Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
When it was introduced in 2004, our take on the 2005 Scion tC was simple. We thought it was a cool little car with excellent driving dynamics at a stellar price, a perfect combination to attract young, first-time buyers who never gave a second look at Toyota's more mainstream models.
Time marches on, however, and until the yet-to-be-released 2011 iQ urban commuter blooms, there's a bunch of stale fruit on the Scion family tree, and that includes this 2011 Scion tC.
Sure, the second-generation 2011 Scion tC received a wide array of significant improvements, all of which improve the car's acceleration, braking, handling, fuel-efficiency and safety. It's just that with all those new pieces, we expected it to drive like a completely different machine and it doesn't.
Improved Engine and Transmission
Among the upgrades on the 2011 Scion tC is a larger, more powerful and yet more efficient engine. Besides a host of friction-reducing measures, the long-stroke 2.5-liter engine features variable-length intake runners, variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust sides, and clever (intake charge) tumble control to promote cleaner, faster combustion.
All that technology helps to produce up to 180 horsepower and a stout 173 pound-feet of torque. It sounds more powerful, too, thanks to a slightly more aggressive intake/exhaust hum. Unless you're particularly annoyed by such things, it's actually a pretty subtle and tasteful accent.
Our test car featured the new six-speed automatic transmission, a significant step up from the previous four-speed. Unlike some other recent gears-o-plenty automatics, this one actually feels responsive to even minor driver inputs and offers some appropriately aggressive automatic downshifts under even moderate braking. Toyota says we were experiencing the car's ability to learn a driver's habits and adapt accordingly. The car must've reckoned we're a pretty sporty bunch.
We appreciate this kind of tuning because it avoids the usual cursing that so often accompanies either a request to squirt into an adjacent lane, or conversely, the expectation of some engine braking to slow slightly for moderate traffic or a slight descent. Rarely do you find such refinement in this segment.
Oddly, if you want to command your own shifts, there are no paddles/buttons on the steering wheel. Instead, there is a new +/- manual gate on the console shifter that's ironically slow to respond to prodding — and sadly does not offer matched-rev downshifts. Can't win 'em all.
As we've grown to expect, this sort of sporty, responsive transmission tuning usually gets sacrificed to eke out even a fractional improvement in fuel economy. Seems it wasn't the case with the 2011 Scion tC. While official EPA fuel economy figures have yet to be released, Toyota says the six-speed auto tC should earn 26 mpg in the "combined" rating, and we backed that up with our own 24 mpg average over 275 miles of mixed driving. That's good; not great economy, but still a 3-mpg improvement over the model it replaces.
At the test track, we likewise confirmed Toyota's estimate for acceleration. Without a 1-foot rollout, our 2011 tC ran to 60 mph in exactly 8 seconds on the way to a 16-second, 87-mph quarter-mile pass. Again, a good performance, and only a fraction of a second slower than the front-runners in the sport compact club. Upshifts at the 6,250-rpm redline are smooth, but our socks are still steadfastly on.
When we stand on the moderately firm brake pedal at 60 mph, the tC's new, larger disc brakes do a good job of stopping in the car in just 118 feet. And they do so without a bit of wander, minimal dive and barely measurable fade characteristics. The new ABS emergency brake assist also performs well, exhibiting none of the humming or buzzing we've witnessed in other cars.
Rounding the skid pad at 0.84g, the 2011 Scion tC would appear to have made some improvements in its chassis tuning and hardware. The new, larger tires/wheels plus the 1.3-inch-wider front and 2.1-inch-wider rear track have paid off, as anything above 0.80g is considered quite good in this segment. We learned a few more things, however, running through the slalom.
The first-gen tC was not equipped with electronic stability control (ESC) and was notorious for lift-throttle oversteer — a particularly bad habit if you're barreling down a mountain road and arrive at an unexpectedly tight turn. The not-so-good news is the 2011 tC also gets loose at the rear when you jump out of the throttle, but now with its higher grip levels it means it does so at an even higher rate of speed.
The good news is that ESC (and traction control) is now standard equipment, and ESC can only be shut off from a dead stop and after holding the defeat button for a good long time. There's not much of a need to, though. There's little to gain by removing the safety net, and the tC corners plenty fast as it is.
Sure, we recorded our best slalom passes at 64.4 mph with ESC off , but it was a handful. Left on, the tC ran the same course at 63.6 mph and it was easy.
Driving down the highway, the first thing a reasonably attentive driver would notice is how well the 2011 Scion tC damps the rough stuff. It's especially surprising given the car's P225/45R18 tires mounted on 18-inch aluminum wheels. With few exceptions, the 2011 tC retains very comfortable ride characteristics.
The new electric-assist power steering, however, has a very narrow (almost nonexistent) on-center dead spot with little resistance even at highway speeds. The result is that we found ourselves chasing the car down an arrow-straight freeway with nearly continual steering input. Maybe it was just the way the Toyo Proxes A20 tires tracked the grooves in our local highways, or maybe we just like to drive in a very straight line. Either way, it was annoying.
The tC's entire dashboard, instrument panel and center stack are also new, but unless you remember the previous car, you would scarcely think so. The design is what we'd call traditional, with big HVAC knobs and logical placement of other controls. The standard 160-watt Pioneer audio system and its eight speakers sound better than most cars at this price point and the innovative head unit is only slightly challenging to learn.
Access to the rear seats has been made easier now that the front seats feature release levers so both seats slide forward in one, easy motion. Passenger space in back is reasonable by coupe standards save the head-knocking rear glass typical of fastback designs.
And Yet, Nothing Ventured...
While Toyota obviously went to all the trouble and expense of adding significant "newness" to its five-year-old Scion, it should've worked harder to resurrect the thing that made the original tC so appealing.
Rather than carving out another new niche with tC version 2.0, what we got is more like a version 1.2 software update that brings it up to current standards. There are obvious upgrades over the previous model, but there's not much in the innovation department, certainly nothing that will make any of its competitors cringe.
If this were just another Toyota, we wouldn't think twice about it. But this is Scion. It's supposed to do things differently, and the 2011 Scion tC doesn't.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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