Review: 2011 Scion TC

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Toyota has had a problem lately: aging clientele. While some marketing firms will try to reinvigorate an aging brand with flashy new commercials and risqué advertising campaigns, Toyota decided to create a whole new brand in 2002 targeting Generation X and Y: Scion. Since the generations at the end of the alphabet are short on cash but long on youth, value pricing is the biggest draw for the Scion brand. Therefore it should be no surprise that the average age of Scion shoppers isn’t as low as Toyota could have hoped: old people like a bargain too.

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Bargain pricing as a cornerstone means that most Scion models (all except the tC actually) are rebranded Toyota models from foreign markets. Realizing that Scion needed something besides a trendy bread box and a bargain basement people carrier, Toyota released the first model unique to Scion: the tC. Yes, yes tC doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the Scion nomenclature like xA, xB and xD, but Volvo had dibs on the XC trade mark and so tC was born. Based loosely on the European Toyota Avensis sedan, the tC combines an economical European front-wheel drive chassis with a sporty coupe profile.

Speaking of profiles, when Scion announced that a new tC would be arriving as a 2011 model year car, I was concerned it would suffer from the same bloat that has afflicted the xB in its latest refresh. Fortunately the styling of the tC will not offend the Scion faithful. Easily identifiable as a tC, the front has received a tasteful refresh with a larger air dam and a bit more drama. The blacked out A and B pillars combine with the chunky angular C pillar to ape a bit of Camaro styling (just a bit however). Out back a short faux-trunk greets the hatchback-averse in the crowd along with some curvaceous tail lamps and a single exhaust. The Scion tC proves it’s actually possible to build an econobox that doesn’t look like a penalty box. But is the beauty only skin deep?

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Step inside the tC you realize that “compromise” is inevitable in an car that starts at $18,995 base and tops out around $22,500. The interior looks nice but comes only in black, if monochromatic interiors are not your thing, you should cross the tC off your list now. The dash plastics have an appealing visual texture; however like the rest of the competition the plastics are best looked at, not touched. Still, the interior delivers exactly what I expect from 19-large. What’s unexpected however is the thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel. The flat-bottomed-tiller on our loaner car was covered in soft perforated leather, equipped with comfortable grips and perfect seams. As if this wasn’t enough, the airbag cover and plastic spokes are executed with feel and precision beyond what I’ve experienced in some recent Lexus debuts. Seriously, this Scion steering wheel has to be one of the best wheels I have ever gripped in my life (sorry BMW). The real wheel-surprise is that the wheel is actually standard on the tC, not an option.

Sadly however not all is rosy inside the tC’s cabin. The entry level market usually means leaving out most “luxury” features. I’m usually fine with a bargain basement ride not having power seats or automatic climate control, but base Kia and Hyundai models come standard with Bluetooth phone integration these day. While Bluetooth can be added by optioning up a $300 BLU Logic accessory or stepping up to the $1999 Scion Navigation system, this is a safety feature that should standard by now as many states require some sort of hands-free system. For a brand that focuses on the tech-savvy genberation, this omission could be a deal-killer for some.

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Anyone that knows someone in their 20s knows that to young people a good audio system is almost as important as the car itself. To that end Scion provides shoppers with no-less than four head-unit options. From the base Pioneer system to the $1999 Scion navigation system with HD radio and Bluetooth, it’s most obvious that the car was designed with the aftermarket in mind. Radios can easily be replaced with aftermarket units if buyers prefer and a quick Google search yields plenty of options for integrating systems with the standard steering-wheel controls. While many buyers may choose this route, the rest should know that although iPod integration is standard on the base Pioneer system, actually controlling your iPod via the head unit is a tedious and cumbersome task. Buyers who want a factory warranted system but are interested in some options will appreciate the Scion SNS200 nav system which is probably the most flexible factory head unit ever conceived. The SNS200 offers a long list of integrator pleasing features such as 6-channel pre-amp output, aftermarket rear seat LCD support, DVD video player, aux input jacks, etc.

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Under the hood, the tC now boasts the same 2.5L four-cylinder engine as the 2011 Toyota Camry. Rated at 180HP and 173 lb-ft of torque, the engine is finally a willing companion. Despite the modest gain in power (19 HP and 9 lb-ft) vs the old engine, the “feel” is greatly improved as is low end torque. The old 2.4L engine always seemed out of breath, a feeling I never encountered during my week with the tC. While I am glad that Toyota has provided a 6-speed manual option (as tested), the heavy clutch and manual-matching-economy of the automatic make Toyota’s 6-seed slushbox my transmission of choice. Speaking of economy, we averaged a combined 27MPG in our week long test of the tC, besting the EPA estimate of 31MPG highway/23 city/26 combined by one MPG. Sure the automatic takes a toll on acceleration (8.4 vs 7.6 seconds to 60), but for every day driving the auto’s gear ratios are a perfect match to the Scion’s dynamics and personality.

Out on the road the tC delivers a solid, stable ride. The chassis and stability control are tuned to allow the driver a bit of fun out on windy mountain roads, but prevent anything approaching risky behavior. The new electric power steering is pleasantly unobtrusive, albeit a tad over-boosted as most vehicles with this system tend to be. Toss the tC into sharp corners and the lower profile standard tires and 1”wider track (than the precious generation) are a welcome ally. Unfortunately some may find the ride delivered by the 18s a bit too harsh for every-day driving in America’s pot-hole riddled urban jungle.

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Still, the larger wheels look cool, and that’s what the tC is really all about: impressions. A quick prowl online will reveal a number of reviews critical of the handling abilities and steering feel of the tC. While I tend to agree with the fairly subjective analysis, I have to say that anyone who desires the tC to be a fire-breathing sports coupe is missing the point. If you want to do donuts in the school parking lot; get a rear-wheel-drive base model Hyundai Genesis. The tC provides a much more adult pleasing reality than the youth-hyped marketing material would suggest.

At the end of the day, the tC ends up being something of a fashion statement, and I’m actually OK with that. There’s a reason Generation X and Y have massive spending power but limited automotive budgets: they buy fashion. No other generation spends as much on a pair of jeans and accessories as the metro Gen X/Y. So when it comes to selecting a ride, the Scion may just deliver that right balance of sporty looks and comfortable driving reality. The only part missing? 20-somethings buyers with 20-grand in their pockets.

Scion provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

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