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.
Dual sunroofs are an unexpected feature in the tC.
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 Pioneer stereo has a nice display, but the multifunction knob, to the left, is a little tweaky.
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 Bluetooth phone system, operated by these buttons, is sadly lacking in features.
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.
Under the hood resides the same engine as found in the , a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, in this application making 180 horsepower and 173 pound-feet of torque. Toyota doesn't wring as much power out of this type of engine as competitors, but it produces enough twist to consistently chirp the front tires, even in second- to third-gear shifts.
Mileage is rated at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway with the manual transmission, not bad numbers unless you consider competitors' efforts to push the 40 mpg line. In mixed city and freeway driving, the mileage hovered just above 26 mpg.
This transmission isn't the best six-speed manual around, but it is still fun.
The six-speed manual is a necessity to have any fun with the tC. The shifter feels strong and has a short throw, but this gate does not precisely snick into each gear, as does Honda's six-speed manual. Nor does it offer the more refined feeling of European manual transmissions. Instead, it feels like a sloppy compromise.
As the tC's most advanced driving tech feature, the power steering unit is electrical rather than hydraulic. Scion did an excellent job of programming this unit, giving the wheel a good amount of road feel and some precision. But despite the tC's sporty look, the steering is designed more for comfort than shuffling through corners.
The suspension shows a good compromise between handling and comfort, keeping the car stable when cornering but also absorbing and damping out bumps without excessive harshness. Scion does not cheap out on the tC's suspension, using MacPherson struts in front and a rear double wishbone. Likewise, brakes are discs all around, as opposed to some competitors' cars using drum brakes on the rear wheels.
Like many Toyota company cars, the Scion tC is very drivable. It does what you expect on the road in normal driving. The front-wheel chirps might take some people by surprise, and Scion could have certainly gotten by with a smaller engine in the car. It won't suffer being driven too hard, as moderate cornering will get the traction control light blinking on the dashboard.
The 2011 Scion tC's cabin tech isn't very competitive, considering some of the more advanced iPod integration and Bluetooth systems found in similarly priced Ford and Kia models. The Bluetooth phone system is painfully crude, and the stereo does not live up to its promise, with its heavy bass tuning. It is difficult to justify the optional navigation systems when it is so easy to go aftermarket with this car.
The engine and transmission are ultimately mild-mannered, but the car has solid underpinnings with its steering, suspension, and brakes. These attributes point to the car's upgradability, as do the culture of Scion tuners and Scion's own set of Toyota Racing Development parts for the car.
Very different exterior styling for the 2011 model might turn off some who previously liked the car, but it still cuts a unique figure on the road. The body design is mostly practical, with an easily accessible hatchback and headroom for the rear seat. The electronics interface is not very intuitive when the Bluetooth phone system is taken into account.
|Model||2011 Scion tC|
|Power train||2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26.4 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Pioneer 8 speaker system|
|Price as tested||$19,294|