Eager to connect with twentysomethings, Scion has sponsored over 2,500 cultural events. Nevertheless, sales are far off their peak. Apparently free doom-metal concerts can only accomplish so much when the target customer can’t find a decent job. Or is the product the problem? Apparently Scion thinks so, as it’s forecasting praying that a redesign of the tC for the 2011 model year will double the model’s sales. (Which, if accomplished, would still leave them at half the 2006 peak.) So, might these prayers be answered?
Though technically a hatchback, the tC has again been successfully disguised as a coupe. Scion claims that the car’s revised sheetmetal is more aggressive and more masculine. And it is, to a limited degree. The blacked-out A-pillars and more dramatically kinked C-pillars are especially successful. Standard 18-inch alloys are another plus. The lack of frameless doors, as seen on the Kia Forte Koup…not so much. Though Scion must think some buyers will actually want to highlight the window frame, as it offers “carbon fiber” B-pillar appliques as an accessory (they’re on the darker car in these photos). As a whole the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary, and the hatchback coupe, while arguably attractive, is neither striking nor beautiful. On the college campus where the drive event was staged, students walked by an entire row of parked cars with nary a glance.
The almost entirely off-black, drama-free interior is a welcome relief from recent trends in Japanese auto design. I’ve been here before—in the Celica All-trac turbo I owned 20 years ago. A pointlessly flat-bottomed steering wheel (okay, it looks nifty) and double-DIN nav screen (one of three available must-be-twentysomething-to-operate head units) bring me back to 2010. The Scion VP challenged us to replicate the typical owner experience by turning the volume of the 300-watt audio system way past 11. To my ears the system sounds loud, but not notably rich or clear. As promised, the door panels do not rattle.
The 2011 Scion tC’s driving position awakens much more recent memories. You sit relatively low behind a tall instrument panel and short, fairly upright windshield. Not as extreme as the Camaro, but pretty close to the Lexus IS-F. So it’s overtly sporty without fatally compromising visibility. The upside: unlike in the competing Kia Forte Koup, there’s no econobox flavor. Nor, unlike in the Honda Civic coupe, are you inspired to hunt down Klingon warbirds.
The front seats have been widened an inch, to enhance comfort, but lateral support remains decent. The interior’s big surprise: an adult-friendly back seat. There’s more room back there than in the Camaro and Mustang combined, and even decent thigh support. I’ve been less comfortable in some mid-sized sedans. This seat both reclines ten degrees and folds nearly flat. A hatchback provides ready access to the cargo area.
Continuing the evolutionary theme, the tC’s DOHC four-cylinder engine has been enlarged from 2.4 to 2.5 liters, and peak horsepower has been bumped from 161 to 180 at an accessible 6,000 rpm. Both the manual and the automatic now include six ratios (up from five and four, respectively). When that 1988 Celica offered 190 horsepower, it was something special. So part of me still expects 180 horsepower to entertain. Well, in this case it boosts the 3,060-pound tC to sixty in about eight seconds (a little under with the stick, a little over with the automatic) without irritating or delighting any senses. I pronounce this engine fit for duty in the Camry. TRD offered a supercharger for the 2.4, and “might” be working on one for the 2.5. Bring it on. The new engine provokes hardly any torque steer. The chassis can handle more.
The manual shifter slides from gear to gear with better feel than most in this price class. Shorter throws, a mod away, while desirable are not a must. The clutch, which engages with little transition at the very top, would benefit more from an abbreviated travel. The automatic, which can be manually shifted via the lever, was nearly as fun to drive. The additional cogs bump the EPA ratings to 23/31 in both cases. I observed 26 in fairly casual ex-urban driving with the manual, and 20 in considerably less casual driving with the automatic.
The tC’s moderately firm, nicely weighted steering, now electrically assisted, is good as such systems go. The kickback present in many Toyota systems is absent here. Feedback is limited and a quicker, more direct feel would enhance perceived agility, but the same can be said for nearly all hydraulically assisted systems. (A thinner, less heavily padded steering wheel rim would improve feedback.) I felt much the same about the steering in the Lexus IS-F, which is over twice as powerful and costs over three times as much. Scion and Lexus are both emphatically not Toyota, and yet the parent’s DNA cannot be avoided. Refinement comes first.
The rest of the chassis is better. Revised suspension tuning lends the coupe commendable balance and composure, if not agility. Only as the limits are approached does understeer prevail, and then gradually. There’s some fun to be had on the right road. The ride is firm but never harsh, and the body structure feels solid. Also contributing to the impression that the tC is more expensive than it actually is: noise levels are about as low as they get in this price range.
Given the target market, affordability is a must. The 2011 tC starts at $18,995. A panoramic sunroof remains an unexpected standard feature. The only factory-installed option, the automatic transmission, adds $1,000. Dealers offer a broad array of performance- and appearance-enhancing accessories, including a “big brake system.” The segment isn’t as large as it used to be, with only Honda and Kia continuing to offer competing coupes. The Honda Civic Si, with a smaller but more energetic powerplant, lists for $3,770 more. A Kia Forte SX, with very similar dimensions and content, lists for almost exactly the same price as the tC. How many people will pick a Kia over a Toyota Scion, if both are priced the same? Luckily for the Kia, Scion dealers aren’t allowed to negotiate, so even before factoring in the Forte’s more generous incentives the tC’s out-the-door price will be over $500 higher.
The changes to the Scion tC for 2011, though all for the better, are also all evolutionary. Scion encouraged us to turn the audio past 11; they should consider doing the same with the car. The new tC provides a very good starting point. A thoroughly entertaining car could well be just a few pounds of boost and a few tweaks to the steering away. As it is, the Scion tC, though aimed at immature buyers, feels quite mature. Some competitors feel livelier, but they also feel less composed, less substantial, and (especially in the Kia’s case) cheaper. With a hatchback and roomier back seat, the tC is also more practical. Unfortunately, such quiet strengths aren’t going to incite doom-metal-loving twentysomethings to spend cash they don’t have. Free concerts can only do so much. Want to earn lifelong loyalty and sell more cars? Forget the rock fest, sponsor a successful job fair.
Scion provided the vehicles, insurance and fuel (as well as breakfast, lunch and a branded backpack) for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data