Thumbs Up: Great stereo, comfortable interior, unique style.
Thumbs Down: More show than go.
Buy This Car If: You want an affordable, sporty coupe with Toyota reliability.
Have you ever pondered the difference between a strip-club bouncer and a Navy SEAL? Most bouncers, especially those working at gentleman’s clubs, are buildings with feet. They’ve got massive chests, bulging biceps and forearms that would do Popeye proud. Navy SEALs, on the other hand, tend to be average looking guys, with a wiry build and a predator’s eyes. The primary difference between the two groups is that
one looks menacing, while the second looks understated and truly is menacing. I’m not saying that the average bouncer can’t mix it up, but most aren’t trained fighters because they don’t need to be. The appearance of being able to twist you like a pretzel is usually good enough.
The 2011 Scion tC is a lot like that strip club bouncer, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. Take the aggressive styling, which doesn’t look like any other car on the road; or the superb sport seats which feature deep side and hip bolsters for spirited driving. Even the steering wheel, with its flat bottom and beefy diameter says “sports car”, as does the pleasingly loud exhaust note. Get behind the wheel and step on the gas, however, and you’ll soon realize that the Scion tC is more about the appearance of performance than it is about actual performance. That’s not a criticism, because speed costs money, and the Scion doesn’t have a high price of admission. Instead of high performance, the tC gives you high style, a great stereo, lots of interior room and the ability to increase horsepower and handling as your budget allows. As blank canvases go, the Scion tC is a very good starting point.
For 2011, Scion has restyled the tC, giving it a much more aggressive appearance than its predecessor. Up front, the grille has been enlarged and the fascia revised to give the car a more angular appearance. The roofline has been flattened, which makes the car look longer and adds to the tC’s unique exterior styling. Out back, last year’s smoked Altezza tail lights are gone, and the blend-into the background styling of the rear has been replaced by a much more visually appealing blend of angles and curves. Wheels are now 18” x 7.5”, as compared to the 17” x 7” wheels on last year’s model. The 2010 Scion tC was easy to lose in a parking lot; that’s simply not the case for the much bolder styling of the 2011 tC.
Inside, the sport coupe feel continues, and Toyota did a good job of creating a driver-friendly environment. Controls are angled toward the driver, making them easier to operate. The dash is an eye-pleasing blend of colors, shapes and textures, and the oversized steering wheel fit my hands perfectly. Instruments are minimal (tach, speedometer and fuel gauge only), but are cleanly styled and easy to read. The sport seats are covered in a visually appealing, durable fabric instead of fake leather. The audio system sounds better than any other car I can remember at this price point, and the tC even includes an oversized sunroof. That’s a lot of content in a car that stickers just north of the $20,000 mark (less if you opt for the six speed manual).
Getting back to those front seats for a moment, I wish more automakers would use seats like the Scion tC. They’re supportive without being intrusive on comfort, they look good, they’re warm in winter and you don’t stick to them in summer. Even the headrests didn’t cant my head forward unnecessarily, like so many new cars do to meet rear impact standards. No, the seats weren’t heated and they weren’t electronically adjustable. They didn’t have lumbar support, and they were adjustable for position, height (driver’s side only) and rake only, but I didn’t care. They’re exactly what I expect in a car with sporting intentions at this price point.
Rear seat passengers won’t complain much either, unless they get stuck in the middle position (not recommended) or are taller than about six foot two. Rear seat occupants get a deeply dished seat cushion and a decent amount of legroom, and getting into and out of the back isn’t bad. The tC is truly a four seat coupe, worth noting if you’re in the market for an inexpensive, sport coupe and have more than one other friend.
I like the interior layout and its emphasis on sport, but there are some clear cost-cutting measures on the inside. The sunroof slider is a roll-up vinyl shade, not an insulated, rigid cover. There’s a lot of hard plastic on the dash and center console, which may or may not remain rattle-resistant as the car ages. The center armrest is rigid plastic, which is fine for a few hours but will become a significant annoyance on a cross-country trip. Whether or not this is important depends on the buyer, and there are other entry level coupe choices with more luxurious interiors. That said, luxury isn’t what Scion is about, and those other cars cost more money than the tC.
Under the hood is a new engine for 2011, taken straight from the four cylinder Camry. Output is upped to 180 horsepower (from 161 in the 2010 tC) and 173 ft lb of torque (from 162), yet the new tC still manages better fuel economy than the one it replaces. The 2011 tC gets an EPA fuel economy estimate of 23 MPG city and 31 MPG highway; in my mix of city and highway driving, I saw 25.9 MPG, which is very close to the EPA’s combined rating of 26 MPG. Acceleration is reasonable, with zero to sixty coming up in just over eight seconds. The six speed manual is quicker, with zero to sixty times in the mid sevens. I wouldn’t call these sports car numbers, but they’re respectable enough for a sporty coupe. Though my tester came with the six speed automatic transmission, the best choice for those who like to drive remains the six speed manual.
Toyota tightened up the Scion tC’s handling for 2011, but the car still felt heavy to me. Compared to the Honda Civic Si, it was slower to turn in and had more pronounced understeer. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, since the Honda sells for roughly 10% more, but it’s the most direct comparison I could think of. The trade off for crisp handling is improved ride quality, and the Scion was never unpleasant to drive, even on rough road surfaces. Others have complained that the new engine is harsh at high speeds, or that the exhaust note is loud, but I didn’t notice. If anything, the exhaust sounded good from the driver’s seat, which is really all that matters.
So is the Scion tC a good choice to shop? I’d have to say it depends entirely on your expectations. If you want luxury and comfort over handling, look elsewhere. If you want acceleration and handling only, there are better choices. If you’re looking for a reasonable blend of comfort, handling, hatchback versatility and unique style, I’d put the 2011 Scion tC near the top of your list in the $20k price range.
The 2011 Scion tC is currently available as a single model, with dealer installed options only. Base price on my tester was $20,060, including a destination charge of $785. The sole option on my tester was the $109 floor mat kit, for a total sticker price of $20,169. By comparison, a Kia Forte Coupe SX would sticker at $20,840, a Honda Civic EX Coupe would sticker at $21,155, a Honda Civic Si Coupe would sticker at $22,955 and a Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S would sticker at $24,220.