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2011 Scion tC

October 10th, 2011

Scion’s Basic Coupe Fails to Meet Some Basic Expectations

     The low priced sporty coupe segment has been creeping upward in price during the last decade. The market used to be speckled with the likes of the Saturn SC, Ford Probe, Chevrolet Cavalier Z24, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Toyota Celica. Not one of those models exists today, but Toyota thinks it has an answer for the niche with the Scion tC. Starting at $18,275 the tC isn’t the cheapest coupe one can find, but does it offer enough sport to lure youthful car enthusiasts from straying to the used car market for their budget minded thrills? We tested a completely base tC to find out just how the Scion fares.
     The 2011 tC has undergone its first restyle since the car’s introduction as an ’05 model. We liked the original car’s taught lines, longish wheelbase and upscale styling. It had a bit of a poor man’s Infiniti G35 look about it that we lauded. The new car has lost some of its flair with an awkwardly flat roofline accommodating a standard dual pane sunroof. It seems that much of the shape that presented an appealing visual tension in the sheet metal has been blunted into flat surfaces that appear a bit contrived for our tastes. Fortunately, some of the Scion’s best attributes–a focus on driving, for one–have been carried over. After settling into deeply bolstered and very comfortable sport buckets, the driver is confronted by an attractive new flat-bottom steering wheel that wouldn’t look out of place in the Lexus LFA. The transmission gives the driver six gears and the highly desired third pedal to operate. At the rear, the tC offers an enormous hatch opening with fold down rear seats that is big enough to accommodate a sleeping adult (we know, we tried).
     Out on the open highway we were pleased to find that the little two-door soaks up the miles without fatiguing the driver. The meaty steering wheel helps to draw the drivers hands back to the wheel rather than lazily resting a finger or two on the spokes and the seats allow long-legged drivers to settle in and enjoy the drive for lengthy stints. Unfortunately, the interior strengths end there. The top of the instrument panel features a grainy texture that appears to be a simulation of birch bark. The problem is the material of choice–hard black plastic of the worst kind–makes the texture look cheap instead of chic. The pleasure gauge drops even lower when directing one’s eyes to the standard 300-watt radio. It appears that Scion designers decided to pre-empt owners from installing an aftermarket stereo by including one that looks and functions like a Best Buy special. The mp3 controls are infuriating to use while the car is in motion. Using the joystick controller to make adjustments requires the delicate skill only possessed by model airplane enthusiasts, knitting queens and brain surgeons. Ergonomics are not the tC’s strong suit.
     Tossing the little coupe about the back roads was entertaining enough thanks to the willing 6-speed manual and strong brakes, but we would have benefited from a bit more power, which was surprising considering the healthy 180 hp rating. For the lack of thrust offered one would expect the tC to achieve stellar highway mileage. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to squeeze even 30 mpg out of an eco-friendly 200-mile highway jaunt across Michigan. The official ratings don’t suggest much better at 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. This in a world where much bigger vehicles like the Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Equinox blow past  the 30 mpg highway barrier with ease. The electric power steering was communicative, but it was easy to find the limits of the Scion’s tires well before the chassis was ready for them to give up grip. Certainly a better set of tires would improve things in the handling department and several wheel/tire upgrades are available through Scion dealers.
     While the small sporty coupe market has fallen victim to the quickly changing tastes of the entry-level buyer, there has been a resurgence of small fashionable two door coupes. The FIAT 500 Sport starts at $17,500, the Kia Forte Koup got our approval last year and the all-new Beetle base model begins at $18,995. Both of those cars offer a lot more style, although the FIAT is way down on power with a 101 hp rating that can best be described as quaint. Of course, the 500 manages a 38 mpg highway rating (we have achieved higher). While not great for such a small car, it is in an entirely different efficiency class than the tC.
     We really wanted to like the little coupe, and we fully expected that the Scion tC would remain the sole compelling enthusiast car in Toyota’s edgy low-priced brand. Unfortunately, we came away frustrated by the interior aesthetics and ergonomics, combined with a chassis stunted by average tires and fuel economy now possible in much larger and more powerful vehicles. We’re holding out hope that Scion’s upcoming rear-wheel-drive FR-S coupe will turn our frowns upside down.

The Good:
Good 6-speed manual transmission, priced right, strong brakes, great seats, hatchback versatility.
The Bad:
Fuel economy not befitting a 4 cylinder sport coupe, tires that give up early, ergonomics that frustrate, interior that depresses.
The Verdict:
A basic sport coupe that fails to meet some basic expectations.

Photos courtesy of Scion


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