Editor’s note: This review was written in August 2010 about the 2011 Scion tC. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Sometimes it takes a redesign to remind you just how good a car’s previous generation had been: the inaugural Ford Mustang, the E39 BMW 5 Series, the first Dodge SRT4.
Apropos of that, witness the passing of the original Scion tC, a car that brought premium features and unlikely cabin quality to a segment known for neither. With the redesigned tC set to hit dealerships this October, parent company Toyota traded much of that for a package that’s high on style and low on substance. Hold vigils if you must.
The two-door 2011 Scion tC boasts a fresh look, generous room and an improved drivetrain, but cabin quality is just barely competitive — a few steps down from the class-leading original.
Available in one trim with most optional features installed as dealer accessories, the front-wheel-drive tC coupe comes with a four-cylinder engine and a manual or automatic transmission. Click here to compare it to the 2010 tC. I drove both versions at a media preview in California.
The new tC still looks like a tC, so much so that one journalist asked why Toyota didn’t update the styling more. I’m not sure the automaker needed to. The exterior is more mature, with an angular sweep to the taillights that emulates a lot of cars from Toyota’s Lexus luxury division. The A-pillars are now black, creating the illusion of a wraparound windshield — a “helmet” look derived from Scion’s Fuse concept shown at the 2006 New York International Auto Show. (The helmets are marching: Several cars, from the Chevrolet Corvette to the 2011 Ford Explorer, also employ this visual trick.)
With underpinnings from Europe’s third-generation Toyota Avensis — and its platform sibling sold on our shores, the Lexus HS 250h — the new tC is 1.6 inches wider than the 2010. Length and wheelbase remain unchanged, so the new dimensions make for a more grounded look.
The taillights are straight off a BMW 1 Series. That’s not a bad car to emulate, given that some tC buyers likely see themselves in a 135i a few job promotions down the road. Mirror-integrated turn signals, something the prior tC featured, are still standard, and the standard wheels move to 18-inch alloys, up from last year’s 17-inchers. There still isn’t a rear wiper, which a proper hatchback ought to have, but its absence makes for a cleaner rear deck. Form beats function, and saves some coin, too.
As with all Scions, the full slate of available accessories includes fog lights, faux carbon-fiber B-pillars, additional Scion insignia, 19-inch wheels and a rear spoiler. The spoiler is worth getting; the car’s stubby tail drops off abruptly without it. Most of these are dealer-installed, which makes it easier to outfit the car to suit your tastes.
A new 180-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder teams with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It provides palpably more get-up-and-go than the outgoing 161-hp tC, but it’s not a seismic difference in the style of, say, the 2011 Ford Mustang’s V-6 changeover.
The tC moves out quickly enough, with adequate low-end torque to scoot around slower traffic without needing to downshift. But it won’t fool anyone about having two more cylinders or any sort of forced induction. Speaking of which: The last tC offered a supercharger from Toyota Racing Development that bumped engine output to 200 hp. Scion Vice President Jack Hollis said the brand is working with TRD on such upgrades, but it’s not available as of now. Feh.
Both transmissions work well. The six-speed manual has medium throws and accurate, easy-to-park gates. The brake and accelerator are close enough to manage heel-and-toe shifting, but the engine revs take a few moments to fall — a move to reduce emissions and avoid throttle-back lurches, chief engineer Masayuki Nagai told me. Perhaps, but the programming will be a bane to anyone who likes slamming off rev-matched downshifts.
The optional six-speed automatic upshifts smoothly and kicks down a gear or two with little delay. Uphill stretches require minimal gear hunting, and downhill coasting can induce a proactive downshift or two. Bravo. Some of Toyota’s recent automatics have turned out as lazy as a “Jersey Shore” cast member. The tC isn’t among them.
Scion says the tC hits 60 mph in 7.6 seconds with the manual and 8.3 seconds with the automatic — decreases of 0.6 and 0.8 seconds, respectively, versus the 2010 tC (manual and automatic). Better yet, the drivetrains are both EPA-rated at 23/31 mpg city/highway. That’s an increase of 2 to 3 mpg over the last tC, depending on transmission, and its combined rating matches the 2.4-liter Kia Forte Koup. The 1.8-liter Honda Civic coupe is a bit more efficient, but the tC is quicker.
The standard four-wheel-independent suspension employs thicker stabilizer bars than before. Nagai characterized its tuning as “much more firm” than the last tC’s. Throw in the standard — and thin — 45-series tires, and the coupe rides rough, plain and simple. On all but the smoothest interstates, the car takes on a din of up-and-down vibrations. Expansion joints and broken pavement disrupt things even more. Add to that the considerable road noise emanating from our tester’s Yokohama Avid S34 tires, and the tC doesn’t make a good road-trip choice. As a segment, sporty front-drive cars tend to bear some of these characteristics, but competitors from the Forte Koup to the Volkswagen Golf do a better job damping out the worst disruptions and settling in on the highway.
The handling is good, though perhaps not enough to justify the brittle ride. The tC avoids the predominant nose-heavy push that some front-drive cars display, and on curvy roads it corners reasonably flat. The steering wheel exhibits decent turn-in precision and weighty, slop-free motions. At low speeds it operates with light effort, gradually firming up with speed. On the highway, the tC tracks remarkably well — there’s a secure on-center feel with minimal corrections.
The standard four-wheel-disc brakes are larger for 2011; antilock braking is standard. It seems to take a half-inch of pedal travel before the hydraulics engage, but deceleration is linear and strong thereafter.
From a styling standpoint, the cabin is a hit, but quality is another issue — and I have a Triple Whopper’s worth of beef with it.
The design looks good. Wraparound surfaces create a more driver-centric cockpit, with a meaty three-spoke steering wheel and leftward-tilting center controls. The last tC had a waterfall center stack lined with silver plastic. The new dash’s black-heavy scheme should appeal to anyone who didn’t like the silver; the horizontal layout feels both contemporary and cohesive.
But then there’s the quality issue. The first-generation tC had outstanding amenities for a car of its price: padded surfaces in all the important areas; a nice grade of headliner that extended, like in luxury cars, down the window pillars; elegant digital climate controls; chrome door handles; and power windows with one-touch up/down operation.
Gone, all of it. Drive with your hands at 9 and 3 o’clock, and your elbow will perch on rock-hard upper door panels. A ragtag headliner meets plastic window pillars, and the climate controls employ Corolla & Co.’s shoddy knobs. The power windows now provide express-down operation for the driver only, and the door handles are plain black. The glove compartment clatters open without any damping. The center armrest is a sheet of hard plastic. The sum of it all is barely competitive, and in a few years, leapfrogging competitors will drive that point home.
The standard CD stereo includes iPod integration and eight speakers. It cranks out OK sound, and the head unit resides in an old-school, boxed dash cutout, which allows for easy upgrades. I’m not so wild about the layout. With a sea of tiny buttons and a confusing multifunction volume/tuning knob, it looks straight out of an electronics store. Some may dig the aftermarket look, but I don’t: I’ve always found an aftermarket stereo to be a choice based on necessity — adding features your stock unit lacks — not aesthetics.
The cloth seats, at least, are supportive and accommodating. Headroom and legroom increase a bit for the front seats; with the driver’s seat raised all the way, I ran out of headroom below the standard panoramic moonroof (I’m 5-foot-11). New for 2011 is a telescoping steering wheel that should help more drivers find a comfortable fit. Leather upholstery isn’t available, but there’s no shortage of aftermarket seat makers that can resolve that. Scion markets a customized Release Series edition for every model each year, and Hollis said the brand is mulling factory leather — a first — in a forthcoming tC RS.
Legroom is up a full inch in the backseat, and the resulting room is far more generous than you’ll find in most coupe competitors. The 60/40-split seatback reclines independently a few degrees on each side, so adults should have no problem sitting back there. With little in the way of a center floor hump, three could even fit — which, thanks to a center seat belt, the tC allows.
Cargo volume behind the rear seats is an impressive 14.7 cubic feet. That’s up nearly 2 cubic feet versus the old tC, and it falls somewhere between coupe competitors like the Civic and Forte and more upright hatchbacks like the Golf. Fold the rear seats down, and the tC offers a maximum 34.5 cubic feet.
As of this writing, the 2011 tC has not yet been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include eight airbags, an electronic stability system, antilock brakes, a brake override system and active front head restraints. Click here for a full list.
Stick-shift models start at $18,275, with the automatic running $19,275. That represents an increase of $1,175 to $1,375 over the 2010 tC, depending on transmission. Chalk up the extra cash to (mostly) the roomier interior, larger wheels, extra power and new stability system. Like before, a panoramic moonroof, iPod-compatible stereo with steering-wheel audio controls, power windows and locks, remote entry, air conditioning and cruise control are standard.
Optional accessories include an upgraded Alpine stereo, a navigation system and satellite radio. The navigation system allows for Bluetooth connectivity, including Bluetooth streaming audio — a fast-expanding feature that allows you to play music wirelessly from your smart phone. The long list of extras runs the gamut. Performance items include larger brakes and a lowered suspension, while cosmetic accessories run from an interior lighting kit to lower body graphics. As of right now, pricing for the tC’s accessories is pending, but the outgoing tC offered more than $15,000 worth of accessories.
Scion says the average tC buyer is just 26 years old. That’s younger than buyers of the brand’s xB and xD hatchbacks. Scion says the tC represents an “aspirational car” for its clientele. The redesign looks the part, but the cabin falls short — and the car’s road noise and firm ride may have some drivers aspiring to reach their destination so they can get the hell out.
Once the brand’s most popular model, the tC will probably reach that mark again on looks and power alone. But with fresh competition in the compact segment — from Kia to Ford to Honda — Scion’s latest model faces an uphill battle to maintain its draw. If you’re shopping for one, check out the competition. Then check out an old tC. You might come away surprised.