What if there were a compact, fuel-efficient hot rod that also met California's stringent clean-air standards? What if you offered that car to the public at a starting price below $17,000 and loaded it with standard equipment, including a driver's knee air bag, a tire-pressure monitoring system and a dual-pane panoramic glass roof?
Ah, and what if the little thing also had something approaching good looks?
Would the public buy it?
Based on a week of driving Toyota Motor Corp.'s 2005 Scion tC coupe in the Washington metropolitan area, I say the answer is yes.
And for that, Toyota deserves congratulations. The company gets it. It understands what American automobile manufacturers and too many European car companies still have trouble comprehending: Not everyone in the United States wants a big car, big truck, minivan or sport-utility vehicle.
There are many of us living in congested urban centers, campus environments and rural towns who want and love small cars. We just don't want to be bored silly or made to feel that we are choosing third-best or worse, simply because we are choosing small.
Nor do we want to be identified with environmental fundamentalists who believe they have been ordained to dictate what we all should and should not buy.
We small-car lovers don't care if you own an SUV. We just want hip, hot, safe, well-equipped small cars at reasonable prices for ourselves, and that is what Toyota offers us in the front-wheel-drive, 2005 Scion tC coupe. Hallelujah!
I really had fun in this little car. The thing has zip. I drove the electronically controlled four-speed automatic, primarily because my wife, Mary Anne, wanted to drive the tC, too -- and, well, the woman has an inexplicable disdain for cars with manual transmissions.
A five-speed manual gearbox comes standard with the tC.
Anyway, Mary Anne and I both agreed that the tC is one of the best urban runners we've driven in a while. With its 2.4-liter, 16-valve, 160-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- which serves as the base engine in the mid-size Toyota Camry sedan -- the tC has more than enough oomph. That engine also provides a lot of torque for a small car -- a maximum of 163 foot-pounds at 4,000 revolutions per minute.
In short, you don't have to file an application to change lanes in the tC. Tap the accelerator. Response is immediate.
Mary Anne and I agreed the seats could be improved. They feel a bit hard to parents with three adult children. Younger behinds might feel more comfortable in those tC chairs. I used a portable cushion to ease the strain.
But overall ride and handling in the tC easily surpassed practically everything we've experienced in small cars, including our beloved 2002 Mini Cooper. That surprised us, considering that we paid about $3,000 more for our Mini. (Hmmm. Maybe we won't go back for another Mini after all.) The thing is this: Toyota did not cut corners in the tC. For example, the car has a first-rate suspension system with McPherson struts up front and an independent double-wishbone setup in the rear. Most small cars, with their inherently short wheelbases and all-too-often marginal suspensions, beat you up on the road, especially on poorly maintained streets. By comparison, even with its hard seats, the tC treats you like royalty.
That also goes for the interior materials and the overall design of the passenger cabin. Somewhere, probably in their accounting departments, many car companies got the idea that people who love small cars shop at dime stores for their home furnishing and interior decorating ideas. Thus, they routinely have given us small cars with tacky fabrics, the cheapest of plastics and the most tasteless of interior layouts. It is an insult.
But with the Scion tC, Toyota has chosen to honor instead of anger us. It has filled the tC's cabin with quality materials and fabrics often found in more expensive cars. There's even a really neat waterfall-type center instrument console that gives the cabin a sense of class.
We small-car people like that. We appreciate it. We will add this one to our shopping list.