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RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL

A good lesson for kids

Only gray heads may appreciate the youthful Scion tC for what it is: a steal.

September 01, 2004|DAN NEIL

Not since the Greek gods last convened on Mount Olympus to mock their own supplicants has a group been as drolly disaffected, cynical and wary as America's youth demographic.

So when Toyota announced two years ago it was going to spin off a brand called Scion in order to have a more "youth-oriented" presence in the market, it seemed a fool's errand -- something the Greeks perfected, incidentally. For starters, unless the youth in question had been prepping for the SATs, he or she would be unlikely even to know how to pronounce the word, much less what it means.

Meanwhile, the youth demographic -- 18 to 24, with time off for good behavior -- hates being marketed to, and hates subversive marketing even more thoroughly.

Scion's results have been demographically mixed: the neo-brand's viral ad campaign -- including the sponsorship of graphic art shows, new music showcases, and what might be called extreme car washes -- has gained surprising traction with Generation D (for digital), despite its pandering. But Scion has also proved a boon for boomers, and vice versa. In Los Angeles, it's stunning how many gray heads you see bobbing behind the wheel of the mad-boxy Scion xB. Just kickin' it, Cialis-style.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Scion price -- A car review in Wednesday's Highway 1 section gave an incorrect price for the Scion tC. The base price, including destination and delivery, is $16,465.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Scion price -- A car review that appeared in last week's Highway 1 section incorrectly gave a price of $15,950 for the Scion tC. The base price, including destination and delivery, is $16,465.

The explanation is simple: The older you get, the better the Scion proposition looks.

Which brings us to the Scion tC, the first all-new car in the Scion line to arrive in the States (the xA and xB are retreads of Japanese-market cars) and my new favorite car for under $20,000.

Quite a bit under 20 grand, in fact. Never mind that the tactile energy of the car -- the deep solidity in the car body, the silken actuation of the switches and damped compartment doors, the rich materials in the dash and upholstery -- makes it feel like a prenatal Lexus. Look beyond the quietly handsome styling, which is as effortless -- and ageless -- in its cool as the milk carton xB's styling is taunting and perverse.

Look, instead, at the price: $15,950, with a manual transmission, delivered. I don't know what kind of higher math was required to make the value equation come out so lopsided, but this car is a steal at that price.

Under the hood is a 160-horsepower 2.4-liter engine -- quite a bit more snort than anything in its class -- mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. I drove both versions of the car and in each the power was ample and eager, more than enough to wiggle the 3,000-pound tC through freeway traffic. This motor, also seen in the Camry, is under-stressed, which is to say, it's tuned well within its limits to improve durability (160 horsepower out of 2.4 liters isn't much coming from a Toyota power plant). Even so, this car is a little bumblebee. The rated torque of 163 pound-feet peaks at 4,200 rpm, but thanks to the variable-valve timing there seems to be plenty of pull nearly everywhere under 5,500 rpm.

At the corners are 17-inch alloys wrapped with Z-rated (high-performance) 245/45ZR-17 Bridgestone Potenzas. As wheel-and-tire packages go, this is BMW territory. These tires would make a lawn mower handle better, and when combined with the car's tensed and capable suspension (MacPherson struts in front and double-wishbones in the rear), the result is a little car with all the right hot-hatchback reflexes. The steering feedback in the compact leather wheel is heavy and true; the brakes, big discs at all four wheels, are modulated with ABS. This car is a hoot to drive.

And now we come to the matter of standard features, otherwise known in the car business as "content." The Scion's list is long and, if you are a competitor, appalling. On the outside, there are things like chrome exhaust tip, turn indicators on the outside mirrors and trick halogen headlights.

Overhead, there's a tilt/slide moon roof and a smaller fixed-glass sunroof over the rear seats.

Inside, the list includes power windows with express up-down function; air conditioning; power locks with remote keyless entry; sport bucket seats with adjustable thigh support and headrest; and a 160-watt, satellite radio-ready AM/FM/CD/MP3 Pioneer sound system with six speakers. Optional stereo upgrades include a Bazooka Mobile Audio subwoofer and a six-disc in-dash CD changer with satellite radio and multicolored display lighting. Amethyst, anyone?

The car also has quite a few safety bonuses, including driver's-side knee-level air bag, a tire-pressure monitoring system and a first-aid kit. (Front and side air bags and side-curtain air bags are a $650 option.)

Fold the hatchback's rear seats and the front passenger seat back down, and you create a huge cargo space. Think of it as a very small hotel room on cross-country trips.

The one-touch seat-forward mechanism on the driver's side allows easy access to the back seat; the seat returns to its previous position. The back seat -- with three seat-belt sets across it -- is roomy in every dimension but vertically: The sloped roof can't quite accommodate taller passengers.

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