Saturday, October 22, 2011
2011 Scion TC
When it debuted seven years ago, the Scion tC quickly became a runaway success with America's most youthful drivers. With its hip styling, standout stereo and plenty of customization possibilities, the first tC was a cool car to buy and be seen in. It was to 20-somethings what the Mercury Grand Marquis is to 80-somethings. But as with all cool things, the moment passed, and together with the poor economy hitting young folks especially hard, the tC's popularity has suffered.
That brings us to today, where the fully redesigned 2011 Scion tC is meant to recover the lost mojo. Though it is based on the same platform as the old car, the tC has been improved in a number of key areas. The punchy four-cylinder engine has been swapped out for an even punchier four-cylinder borrowed from the latest Camry and other Toyotas. It produces 19 more horsepower than before and, more important, boasts improved fuel economy whether you opt for the easy-to-row six-speed manual transmission or the new six-speed automatic transmission.
Scion says it has tuned the suspension for improved handling and then replaced the hydraulic power steering with an electric system for improved fuel economy, but neither is successful in transforming the tC into a truly sporty car. Despite its coupe body style, chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel and well-bolstered seats, the tC is very much all show and no go. Mind you, that's OK if you want the look of a sport coupe without the rough ride and general aggressive nature of one.
With that in mind, the latest tC could work out well for a lot of 20-somethings and college students. Its hatchback body style lets you carry bulky items that never fit into a Honda Civic or Kia Forte Koup, while the rear seat's reclining backrest and ample legroom give even your gangly friends the room to stretch out. The tC also takes into account the younger generation's proclivity for electronics with a standard audio system designed specifically for an iPod.
In sum, the 2011 Scion tC takes everything that worked for the old car and adds a variety of welcome enhancements. Even so, only time and the youth of America will determine if it's enough to make the tC cool again.
Put aside the engine noise, and the interior becomes the best part of the tC. The dashboard plastics are hard, but there’s otherwise little evidence of scrimping. The comfortable, grippy, and supportive seats had us looking for a Recaro label. The thick-rimmed steering wheel had us thinking Lexus LF-A. And the 300-watt, eight-speaker sound system had us thinking Mark Levinson. Compared with the spacecraft-inspired dashboards of the Honda CR-Z or Civic, the tC’s looks a bit stark, but the simple design is clean, driver-oriented, and free of overly designed nonsense. And although the overall length remains the same as the 2010 car's, the new model’s extra width translates to a marginally roomier interior that has 1.1 more inches of front shoulder room and more leg, shoulder, and hip room (1.0 inch, 2.1 inches, and 1.2 inches, respectively) in the rear.
As on the first-gen model, a MacPherson-strut front suspension and a multilink rear suspension are used on this second generation. A firm ride is part of the tC experience, and although this Scion is a supremely easy car to drive quickly, it seems too demure to engage in the sort of fleet-footed playfulness that makes the Mazda 3 so much fun. Imagine driving a Corolla with a firm suspension and larger tires, and you won’t be far off. The steering is fairly numb, although not offensively so; it’s simply that some competitors offer more connection with the road. So the tC is not as much fun, but it almost makes up for that deficit with its substantial and refined feel.
the exterior. While the new car obviously shares a good deal of basic DNA with the first-gen car, in person we found the 2011 model to be significantly more masculine in appearance. From its sharper and more angular fascia to the steeply cut upward slashing C-pillar that dominates the side profile, it's easy to see that Scion wanted a more aggressive shape for its latest youthmobile.
You've seen this car's roofline before. Scion debuted the Helmet Visor Theme (their words, not ours... though it's an apt descriptor) with the Fuse concept from the 2006 New York Auto Show. That conceptual styling exercise was the inspiration behind the 2011 tC, and that's especially apparent when comparing the two machine's profiles – note how the blacked-out A- and B-pillars highlight the visor-like shape of the roof and C pillars.
Whether or not you approve of Scion's latest styling direction, we're at least pleased to see that the 2011 tC isn't quite as feminine as its forebearer, and company officials assure us that this was purely intentional. Apparently, when it first hit the market, Scion's little coupe was purchased by men about 60 percent of the time; in recent years, that percentage has completely flipped to a female-dominated audience.
Scion has made a number of improvements to the new car's cabin. Indeed, the company boasts that the tC has an "entry-level Lexus" interior. We're not willing to go that far, but we couldn't really find fault with the car's interior plastics or fabrics... at least not for its expected price point. Note, too, that our testers were all pre-production samples. The most significant interior upgrades for 2011 have been made to the steering wheel and the three stereo options (each of which now boast 300 watts of power and eight speakers, though the head unit's installation still remains aftermarket in look). We were especially pleased with the new wheel, which is now the envy of cars costing three times as much as the little tC. There's a very nice leather wrap around the newly thicker rim, and the three spokes feel nice and sturdy. Redundant radio controls are now standard as well. But the best part of the new steering wheel is the flat bottom, which makes the humble tC's interior at least appear sportier than its predecessor.
And now for the $64,000 question: Is the new sportier look backed up by a sportier driving experience? Well... in a word, no. At least not in its base guise. While the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine pushes out 180 horsepower (a useful improvement of 19 horses over the outgoing 2.4 liter), nobody is going to mistake the 2011 tC for a sportscar. But honestly, that's just fine with us. Scion seems to understand what the essence of the tC should be -- and that's something better described as competent and well-mannered than overtly fast and hard-edged. That's not to say that the car can't boogie, however. In fact, we spent some time in a tC equipped with the dealer-installed TRD 19-inch wheel and tire package and upgraded swaybar, and that car was legitimately entertaining to drive.
We sampled tCs with both the standard six-speed manual and the optional ($1,000) six-speed automatic, and we'll go ahead and cast a (predictable) vote in favor of the row-for-yourselfer. While the automatic was typically Toyota-like in its operation – which is to say quiet, smooth and unobtrusive – it also shifts up early and often in an effort to reach its EPA estimated 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway. Those economy figures are matched by the clutch-equipped model, but it feels significantly quicker and is much more rewarding to drive. Toyota claims a 0-to-60 mph run of 7.6 seconds with the manual and 8.3 with the auto. Sounds about right, though most of the engine's grunt (173 pound-feet of torque) comes down low. There's plenty of noise as the engine runs up to its 6,200 rpm rev limiter, but certainly no push-you-back-into-your-seat feelings. We do expect a dealer-installed supercharger option at some point..
Initial throttle tip-in with the automatic is a wee bit more aggressive than we would like for initiating smooth progress, but not so objectionable that it's a deal breaker. What's more irksome is the auto's glaring lack of steering wheel paddle shifters and its maddening propensity to upshift and downshift seemingly on a whim – even in manual mode.
Scion has strummed a nice, soothing chord with the 2011 tC's ride and handling feel, as it tracks down the road well, turns in with minimal body roll and doesn't beat its passengers to oblivion in the process. The driver and passenger each get seats with adequate bolstering for the job at hand and the steering wheel's tilt and telescoping functions mean any driver should be able to find a comfortable position. Those wanting a firmer ride can opt for an upgraded set of TRD springs and dampers. We did note a fair bit of interior noise, likely due in part to the car's hatchback body design and open rear storage area.
Speaking of storage, we don't have any specific measurements to share yet, but our subjective opinion is that there's plenty of room available with the rear seatbacks (a 60/40 split, for what it's worth) folded down flat. Rear seat legroom is pretty much as you'd expect – tall passengers won't want to be behind a tall driver, though comfort is surprisingly decent once in place, especially since those back seats can recline up to 10 degrees.
You’re forgiven if the newness of the 2011 tC eludes you. The platform changes little, and the wheelbase and overall length remain the same, at 106.3 and 174.0 inches. Width, however, is up by 1.6 inches, and the track increases by 1.3 inches at the front and 2.1 inches at the rear. Weight is up by 144 pounds to 3160. And although it looks a lot like the previous tC, the new car actually shares no exterior panels with its predecessor. The major changes lie beneath the surface.
A new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 180 hp replaces the 161-hp, 2.4-liter four. Despite the extra power, fuel economy improves slightly, thanks to a new six-speed manual that replaces a five-speed unit and a six-speed automatic that has two more forward ratios than its predecessor had. Fuel mileage jumps from 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway for the manual and 21/29 for the automatic to 23/31 for the new car, regardless of transmission. The new engine boasts 11 additional lb-ft of torque for a total of 173. More torque had us expecting easier low-end acceleration, but we instead found ourselves revving toward the 6250-rpm redline to find meaningful thrust. Work the new engine hard, and it sounds a bit strained; although the exhaust barks out a nicely tuned, warm rasp to people outside the car, none of that aural goodness makes it to the pilot, who simply hears a constant buzziness. We recommend driving with the window down to experience what bystanders get to hear.
The 2011 Scion tC comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock brakes, front knee airbags, front side airbags, side curtain airbags and active front headrests. brake testing, the tC came to a stop from 60 mph in a respectable 123 feet.
The 2011 Scion tC can best be described as "urban agile," meaning a car that's responsive and involving enough to keep you entertained when comfortably commuting around town, but not so sporty that you'd really relish driving it enthusiastically on a back road somewhere. The steering doesn't provide much feel, and the stability control has a tendency to kick in frequently during aggressive driving. The Scion tC won't put you to sleep, but you will have more fun in other coupes.
Meanwhile, the 180-hp four-cylinder engine provides good power for the class, especially down low in the rev range. If you're game for shifting your own gears, the six-speed manual is the best choice, as the engine accelerates significantly more quickly and doesn't seem to suffer from the rather agricultural droning that plagues it when the automatic transmission is in place.