Toyota may be known for bland, dependable cars, but when it comes to the automaker's Scion brand, the designers really get to let their hair down. Witness the Scion tC, which in a single generation went from svelte to bulky. Where the original, launched in 2005, had a curved roofline that would have done any European designer proud, the 2011 Scion tC looks like a mini muscle car, with a little bit of Dodge Charger and Nissan GT-R mixed in its lines.
The flat roofline creates mean-looking side windows, narrow rectangles with the unfortunate side effect of hampering access, making bruised foreheads a common scenario. But the new roof design also makes the back seat more comfortable. In the previous tC, rear passengers had to keep their necks slightly off the vertical. And the tC benefits from typical hatchback practicality, with quite a bit of cargo room when the back seats are folded down.
Another new style cue for the 2011 tC is a glass roof, a nice touch making it possible to have a fixed sunroof over the rear seat in addition to the sunroof in front. Hard plastics used throughout the interior offset this upscale touch, although textures on these surfaces partially mitigate the cheap feel.
Staying true to Scion's original mission, iPod integration comes standard in the tC, and the cabin tech is as upgradable as ever. The double-DIN pioneer stereo in the dashboard uses up a little more space than necessary, but this standard equipment can be optioned up, as Scion gives buyers a choice of two different navigation head units. Our advice: go aftermarket for a navigation head unit--it will probably be cheaper and Scion makes installation very easy.
The base Pioneer stereo's display is impressively bright and distinct, making it easy to read under any lighting conditions. A big, multifunction knob controls volume with dial movement and also operates as a joystick to tune radio stations. The latter movement is tedious and the knob feels like it might snap off at any moment.
The knob lets you browse through a connected iPod's music library, but its less-than-precise movement can lead to frustrating missteps when selecting music. With each turn of the knob, the music listings take a moment to refresh on the screen, which can be a little distracting. Other audio sources include a single CD slot and the usual radio bands, with an option for satellite radio.
With an array of three speakers molded into each door, plus two more speakers in back, this audio system looks like it should produce some fine sound. Bass comes through with gut-shaking power, but not so strongly as to rattle the door panels. Mids and highs, on the other hand, get crushed by this system, so that it is often difficult to distinguish lyrics in a track. The small tweeters get overwhelmed with the volume up, producing more pain than music.
The Pioneer head unit has three audio settings under the banner of Scion Sound Processing, labeled Hear, Natural, and Feel. Natural is the most balanced setting, while Feel emphasizes bass. The Hear setting was hobbled by the audio system, which could not bring out the highs and mids in any sort of pleasurable fashion.
The optional Bluetooth phone system in the tC is about as bare-bones as it gets. A button helpfully marked with a phone icon sits to the left of the steering wheel. Press it, and an unhelpful chime sounds. You will have to try the manual to find out what to do at this point. Once you figure out how to pair a phone with the system, it works fine for receiving calls, but offers little help dialing out.