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Scion tC: sporting for the money

For less than $20,000, 2008 Toyota a zestful ride

Hard to believe, but it's been four model years since Toyota launched its Scion brand, aimed at the youth market. Heck, some of those early buyers must be nearing 30 by now.

The division first offered the xA model (a precursor to Honda's Fit or Nissan's Versa) and its distinctly boxy xB. The Scion division then introduced the tC coupe for 2005. Today's test car, the 2008 Scion tC, is different from that version, but not dramatically so (as the bulkier new xB is from its predecessor).

There's not much dickering over trim levels when it comes to buying a tC. The car comes with many standard features and at a base price of about $1,000 more than the 2006 I tested in 2005. One important change for the extra bucks is that impact airbags for the front, and overhead side curtains - front and rear - are now standard.

Horsepower remains the same, at 161, produced by a 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine linked to a five-speed manual transmission. It's a combo that gave us a reasonable 24.8 miles per gallon during testing. That's not bad considering that this is a high-rev engine tuned to let you know it is whistling to work at high rpms, even in the higher gears.

A four-speed automatic transmission is available, but that's like putting too much skim milk into a strong cup of good coffee.

No, fun is the appeal of a car for drivers who want to feel fast and furious, even as they commute within speed limits. The transmission does not have the tight clicks of far more expensive foreign models, but the gear-to-gear toss is easy to learn and tightens up if you cup the shifter with your hand facing the passenger side while upshifting, and cup it to face the driver on downshifts.

It's almost as though I'm writing about a high performance car here, but I'm not. The tC will not rocket at launch, but it's plenty quick out of corners with no hint of front-wheel-drive induced understeer.

The outside looks a bit more humped than the previous edition, but it still maintains a sharply sloping greenhouse of glass along each side. Snake-eye, projector headlamps and sporty, round taillights are also part of the new exterior package.

The inside is typically Toyota functional - easy to understand, easy in a tactile sense to use. The downpouring center control pod - with a sound system display screen that flashed me back to lava lamps - is a simple and modern touch.

The seating is a bit soft, but not as spongy beneath the thighs as more basic Toyota models.

Our model's base price of $17,000 got bumped to $19,961 with a $525 sport muffler (consider it an acoustic option), rear LED lights for $375, a $389 upgraded sound system with iPod capability, and XM satellite radio capability for $449.

Fun, zesty, and not really expensive, the tC is one of my favorite cars - and certainly my favorite Scion.

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