2011 Scion tC First Drive

2011 Scion tC First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (4)
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2011 Scion tC Hatchback

(2.5L 4-cyl. 6-speed Automatic)

Everything Matters

Sure, go ahead, throw the 2011 Scion tC into the next corner, but don't expect it to make a play for your emotions with spot-on steering feel. No, man, this isn't a Mini or a Mazda. Just like the original tC, the 2011 Scion tC is all about nailing the minutiae. Styling matters. Passenger space matters. Features matter. And Scion's trying to get it all under one roof for less than $20,000.

This is a tall order in 2010 money, but when the redesigned tC coupe-hatchback arrives at dealers this October, you'll be able to get it for $18,995 with a manual transmission or $19,995 with an automatic.

Of course that's $1,375 more than you had to pay for an automatic-equipped 2010 tC. But the 2011 Scion tC has more horsepower, two extra forward gears and a revamped suspension. This is progress, even though the car doesn't feel radically different from before.

More of the Same Is OK?
You might think Scion would try something radical with the tC redesign, though, because Toyota's smallest division is struggling.

Back in 2006, Scion sold 173,017 vehicles. That dropped to 113,848 in 2008. In the awful year of 2009, only 57,775 cars found homes, and this year, Scion is on pace to sell even fewer. The tC has seen the steepest drops of any Scion model, as sales fell from 40,980 in 2008 to 17,816 last year to 7,756 units in the first half of 2010.

Is it the economy, stupid? Probably, that's part of it. The median Scion tC buyer is only 26 years old, and we know plenty of people under 30 who aren't pulling down enough income to manage a car payment right now.

But you can't leave the cars out of it, either. Scion is supposed to show us the passionate side of Toyota. And though we've seen some risk-taking in the exterior design of these cars, this certainly hasn't happened in the performance department. The Scion tC is safe and predictable enough for your grandma to drive, and that shouldn't be.

Strong Motor, Smooth Automatic
Still, you and your granny will like the 2.5-liter four-cylinder in the 2011 Scion tC. Borrowed from the Camry, this engine looks good on paper. The 2.5-liter is rated at 180 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 173 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 — significant gains over the old 2.4-liter engine (161 hp, 162 lb-ft).

The goodness goes beyond that, though, as the engine delivers ample torque right off the line and retains its vigor and smoothness all the way up to its 6,300-rpm redline. There's even a bit of an exhaust note that gives the tC a hint of sportiness without entering the realm of the annoying. Of course, there's a louder TRD accessory exhaust. You can get an upgraded intake as well, but there won't be a supercharger at launch.

Of the two new transmissions, we prefer the six-speed automatic. It's quick with shifts in "D" (though considerably less so in Manual mode) and impressively smooth. The six-speed manual offers slightly shorter gearing, but the clutch take-up is a little vague and the pedals aren't set up especially well for heel-and-toe downshifts.

Fuel economy is the same (23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined) with either transmission, but the manual-shift tC is quicker, with a predicted 0-60-mph time of 7.6 seconds versus 8.3 seconds for the automatic version. This is right in line with the automatic Kia Forte Koup SX we tested (8.4 seconds), but slower than the Mazda 3 s (8.1 seconds). Notably, Scion does not count the Kia among the tC's key rivals, instead zeroing in on the Mazda, the Volkswagen Jetta and Golf, and the Mini Cooper.

Same Basic Chassis
The 2011 Scion tC is the same size as last year's model. It's still 174 inches long, it still rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, it's still 55.7 inches tall and it only weighs 100 pounds more (due to added standard equipment). Its track has been widened by an inch in front and 2 inches in back, mostly to make room for its newly standard 18-inch wheels and 225/45R18 91W Toyo Proxes all-season tires.

Suspension design is the same, too, as the tC shares its front struts and rear double wishbones with the European-market Avensis and Auris. We're told that compression damping has been increased, and that slightly higher-rate springs and thicker stabilizer bars have been fitted — all in the name of improved handling. Steering switches from hydraulic-assist to electric-assist in the name of fuel economy. The brake discs are larger in diameter, front and rear.

Getting down a back road in the 2011 tC is no problem, as the car doesn't fall all over itself with body roll or understeer. But that fun-to-drive thing is absent, as the car also doesn't really communicate with you.

Ride quality is about what you'd expect with 18s, which is to say tolerable but not optimal. Road noise is moderate. Scion tCs fitted with the 19-inch TRD accessory wheels ride a bit more harshly.

Good Seats, Lots of Features
We never cared for the thin seats in the original Scion tC, but the front seats in the 2011 model are immediately comfortable. They're an inch wider than before, the better to accommodate our American-size frame, and better shaped as well. The thick-rimmed, flat-bottom steering wheel might be a bit much if you have dainty hands, but the telescope adjustment certainly does help.

Scion carved out another inch of legroom in the backseat, and with an easy-entry feature on both front chairs, getting in back is no problem if you're of the 5-foot-10 persuasion.

Materials quality is nothing special, but Scions have never been standouts in this department. The standard features list has gotten a bit longer, though, as every Scion tC now comes with knee airbags for the driver and passenger. The panoramic sunroof remains standard, and for reasons we don't quite understand, Scion is offering three different audio head units. All have iPod integration, but the midrange Alpine unit gives you plug-and-play options for an aftermarket navigation system or back-up camera, while the high-line unit gives you a conventional built-in nav system.

Does This Formula Still Work?
Scion officials tell us, "The tC is our only dedicated model. It's the clearest representation of our DNA."

Therein lies the problem, because the 2011 Scion tC is a car without a singular mission. This coupe-hatchback has to do too much. It has to give equal priority to style, feature content and out-and-out affordability. There's just not enough money left in the budget to do anything very exciting with the car's chassis.

This reminds us why we're the writers and not the product planners. Had Scion asked us to redesign the tC, it would look like a 1987 Honda CRX and ride on 16-inch wheels. We'd have blown the budget tuning the chassis before we even got around to details like a panoramic sunroof, a deluxe sound system or knee airbags. But we digress.

It's in fashion to say that tech-savvy people in their 20s aren't interested in driving and that cars should cater to that lack of interest. But the not-very-sporty Scion tC hasn't sold well in years, so perhaps more of the same is not the answer. What's needed instead is a car with stronger character, a car that's all about the drive.

And we have it on good authority that such discussion is already happening at Scion. "The marketplace still demands fun, high-performance vehicles," says Jack Hollis, vice president of the Scion division. "Scion has positioned itself perfectly in that world with tuners and accessorization, and it would be great to top that off with a rear-wheel-drive application. It would probably have to be a car that was a little over $20,000, because I would want to make it such that it would be a car that was substantial for Scion."

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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