Review: 2011 Scion tC 6MT

By Chris Haak

“Why do the people in front of me have to drive so slowly?” “Why did they have to paint over the passing zones on this road?” And most importantly, “why is that BMW so close to my tail when my speed is limited by the speed of the cars in front of me on this back road?”

These are the questions that I pondered one morning as I commuted to the office in a new Scion tC.  I assumed that the BMW behind me was perhaps a 2011 5 Series.  It surely couldn’t be more than a 535i, and though I knew that he most likely had a power advantage over my 180-horsepower Scion, I knew the road well, and wasn’t in the mood to tolerate someone riding my bumper like that.  And why was he doing it?  Was it because this Scion had the dealer-installed TRD Sport Muffler, and therefore had a bit of a tuner car’s bark (including burbles when lifting the throttle)?  Who knows.

The first of two slow sedans turned off the road, leaving just one car between me and an open road, with the mysterious BMW still 20 feet off my rear bumper.  Finally, the passing zone arrived.  I hit the turn signal, checked my mirrors, and passed the slowpoke.  My unwelcome companion stayed on my bumper and passed the car as well.  Soon, I was upon another car, and fortunately, had another passing zone.  I passed that car, as did my companion with the angel eye headlights.  Eventually, both I and the BMW driver turned onto an expressway.

I found an opening in the traffic flow and safely merged into the highway’s traffic flow.  In my mirror, I watched my antagonist off a hapless motorist just so he wouldn’t have to slow down at the end of the entrance ramp.  Nice guy.  Done playing amid the heavy traffic, I settled in with the flow.  The hyper-aggressive BMW driver passed me on the right, and at that point, I realized why he was so anxious to pass me on the two lane:  it wasn’t a 5 Series.  It was a rare 500-horsepower 2011 Alpina B7, with New Jersey manufacturer plates on it.  He was driving a car that wanted to stretch its legs.  I guess you can’t really blame the guy.

But enough about the Alpina B7.  Scion’s tC, which has been Scion’s best-selling (and probably best-looking) model in recent years, underwent an extensive update for 2011.  The redesign was fairly conservative and far less dramatic than, for instance, the move from the first-generation xB to the second-generation, American-sized xB.  However, Scion’s designers still did a solid job of bestowing the tC with a bit more of the Scion family look, and tweaking a few things to add visual interest to the car, such as the shape of the C-pillars.

The 2011 tC continues the formula established by the first-generation car.  It’s a coupe with a hatch, though that hatch is styled to look like a conventional decklid opening.  The wheels are pushed toward the car’s corners, and particularly the rear wheels.  Overhang is minimal, and the result is a bobtail look that works reasonably well for the tC.  The other part of the original formula that’s still adhered to is large standard alloy wheels, an all-glass roof, a Pioneer stereo system, and all basic comfort and convenience items (air conditioning, stereo, power windows and locks, keyless entry, etc.) standard.  Scion then hopes that you’ll spend hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars at your dealer adding Toyota-endorsed accessories such as body wraps, wheel upgrades, “big brakes,” wings, spoilers, lighting, air dams, ground effects, bigger stereos, new seats, tinted glass, , low-restriction exhaust, and more.  A supercharger was on offer for the previous tC, and there have been rumblings that one may appear at some point for the new car as well.

As mentioned earlier, my tester had the dealer-installed TRD Sport Muffler, a $525 option.  It didn’t have any other dealer-installed accessories, but that didn’t stop family members from calling me “Fast and the Furious” and various more offensive names.  Because of scheduling, I didn’t have the chance to drive the tC as much as I would have liked to, so against my wife’s better judgment, we put our two sons and their Britax Marathon seats into the tC’s back seat (for what it’s worth, I found it easier to put the seats into the car from an open rear hatch, overthe top of the back seat) for a trip to brunch.  I had my sons climb into the back seat using the more conventional path, behind folded front seats.  Parents, take note:  the tC’s LATCH anchors were easy to find and fit the Marathon’s large buckles.

Already knowing that the trip wouldn’t be as comfortable for them as a ride in their nice, cushy Sienna Limited, I told the boys that it would be an adventure.  There was plenty of room in the back seat for the car seats (they’re both forward-facing, at ages 3 and 5), and the only problem was that the seats were only about six inches apart, which meant lots of poking and pestering between them that doesn’t happen in the more cavernous van.  They didn’t really mind riding in the back seat of the tC, and found that they could see out of the small side windows more easily than they could in the last two door that I loaded them into, a Dodge Challenger SRT8.

They and my wife both complained about the exhaust noise from the TRD Sport Muffler.  It does drone at highway speeds; sixth gear at 70 miles per hour spins the engine around 3,000 RPM, and every throttle application meant a new report from the muffler.  Lots of bark, but not necessarily a lot of bite.  I’m not sure that anyone expects much more from a 180-horsepower, 173 lb-ft four (shared with the larger, heavier Camry).  The 2.5 liter engine pulled about as well as 180 horsepower and 3,000 pounds would be expected to, and torque steer was not an issue.  With more power than 180, it might be.

Inside, there’s a lot of hard plastic, and the headliner is fur-covered cardboard, with no real pretense of being anything but that.  The dash, at least, is molded in low-gloss black plastic, so it doesn’t look quite as cheap as it feels.  The Pioneer double DIN head unit had XM Satellite Radio capability and sounded OK, but I found its operation to be non-intuitive.  For instance, the power button is a tiny Tic Tac-sized one on the top-left corner of the faceplate, but my instinct was to press the volume knob instead.  The volume knob doubles as a joystick, so to tune, you move it laterally.  Two knobs – one for volume/power, one for tuning – is such a simple, elegant solution that I wish Pioneer had employed it in the Scion’s head unit.

Switchgear isn’t exactly Lexus-grade, with low-buck manual adjustment knobs on the HVAC controls shared with the Corolla and other inexpensive Toyota vehicles.  They were easy to use and easy to reach, though, and did an effective job of controlling the temperature inside the tC.

I’ve always found it interesting to look at where car manufacturers spend money, and where they don’t, in a new vehicle.  Not everything in a $20,000 car can be top-notch, so Toyota had to decide what’s going to be important to most potential tC buyers, and what is not.  To that end, they spent bucks on the glass roof, alloy wheels, Pioneer stereo, engine, and steering wheel.  Everything else is basically Corolla LE-spec.  If you’re looking for a $20,000 car with soft-touch plastics, you’re probably not going to find one with a glass roof, 2.5 liter engine, and alloy wheels.

The steering wheel was a smart thing to spend some cash on, considering it’s [theoretically] in the driver’s hand the entire time that the car is being driven, assuming the driver isn’t using his or her knees to steer in traffic while yapping on a cell phone.  In the tC, it’s leather-wrapped, with a thick rim and small diameter, and has a flat bottom that one might find in an Audi TT RS.  The redundant controls on the wheel were lighted and very easy to use.  The wheel is connected to an electric power steering pump, and while Toyota is not leading the market in EPAS steering feel with this car, it’s at least better than the system in the 2009 Corolla S that I reviewed a few years ago.  The ratio is not quick, but quick enough.  Steering effort is firm, which is what I prefer, but the system provides limited feedback data to the driver’s hands.

You can buy a Scion tC with a dealer-installed “big brake” package, which, though it’s possible to set them afire with some measure of abuse, seemingly improves the car’s stopping abilities.  In normal daily driving, though, the car’s stock binders are just fine, with a reasonably firm pedal and fairly short travel.  The car’s chassis, enhanced by a slightly wider track than the 2010 tC had, is well-balanced, and doesn’t get upset by road imperfections.  The standard 18 inch wheels are larger than expected, and in the name of good looks, do sacrifice some ride comfort, but I never found them to be particularly harsh.

The 2011 tC’s base price is $18,995 including destination charge.  The test car had the $449 Alpine Premium HD Radio iPod Ready, $299 Bluetooth handsfree connectivity, $170 carpeted floormats, $55 rear bumper applique, $449 XM Satellite Radio kit, and $525 TRD Sport Muffler.  The final tally came in at $20,942, including destination and the noisy muffler.

Depending on your priorities, you might find the tC to be an appealing car.  It will probably never break down if treated to routine maintenance and not abused.  If you don’t haul a lot of passengers and cargo at the same time, and prefer “cool” features and design to practical ones, give it a look.  Just keep in mind that you can buy a Kia Forte Koup or Hyundai Genesis Coupe for similar money, and the Genesis in particular offers more car for that low-$20,000s price.  Overall, the tC for 2011 is a nice update to Scion’s best-seller, and they actually improved the car instead of ruining it.  That has to worth something.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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1 Comment

  1. How’s the visibility on this thing? Cars these days have atrocious blind spots through the A and C/D pillar that it’s ridiculous. That C pillar alone looks like it’d give me nightmares whenever I’d look to see if there’s a car next to me, especially when I’m trying to park.

    I’m surprised at the poo-pooing of engine and transmission combo. 180/173? 6 SMT? 3000 lb weight? 23/31 mpg? These are quite close to the Integra GS-R I had that was about 400 pounds light but a lot less torque too and it was a blast to drive.

    I also don’t think it’s quite fair to complain about the muffler as typically people who add that particular option want them to be, oh, LOUDER.

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