S’ image. Which two door is right for you? Click past the jump, the answer might surprise you.
Let’s start with the nitty-gritty. Starting at $19,695 and barely climbing to $20,965, the tC is 25% cheaper than an FR-S. This pricing delta is why (in my mind) the tC’s sales numbers haven’t fallen since the FR-S was released with 2012 slightly above 2011. If you think of the tC as the budget FR-S alternative, the two-coupé strategy starts to make more sense. From dealers I have spoken with it seems to be working. Prospective buyers that can’t quite afford an FR-S or are having troubles justifying the cost to themselves have been looking at the less expensive tC.
With strategy in mind, Scion decided to remake the front-driver in the FR-S’ image. Wise choice since the FR-S is one of the best looking modern Toyota designs. Because hard points remain the same on this refresh, tweaks are limited to new bumper covers, headlamps, tail lamps and wheels. I think the tC’s new nose suits the coupé surprisingly well since most nose jobs range from peculiar to downright Frankenstein. Similarly, the new rear bumper cover fixed the 2013’s tall and flat rear bumper cover by breaking it up with a black panel and a non-functional triangular red lens. What’s the lens for? That’s anyone’s guess. To see how the two Scions stack up, check out my 5-second Photoshop mash-ups.
While some found the new clear tail lamps too “boy racer,” I think they work better on the tC and with the tC’s target demographic than the old units. As is obvious by the photos,the FR-S is quite low to the ground with a low slung cabin creating the low center of gravity it is known for. The tC on the other hand is mainstream economy coupé.
Since this is just a refresh, the tC’s major styling problem is still with us: the ginormous C-pillar and small rear window. Aside from my personal belief that the look is awkward, the shape has a serious impact on visibility creating large blindspots for the driver and not permitting rear passengers to see the scenery. The new tC’s new looks should be enough to get FR-S shoppers short on cash to give the tC a once-over before cross-shopping. Mission accomplished. Compared to the other FWD competition I rank the tC second, below the new Kia Forte Koup and above the somewhat bland Honda Civic.
Once inside the tC, FR-S shoppers are likely to be disappointed as there is very little FR-S inside Scion’s FWD coupé. Hard plastics in a mixture of black and charcoal hues continue to dominate the cabin, something I was OK with in 2011 because the competition was coated in hard polymer as well. Nearly three years later, the competition has upped the game with the 2013 Civic bringing soft injection molded dash parts to the segment followed by the 2014 Forte’s stylish new interior. It’s also worth noting that Scion continues to offer the tC in one interior color: black. Sticking with Scion’s model of streamlined inventory, all tCs have a standard dual-pane glass sunroof which is an interesting touch but I think I would trade it for upgraded materials.
Front seat comfort is strictly average in the tC. Front seats offer limited adjustibility and little lumbar support (the seats do not have an adjustable lumbar support feature). tC drivers sit in a more upright fashion than in the FR-S thanks to the tC’s overall taller proportions but thanks to that large C-pillar, visibility is worse than the low-slung FR-S. The tC’s rear seats are a different matter. At 34.5 inches, the tC sports nearly two inches more rear legroom than the Forte Koup (2013 numbers), four more than the Civic and five more than the FR-S. Combined with a surprising amount of headroom, it is possible to put four 6-foot tall adults in the tC for a reasonable amount of time. Thanks to the hatch back design and a trunk that’s 50% larger than the Civic and more than 110% larger than the FR-S, you can jam luggage for four in the back of the tC as well.
Infotainment & Gadgets
The only major change inside the tC is a new Pioneer head-unit. Instead of borrowing radios from Toyota, Scion has generally gone for consumer branded units that are designed for Scion but share nothing with the Toyota parts bin. The notable exception was the old Toyota derived navigation unit which was found in a few Scion models with an eye watering $2,250 price tag. For 2014 Scion is using a new Pioneer made system featuring 8-speakers, HD Radio, iDevice/USB integration and an integrated CD player. The software looks like a blend of Pioneer’s interface and something from Toyota’s new Entune systems. The over all look is less elegant and far more “aftermarket” than the well-integrated systems from Kia or even Honda’s funky dual-level system in the Civic. Sound quality however was excellent in the tC with well matched speakers and moderately high limits.
Should you feel particularly spendy, you can pay Scion $1,200 to add the “BeSpoke Premium Audio System” which is a fancy way of saying navigation software and smartphone app integration. Take my advice, spend your $1,200 on something else. The tC’s lack of infotainment bling is troubling since Scion positions themselves as a brand for the young. At 33 I’m still in the vicinity of the tCs target market (average age 28) and even to my elderly eyes, the entire Scion brand lags in this area. Yes, the idea is: buy an aftermarket radio and have it installed, but I can’t be the only one that wants a super-slick system with a large touchscreen, navigation and smartphone apps as the standard system. Anyone at Scion listening?
On the gadget front, the tC and the Civic are well matched but Kia’s new Forte is rumored to offer goodies like a backup camera, color LCD in the gauge cluster, dual-zone climate controls, push-button start, keyless entry, HID headlamps, power seats, etc. That leaves the Scion in an odd position having no factory options at all and competing only with relatively base models of the competition.
Drivetrain & Drive
The tC uses the same four-cylinder engine found under the hood of the Camry and RAV4. The 2.5L mill has lost 1 horsepower and 1 lb-ft for 2014 (for no apparent reason) dropping to 179HP at 6,000 RPM and 172 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 RPM. Sending power to the front wheels is a standard 6-speed close ratio manual transmission and an optional revised 6-speed automatic that now features throttle matched down-shifts. If those numbers sound healthy, they should. I have a preference toward engines “symmetrical” power numbers (HP and tq are nearly equal) as they usually provide a well-rounded driving experience. That is certainly true of the tC, especially when you compare it to the 2.0L engine in the FR-S.
Boo! Hiss! I know, it’s sacrilege to say anything less than positive about a direct-injection boxer engine, but let’s look at the fine print. The FR-S’ 200 ponies don’t start galloping until 7,000RPM, a grand higher than the Camry-sourced 2.5, but the real problem is the torque. The FR-S has only 151 lb-ft to play with and you have to wait until 6,600 RPM for them to arrive. That’s 2,600 RPM higher than the 2.5. This has a direct impact on the driveability and the character of the two coupés. The FR-S needs to be wound up to the stratosphere to make the most of the engine while the tC performs well at “normal” engine RPMs. Hill climbing and passing are the two areas where the difference in character is most obvious. The FR-S needs to drop a few gears in order to climb or pass while the tC can often stay in 6th. Sure, the FR-S sounds great when singing at 7-grand, but you’re not always on a majestic mountain highway, sometimes you’re just on the freeway in rush hour. Thanks to a lower curb weight and gearing differences, the FR-S ran to 60 in 6.7 seconds last time we tested it, 9/10ths faster than the tC.
Don’t mistake me, the FR-S has higher limits than the tC pulling more Gs in the corners and having a very neutral handling RWD nature while the tC plows like a John Deere in the corners. What might surprise you however is that despite the nose-heavy FWD nature of the tC, in stock form, at 8/10ths on a winding track, the FR-S is likely to pull away. Some of that has to do with the tC’s improved suspension and chassis for 2014, but plenty has to do with the stock rubber choice on the FR-S. Scion fits low-rolling-resistance tired to the RWD coupé in order to improve fuel economy AND to make the FR-S capable of tail-happy fun with only 151lb-ft of twist. When it comes to the hard numbers we don’t have a skidpad in the Northern California TTAC testing grounds so I’m going to have to refer to “Publication X’s” numbers: FR-S 0.87g, tC 0.84g. Say what? Yep. regardless of the publication the tC scores shockingly close to the FR-S in road holding. Surprised? I was. More on that later.
How about the competition? Let’s dive in. The Civic Si is a bit more hard-core. Available only with a manual transmission, a wide demographic has to be removed from the comparison. However those that like to row their own will find a FWD 6-speed manual transaxle that is, dare i say it, better than many RWD transmissions. The shift feel and clutch pedal are near perfection and the limited slip front differential helps the Civic on the track. In the real world there’s less daylight between the two however with essentially the same curb weight, equal torque numbers and only a 20HP lead by the Honda. The result is a Civic that ties in my mind with a better interior and better road manners but higher price tag ($22,515) and a loss of practicality when it comes to cargo and people hauling.
I’m going to gloss over the Golf because, as I learned on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other. How about the Hyundai Elantra Coupe? It’s considerably down on power (148 HP / 131 lb-ft), has a cheaper interior and handles like a damp noodle. If you’re wondering why the Elantra GT had to get its bones stiffened, the Elantra Coupé is why. How about the GT? Like the Golf, it’s not quite the same animal. Altima? Dead. Eclipse? Ditto. The Genesis plays with the FR-S and the other bigger boys which brings us to the oddly spelled Kia Forte Koup.
The 2014 Koup has yet to be driven, but based on our experiences with the 2013 Koup and the 2014 Forte 4-door sedan, I expect great things. Kia has announced the Koup will land with an optional 1.6L turbo engine good for 201 ponies and 195 lb-ft of twist. I expect the chassis and manual transmission to still be a step behind the Honda Civic Si, but the interior and gadget count on the Koup look class leading. Unless Kia gets the Koup all wrong, I expect it to slot in around 20-23K. I also expect it to lead my list.
That brings us full circle to the tCs fiercest competitor: its stable mate the FR-S. No matter how you slice it, the tC isn’t as good-looking. It may seat four with relative ease, but the interior isn’t as nice as the FR-S either. It delivers good fuel economy and is plenty of fun on the road, but the appeal of the tC is more pragmatic than emotional. Still, when the numbers are added up the tC delivers 75% of the FR-S’ looks, 85% of the handling and 90% of the performance for 78% of the price. Being the deal hound I am, that makes the tC the better Scion.
- Well priced
- Excellent handling (for a FWD car)
- Cheap plastics inside continue
- The steering isn’t as precise as the Civic Si.
- Lack of premium or tech options young buyers demand
Scion provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Specifications as Tested
0-30: 2.8 Seconds
0-60: 7.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.8 Seconds @ 89 MPH
Cabin Noise: 76db @ 50 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 29.6 MPG over 459 miles