By Thane Peterson
The Good Peppy engine, legroom, hauling space with rear seats down
The Bad Road noise, lack of headroom
The Bottom Line A practical, fun-to-drive compact
SPECIAL REPORTCOLLEGE CARS
Scion: Third Time's the Charm
Chevy's Campus Cruiser
A Mazda for Youths (and You)
Jetta: All the Betta for the Young
Ford's Econobox Bargain
Impreza: Zip on the Cheap
Honda's New Civics Lap Detroit
Slide Show: Smart Cars for School
Until recently, Scion, the new car brand aimed at young buyers that Toyota launched nationally in 2004, hasn't exactly taken the college crowd by storm. The car's first two models -- the inexpensive little hatchback xA and the boxy, resolutely nerdy-looking xB -- may have strained too hard to be hip. But Scion's third model -- the two-door, front-wheel drive tC that came out last fall -- really hits the mark. In the seven months ended July 31, Toyota (TM) sold 42,767 of them (nearly half of total Scion sales) and the company says the median age of tC buyers was just 25, vs. 39 for the xA and 38 for the xB.
That's not surprising, because in many respects the tC has everything a college student -- and a college student's parents -- would want in a car. It starts at just $16,615, yet it's amazingly sporty for the price, especially with the five-speed manual transmission. The 2.4-liter, dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine is very quick, and the car comes loaded with standard features that appeal to young buyers, including sport-tuned suspension, a 160-watt Pioneer sound system, power windows and adjustable mirrors (though not seats), a power sunroof, air conditioning, and 17-in., six-spoke alloy wheels.
Numerous add-ons can be purchased separately to customize the tC in much the same way teens customize their cell phones. These include everything from custom gearshift knobs, oil caps, floor mats, and door sills, to amber or blue lights to illuminate the cupholders and dashboard. Another plus for college kids, who always seem to be hauling stuff or helping friends move in or out: With the rear seats down, the car has major hauling space.
BLAZING RED. Parents will approve of the tC because it's both economical and reasonably safe for a small car. It's rated at 22 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway, and the model's base price is only going up $200 when the very similar 2006 tC comes out this fall. There's not much data on it yet, but the tC is also likely to be highly reliable -- it's made by Toyota, after all -- and should do reasonably well in snow, given that it's front-wheel drive (though not as well as, say, an all-wheel drive Subaru Impreza).
Plus, it comes standard with lots of safety gear: Antilock brakes on all four wheels, driver and passenger front seat airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners, and a knee airbag for the driver. Consumer Reports and other safety advocates strongly recommend that you ante up for the side-seat bolster and curtain airbags that add considerably to any small car's safety in a side collision. It's a $650 option on the tC.
If you really want to get sporty, go for the limited edition Release Series 1.0 version of the car, which includes a shrieking "Absolute Red" paint job; bigger 18-in. spoked wheels; grill enhancements; special door sills and floor mats; and a badge showing which car you have in the series (my test model was No. 967 out of 2,500). I'm not sure it's worth the extra $1,775, though the car's bright red really stands out in a supermarket lot if you're prone to forgetting where you parked.
A FUN DRIVE. I'd guess that a big reason for the car's popularity is its cool, curvy styling. The rear end is squared off a bit, but the swooping roofline looks as if the designers drew the upper quarter of a large circle on a sheet of paper and used that as the basis for the tC's side profile. Despite the car's compact,ground-hugging design, there's lots of legroom in both front and back. Another plus for students: The vinyl interior with two-tone seats not only looks cool but cleans up with soap and water.
The tC is also a lot of fun to drive. It has a solid feel, holds the road well in the curves, and shifting is tight. Steering is more sluggish than in a rear-wheel-drive car, but acceptable. At low speeds the tC jumps forward when you hit the gas, and out on the highway there's plenty of oomph when you move into the passing lane.
Much as I like this car, I have to say there are several major negatives to its design. Road noise is considerable, especially at highway speeds. The controls aren't particularly intuitive, either -- you have to look in the manual to figure out how to do stuff like operate the heating and air conditioning.
TIGHT FIT. But by far the biggest downer is the tC's lack of headroom. I can't see how anyone over 6 feet tall could feel comfortable in this car. I'm 5' 10", and I found myself driving with the sunroof cover open to gain an extra couple of inches between the top of my head and the ceiling.
Still, it's lot of car for under $18,000. Maybe the bottom line on the tC should be: A great bargain...for anyone under six feet tall.
Used car alternative: Because the tC is in its first year, there aren't many used ones on the market yet. But you can pick up a 2001 or 2002 Toyota Corolla for $9,000 to $11,000 or so in the want ads or from a used car dealer.
A factory certified '01 or '02 Corolla, available only through Toyota dealers, will cost perhaps $12,000 to $14,000, but the cars have been thoroughly inspected, typically have fewer than 50,000 miles on them, are factory warranted up to 100,000 miles, and come with a free one-year, 24-hour roadside assistance program in case the battery goes dead or your kid locks the keys in the trunk. "You pay more, but you're getting peace of mind," says Norm Olson, who runs Toyota's certified used vehicle program.
The downsides of buying used: Side airbags and antilock brakes have been available as an option on Corolla since 1998, but it's hard to find a used one that has them because few buyers wanted to ante up the extra money. It's also hard to find the Corolla S -- the sporty version of the car that's fun to drive -- in the used market.
Peterson is a contributing correspondent for BusinessWeek Online