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2011 Scion tC test drive

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2011 Scion tC front-left view

2011 Scion tC

Photo © Toyota

Scion introduced the tC coupe (which, technically, is actually a hatchback) into their lineup in 2005; for 2011, the Scion tC is essentially all new. I've never been a huge fan of the tC, but the new model brings a series of changes that just happen to address what I consider to be the old car's shortcomings. Is this the tC that will win me over? Read on. Price range $18,995 - $19,995 plus options, EPA fuel economy estimates 23 MPG city, 31 MPG highway.

First Glance: I've never liked you

Larger photos: Front - rear - all photos

If you poke around this web site a bit, you'll notice that I've never actually reviewed the Scion tC myself. Instead, I've farmed out my tC test drives to freelancers -- Bob Bowden in 2005, Jason Fogelson in 2006, and nobody else since.

This isn't because I never drove the tC; it's because I simply didn't like it. I thought it was a misfit in the Scion brand -- a handsome car, yes, but about as exciting to drive as a Toyota Camry. (Scion is a division of Toyota.) And yet the tC went on to become Scion's best-selling model, so I figured the problem must be me. After all, Scion is a youth-market brand, and I'm just too old. Bob and Jason weren't crazy about the tC either, but they're even older than I am.

Scion has introduced a new tC for 2011, and while I'm even older now than I was in 2005 (who isn't?), I like this new tC better than the old one. Of course, that's not saying much -- fact is, I like it, period.

At first glance, the new tC looks a lot like the old tC, but look more carefully and you'll see lots of differences in the details. The new tC was designed to look like a helmet with a visor, which explains the blacked-out windshield pillars. I can't imagine why anyone would design a car to look like a piece of protective headgear intended to prevent injury in vehicle crashes, but I do like the tC's new look, especially the funky (and vaguely Mustang-like) taillights.

Like the old tC, the new tC is available in a single trim level. A no-haggle price of $18,995 ($19,995 with automatic transmission) gets you a tC with power windows, mirrors and locks, air conditioning, butt-kicking stereo (link goes to photo), and a long list of standard safety equipment, including electronic stability control and knee airbags for both driver and front passenger. As with other Scion models, the new tC is available with a plethora of dealer-installed accessories, everything from big-brake kits to fancy shift knobs to stick-on carbon-fiber trim -- all designed to allow Scion owners to customize their cars and Scion dealers to maximize their profits.

In the Driver's Seat: Short on style, long on functionality

2011 Scion tC interior

tC's dash looks like a lake of black plastic; look closer and you'll see several different textures and a straightforward control layout

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

At first glance, the tC's interior is a lake of anonymous black plastic; a closer inspection reveals multiple textures, clear gauges and simple air conditioning controls. The centerpiece is the steering wheel, flat-bottomed like the Audi R8 and the Volkswagen GTI and with a rim as wide as Calista Flockhart's forearm. The front seats are a little light on thigh support, but extra-thick bolsters make them extra-comfortable. But the shape of the rear side windows creates a huge over-the-shoulder blind spot, and the side view mirrors are too small to compensate. I never did get comfortable changing lanes in the new tC.

I wasn't expecting much from the back seat, so I was surprised when I climbed back there to find decent leg- and headroom and even a little sunlight thanks to the tC's dual-pane sunroof. Another surprise is the trunk -- the tC is shaped like a coupe, but it's actually a hatchback. Pack it to the gills and you can stuff in 34.5 cubic feet of cargo, exactly three times as much as you can get into a Honda Civic coupe. Fold down the rear seats and you may as well sell your pickup truck. Too bad there's no cargo cover, though -- would-be thieves can peer down into the tC's rear window and see the contents of the cargo bay.

Stereos are a big deal in the Scion universe, and the tC offers three, all with eight speakers and an amplifier that boosts output to 300 watts or more. Maximum volume with my iPod wasn't as loud as I expected, but when I cranked up a bass-heavy CD, small birds began dropping out of the sky. My favorite of the three stereos is the optional Alpine unit, which has a big control dial, a touch-screen, and a clearly labeled "MUTE" button. My least favorite is the top-of-the-line navigation system. I never thought I'd want to see a stereo with more buttons, but with functions such as the equalizer buried several levels down in the touch-screen menu system, I worry about young, inexperienced drivers trying to program the stereo when they should be looking at the road. It's worth noting that the tC uses standard "double DIN"-size head units, rather than integrating the audio system into the dashboard, so owners can easily swap in a different stereo if they wish.

On the Road: Most improved player

The tC borrows its engine from the Toyota Camry; it's a 2.5 liter 4-cylinder that produces 180 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque. That's a lot of power for a car this size, although the tC isn't quite the drag-racer I was hoping for. The tC is available with either a manual or an automatic transmission, both with 6 speeds. I prefer the stick -- I'm a car nut, what did you expect? -- but automatic buyers don't miss out on much: Acceleration is only slightly slower (Toyota claims 0-60 in 7.6 seconds for the manual versus 8.3 for the auto), and the automatic has a manual mode, although it frequently overrides the driver. EPA fuel economy estimates for both transmissions are identical at 23 MPG city and 31 MPG highway. Not exactly stellar for a compact car, but that's the price you pay for a big engine.

My chief complaint about the old tC was that it drove like a Toyota -- competent, but not very exciting. The new tC has a wider track (distance between the wheels), new spring and shock rates, wider tires, bigger brakes, and electrically-assisted power steering -- and the changes make all the difference. Not only does the tC grip well, but in the corners, it actually shows some signs of life! It's not as involving as a Volkswagen GTI, but it does have some character -- something I really wasn't expecting from the tC.

I also wasn't expecting wind and tire noise, but the tC delivers both in droves. Actually, I was really surprised by how noisy the tC is -- I always thought Toyota engineers consider road noise to be a crime punishable by death. The Scion folks say young buyers don't care about road noise, because they always listen to music. (Good thing the tC's stereo is so loud.) As an old fogie in his late 30s, I wouldn't want to take a long-distance road trip in this car -- just half an hour on the highway in this thing gave me a headache.

Journey's End: Not that it matters...

2011 Scion tC rear-left view

2011 Scion tC

Photo © Toyota

I suppose my opinion of the 2011 Scion tC really doesn't matter. For one thing, the tC is designed for young men in their mid-20s. I'm pushing 40, which by Scion standards means I should be screaming at potential tC buyers to get the hell off my lawn. And then there's the fact that Scion has done an excellent a job of creating a culture around the brand name. By supporting everything from concerts to art shows to (of course) car clubs -- and by installing foundation-cracking stereos in all their cars -- Scion has created a channel of young fans who will probably buy the tC no matter how good (or bad) it is.

Regardless, my irrelevant opinion is a positive one. I like the new tC: It's got style, it's got safety, it's got character, and it's got value, and let's not forget that it's built to Toyota's world-class quality standards. Needless to say -- but I'm going to say it anyway -- the tC isn't the only fish in the sea, and my favorite alternative fish is the Kia Forte Koup, a solid, value-laden car that's handsome, good fun to drive, and offers a back seat on par with the tC's, although not nearly as much cargo space. The Forte's biggest problem is that it's a Kia, a brand name that doesn't have the same appeal as Scion.

And then there's Old Reliable, the two-door version of the Honda Civic. Now heading into its 5th year of production, the current-gen Civic still looks good, although it lacks the cutting-edge style and the long safety-equipment list of the Scion. What the Civic does offer is the hot-rod Si version, which is a hell of a lot more fun to drive than the tC, although the Si is about four grand more expensive than the Scion -- and if you're going to spend that kind of cash, you may as well look at the Volkswagen GTI, too.

Bottom line: Youth-marketing aside, the new Scion tC is a great little car that's enjoyable to drive and amazingly functional and practical for a two-door. If you're looking for a coupe that's young at heart -- and if you can stand the noise -- I highly recommend the new Scion tC. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

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