Not Exactly Too Cool for School, but Certainly Useful for It
Republished: 08/17/2010 (Original Date: 08/25/2010)
James Riswick, Automotive Editor
Before us stand a three-drawer Ikea dresser and a pair of narrow bookcases. They call for a pickup truck or an SUV, but at the moment, the only car available for moving this load of furniture is a 2011 Scion tC. This is the exact predicament college students and typically nomadic post-grad 20-somethings face every year or two when the time comes to move out of the dorm or yet another crappy apartment.
If they (or we) have a typical economy sedan or coupe like a Honda Civic or Kia Forte, all that stuff just isn't going to fit. But with the hatchback configuration of the new-generation tC, those designer pieces from the Akborg collection fit with a bit of finagling and the Tetris song playing in our heads. The next night, the tC's reclining backseat with surprisingly spacious legroom accommodates a pair of average-size dudes with a second pair of 6-footers up front.
Indeed, it's this versatility that makes the all-new 2011 Scion tC stand out from the economy car crowd. Oh, there are certainly other things going for it, but the tC's ability to be the only car you need while not cramping your style should remain its top selling point for the average tC buyer, who has a median age of 26, Scion tells us. Whether the new tC is different enough from the old car — and subsequently cool enough — is another story altogether.
The 2011 Scion tC can best be described as "urban agile," meaning a car that's responsive and involving enough to keep you entertained when comfortably commuting to class or heading out into town, but not so sporty that you'd really relish driving it in a rushed manner on a curvy back road somewhere. The steering is ultimately just too disconnected, and the car's knack for lift-throttle oversteer (when the throttle is lifted abruptly while cornering, the grip of the rear tires is affected) means the stability control has a tendency to frequently kick in when pushed. If you want a truly capable sport coupe with more communicative steering and legitimate handling talent, try the Kia Forte Koup SX, Mini Cooper or even the Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
Any youthful energy the tC may exude, however, is tarnished by the agricultural droning from its new 2.5-liter inline-4 gasoline engine, somehow reminiscent of a diesel attached to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Whether the culprit is the also-new six-speed automatic transmission or the exhaust system (distinctly not an aftermarket TRD part, we were told), the sound is not sporty and it gets tiresome with every throttle application around town and on the highway. (We later discovered that a tC equipped with the easy-shifting six-speed manual didn't suffer from this droning, making it not only the sportier choice, but the more pleasant one as well.)
Despite the new 180-horsepower engine's aural deficiencies, it is nevertheless superior to the 161-hp unit it replaces. The tC feels even punchier around town than it did before, and you certainly get a stronger jolt into your seat than you would in the Kia Forte Koup or the rather anemic Honda Civic. Track testing backed this up, with a 0-60 time of 8 seconds, which is about a half-second quicker than the Kia and the old tC and about 1.5 seconds quicker than the Honda.
The 2011 Scion tC's "urban agile" personality carries on inside as you drop into the surprisingly snug (and comfortable) front seats and grip the flat-bottomed steering wheel with its absurdly thick rim. One could argue that these are poseur items intended to make you (and your friends) think the tC is sportier than it actually is, but at least they're comfortable. They also add a bit of character, which is always welcome in inexpensive cars.
What isn't welcome is the tC's abundance of hard surfaces. A hard plastic dashboard is one thing, but slamming your elbows down on a rigid slab of an armrest is quite another. Its competitors treat you to at least some semblance of padding.
Yet what those competitors don't offer is a legitimately usable backseat. The tC's lengthy wheelbase affords expansive rear legroom (front legroom has improved for this new generation as well). Headroom is confined by the sloping rear glass, but if you recline the 60/40 split-folding backseat, even 6-footers can comfortably lounge without complaint. Black coating on the leading edge of that rear glass should in theory prevent their heads from roasting, but a tint job may not be a bad idea. A standard double-pane sunroof (the front section retracts over the fixed rear portion) adds a sense of openness to the tC's somewhat pillboxlike greenhouse.
We usually talk in this section about how easy (or frustrating) a vehicle's controls are to use, but for a car that caters to a tech-savvy younger buyer, a little bit of high-tech complication shouldn't be a problem as long as it reaps some sort of benefit.
Take the 2011 Scion tC's standard radio head unit, which would likely be an upgrade in similarly priced cars. Though a tad more complicated than usual, it is optimized for the standard iPod interface. Turning, nudging and pushing the large volume/selection knob calls up your various playlists, tracks, etc. onto a sizable display, which is none too different from using Apple's wonder gadget itself. Unfortunately, it must be plugged into the open center console, requiring you to secure it from the eyes of thieving campus hoodlums when parked.
Three pre-programmed sound settings (Natural, Feel and Hear) help you to quickly adapt the stereo to the varying sound quality of different digital music files. Though you still may want to upgrade the speakers, the tC's system is quite solid as far as cheap cars go. And it frankly has to be, given the immense amount of road noise that filters into the cabin.
Should you want something even more technologically advanced, though, the Double-DIN head unit can be swapped out for a pair of Alpine units (both with navigation capability) or an aftermarket device of your choosing.
As modern as the stereo is, though, the rest of the tC's controls could be deciphered by your grandmother. Just like in Gran's Corolla, three knobs operate the air-conditioning, there's a separate digital clock and stalks control the lights and wipers.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Scion tC might be inexpensive, but its interior still leaves much to be desired. All those hard surfaces, the way the interior door panel flexes whenever you lower the windows, the dearth of sound-deadening materials and even the clunk as the doors swing close add up to a car that feels far less substantial than equally (and lesser) priced cars. A Ford Fiesta, for instance, is a far nicer item.
The tC's driver-canted center stack looks kind of cool, though, in a vaguely 1980s sort of way. It could probably use a bit of the old tC's alloy-look trim to snaz it up a bit, though the optional seven-color interior light kit would at least make things a tad more interesting at night.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Scion tC is aimed at 20-somethings and college students, and for the most part it delivers as a surprisingly useful, affordable coupe that's an appealing alternative to the Honda Civic.
Yet we wonder whether 20-somethings will even notice this new tC, as it's hardly enough of a visual departure from the old car to be considered fresh and different, and thus cool in the fashion-conscious eyes of its target demographic. Because if it doesn't make you stand out from the crowd, it won't really matter how practical the tC is for moving dorm rooms or schlepping the boys around on a Saturday night.
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