By Charles Krome
Here’s a fun little factoid about the Scion tC: According to a recent study by a group called Quality Planning—which provides research for the insurance industry—Scion’s sports coupe is the third-most-ticketed car in the U.S., trailing only the Mercedes-Benz SL and the Toyota Camry/Solara. Of course, seeing the tC so high on the list was no surprise to me, because I’d already been driving one for a couple of days by then and knew full well what a blast the car was. Scion had lent me a tC in “Super White” with a six-speed manual and a full tank of gas, and that turned out to be a surprisingly affordable recipe for some serious driving excitement.
And I want to point out that I was no Scion slappy when I got the car. I had been plenty skeptical when the brand debuted in 2003 as an effort by Toyota to attract younger customers, and then plenty disappointed when the most interesting vehicle, the original xB, ditched its JDM flavoring in 2007. Scion’s sales numbers seemed to agree with me, too, at least until the all-new current-generation tC rolled out. The 2011 model saw an immediate jump in customers when it launched last fall, and this year, even as the situation in Japan has held down sales for most Toyota products, the tC scored a 73.6 percent sales jump in June, with year-to-date numbers ahead of last year’s pace by 98.1 percent. That’s the best performance of any Toyota product this year by far, as the next highest seller through June, the Toyota Highlander, is up only 19.9 percent.
As soon as you get behind the wheel, though, it’s easy to see why. I’m sure some buyers are interested in the tC’s style, but for me, it was mostly about the driving experience. Scion popped a new 2.5-liter I4 under the hood, and it brought a not-insignificant power boost of 19 hp and 11 lb.-ft. of torque, bringing its total output to 180 of the former and 173 of the latter. That’s not much in absolute terms, but with a car that weighs right around 3,000 lbs., it’s quite effective. Most media outlets have measured the tC as capable of 0-60 in under 7.5 seconds with its manual transmission, and it feels faster than that, at least in part because a new intake manifold and exhaust system deliver a noticeably aggressive exhaust note.
The gearbox itself boasted short, accurate throws and smooth operation, along with a stylish appearance that was well integrated with the various circle shapes so prominently displayed in the tC’s interior (which I cover in more depth below).
Best of all, even after hundreds of miles of hard driving, I rang up a fuel-economy mark of 26.47 mpg, right in line with the tC’s EPA ratings of 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined.
It’s also important to emphasize the tC’s price tag here. The car has an MSRP of just $18,275, which means it’s the least-expensive 180-hp car on sale in the U.S. right now (although you can get into a 185-hp Suzuki Kizashi for $18,999).
Just as significantly, Scion/Toyota put a lot of effort into upgrading the suspension. The tC sits on a new platform with MacPherson-strut front suspension and a double-wishbone setup in the rear, and stabilizer bars in both directions, allowing the car to handle and respond the way a sports coupe is supposed to. It stayed enjoyably flat in the corners even under relatively hard driving, when it became clear that its tires were its only real weak point in terms of handling. Which is a bit of a backhanded compliment to the tC’s steering, which in truth deserves all the complimenting it gets.
Despite relying on an electronic power-assist system, the Scion’s steering felt very natural. Overall, the steering was sports-car heavy but without being ridiculously so, and it was both accurate and responsive. Plus, the steering experience was greatly enhanced by a superior racing-style wheel that was both flat-bottomed and also slightly ovoid in its proportions. It did take a little getting used to at first, but after a day or so it was just one more impressive feature that added to the tC’s sporting character.
Perhaps the two biggest drawbacks to driving the tC were its massive rear blind spots, an unavoidable outcome of its massive C-pillars, and its uncomfortable seat fabric. The fabric felt very artificial to the touch, even irritating my skin a bit when I drove in shorts, and the seat bottoms didn’t offer much in the way of thigh support. Also, I’m sure headroom would be a problem for a lot of drivers. I’m about 5’9″and there was just barely enough for me. The problem, naturally, is worse in the back seats, where even my grade-school children felt claustrophobic. It’s too bad, because the tC’s wide dimensions do offer a fair amount of shoulder- and hip-room in both the front and back. And if you do fit inside the car, you do get a nice bonus instead of headroom: A standard “panoramic moonroof” that opens up over the front seats and provides a fixed glass over the rears.
The cockpit is very driver-focused, with all center controls angled toward the driver’s seat, a positioning that’s emphasized by a sort of “wall” that visually restricts passenger access to the climate controls, audio ports and small storage area just in front of the gearshift. As I mentioned above, I really liked the sophisticated design of the circular gearshift, which is echoed by circular disc-like accents on the shifter, as well as the circular metal trim around the shift boot, the control knobs, the speaker shapes and even the shape of the climate vent on the passenger side.
Another welcome feature is a molded rubber insert that can fit inside one of the cupholders to provide a place to hold your cell phone and change. Speaking of cupholders, it would have been nice to see one of those fold-down armrest/cupholder deals between the outboard rear seating areas, especially because the back seats are already biased toward just two rear passengers. The middle area offers a seatbelt, but it also offers a prominent “hump” in the cushions. But hey, it’s a coupe.
Frankly, not much else stands out in the interior. The sound system was pedestrian—or maybe just didn’t live up to my expectations from a brand like Scion that aims at that younger, music-loving generation—and because of the way the plastic over the clock readout curved, reflections made it difficult to see what time it is during the daylight hours.
The cargo area was quite expansive, with a range of anchors and hooks and whatnot, which provided a lot of versatility back there, especially with the rear seats folded down. This was a definite plus, as it really helped add a dose of practicality to the tC, as did the fact that, technically, the coupe isn’t a coupe but a liftback. Scion hides this pretty well by giving the car the profile of a traditional coupe, and I don’t think that was done solely to avoid scaring away hatch-haters. There just aren’t many inexpensive sports coupes on the market, so making a decision to keep to a more coupe-like silhouette helps the car stand out from the crowd much more than another hot hatch would.
The short-ish overhangs are another nice change of pace and help add character to an exterior that gets by mostly on its strong proportions. Scion claims designers drew their inspiration for the tC’s exterior from “the athletic look of a racing helmet,” but I don’t see much of that. There’s a nice solid look to the Scion that gives it the appearance of something hewn from a single block of stone, but the sheet metal is essentially free of character lines and other eye-catching cues—certainly, this is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I do like the effect of its angled rear quarter windows. They put me in mind of a design study for a potential Dodge Avenger coupe, which isn’t a bad thing, since it adds a certain muscle-car flavor to the tC.
But the primary exterior design statement is created by the way the liftgate window appears to extend up to the roof and keep right on going, as if the entire top surface of the car were one long sheet of glass. It’s an exotic, custom-style touch that you don’t see much on mainstream cars and which immediately sets the Scion apart from similarly priced vehicles.
And that’s really the key to the tC experience. As I noted near the top of this review, the tC has a base price of $18,275, and while the car I had didn’t have any options, it didn’t need any. By putting most of its resources into performance-oriented upgrades instead of gadgetry, the tC delivers everything an enthusiast on a budget needs from a car today—although not much else—at a total cost of just under $19,000 (including $720 worth of fees).
Thus, the 2011 Scion tC becomes one of the few cars to earn my ultimate complement: This is a vehicle I’d actually buy with my own money.