New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Scion tC

It can be argued that the tC is Scion’s most successful model in every way. Even though we tend to associate Scion with the square-box xB, it’s actually the tC that steals the thunder. Not only is it Scion’s best seller, accounting for over 40% of the brand’s sales, but its buyers are also the youngest in the industry, at an average age of 26. Bringing young buyers into the Toyota fold was, after all, the original goal of Scion.


A quick look at the new tC’s specs shows that Toyota might have learned its lesson from the sales disappointment that is the new xB: the tC has grown in width by 1.6 inches, but that’s it. The styling is a clear and careful evolution of the old car’s, and every major exterior measurement is the same.

The tC’s looks have been toughened up, using some touches from the 2007 New York Auto Show concept Scion Fuse. Inspired by the side view of a helmet, the A-pillars have been blacked out, resulting in a side greenhouse profile not unlike that of the Nissan GT-R. At first glance, the taillights are reminiscent of a Saturn ION coupe’s (not that the last tC’s weren’t, too), but the overall design works quite well. The new tC doesn’t look quite as bubbly and happy as the last tC; and we think that’s a good thing.

While the roof looks lower, the tC’s overall height is exactly the same as before, and interior headroom as almost unchanged (your scalp will be 0.1 inch closer to the headliner up front, 0.2 inches in back.)

A wider track (plus 1.3 inches front, 2.1 inches rear) contributes to a better stance — with the help of standard eighteen-inch wheels — but likely contributes to a significant increase in turning circle. (Now a rather large 37.1 feet, up 1.3 feet.)


Brake size has increased to help fill the bigger wheels (last year’s tC rode on seventeens); the vented front rotors are up just over 0.8 inches to 11.65, rear rotors are up about 0.4 to 10.98 inches. ABS and defeatable stability control are, of course, standard equipment. Brake assist is new, as is an additional (knee) airbag and active front headrests.

INTERIOR and STEREO, including RANT #1

Luckily, the outgoing tC’s panoramic sunroof remains (as standard equipment), and now comes with a mesh wind deflector that changes the pitch–but sadly not the volume–of the considerable wind noise present when it’s open at highway speeds. The steering column now telescopes too, bringing closer to the driver a pornographically thick (in a good way), slightly oversize, flat-bottom leather-wrapped steering wheel that comes standard with radio controls.

Unfortunately, most of the other surfaces in the tC’s interior are less luxurious. The dash consists of three different plastic grains, all of which nearly meet (and clash, visually) above the glovebox. None look or feel particularly high-quality. The center elbow rest is, sadly, also made of hard unyielding plastic. Luckily, the door panel armrests are padded.

A red LED clock in the center of the dash seems out-of-place these days–and like it has for the last 30 years, it washes out in bright sunlight. Also from the 1980s, but not necessarily in a bad way: in each door panel are three speakers arranged like a big three-way speaker tower: woofer at bottom, midrange in between, and tweeter up top. Those six speakers are augmented by two drivers in the rear. The eight-speaker system, replete with a separate two-channel amp to drive the woofers, is fed 300 watts of peak power, and can definitely crank out the tunes. Audiophiles will be disappointed with the sound quality, though. Depending on which head unit is installed (and there are three to choose from), the sound ranges from muffled to boomy, though the mid-grade head unit’s “loudness” equalization does a good job at compensating. And hey, at least it goes all loud.

Not nearly as loud as the tC’s new 20-year-old driver will be when he realizes that the top-spec Alpine head unit he paid for doesn’t allow browsing through your music collection while you’re moving.

What lawyer won that battle? So great, Toyota’s lawyers would rather have some young driver unplug their iPod, manually queue a song up while holding the device in their hand, and then plug it back in? And that’s safer than just designing a head unit that’s easy to browse through the music collection? Doubtful. Luckily, the Alpine’s entire user interface sucks so bad that no one will buy it in the first place. And at least the tC’s dash has a double-DIN opening, so buyers can choose from their own favorite aftermarket stereo. So there. Buy the base stereo and do your own upgrades, kids.

Where was I? Oh yeah… um, the rear seats are comfortable (especially since they can recline slightly) and commodious, restrictive only in headroom. And that’s really only an issue for rear-seat passengers taller than six feet–and only because the material directly above their noggin is rock-hard glass. Happily, the glass is tinted, so tall back-seat drivers won’t get sunburn to match their concussions.


Scion tC customers are decidedly split between girls (it’s cute!) and boys (it’s a sport compact!) Both get a transmission upgrade this year: the automatic transmission gets two additional gears for a total of six, but its lack of a true manual mode or paddle shifters shows that it’s meant for non-enthusiasts. *cough* Girls *cough.* Still, in automatic mode, it serves up downshifts readily and smoothly, and the additional gears certainly help with acceleration and fuel economy. More on that later.

The boys, of course, will want the stick. And they get another gear to play with — also six, up from five. Shift throws are relatively short and tight, with a vaguely Volkswagen-like willingness to fall into a gear. The clutch’s action isn’t as pleasing, as it begins to catch low in the pedal’s travel but doesn’t fully engage until nearly the top. Furthermore, throttle response isn’t exactly linear and the engine isn’t the quickest to rev, so you do have to work a bit to be smooth.

Still, the four-cylinder under the hood does a very good job at keeping vibrations to a minimum. Enlarged from 2362 to 2494cc, the new 2AR-FE 16-valve has variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. Compression has been increased from 9.8:1 to 10.4:1, though it still runs happily on 87 octane fuel. The 2.5-liter makes 180 hp @ 6000 rpm (compared to 161 at the same rpm for the 2.4), and 173 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm (up from 162 @ 4000.) It’s not a particularly thrilling engine, but it makes pleasant noises — and power — throughout the rev range. It certainly wouldn’t hurt tC sales to make a high-personality, 7500-rpm version of this engine. And a turbo version would throw enthusiast sales through the roof. Just sayin’. (Oh, and the Camry’s 2.7-liter version of this engine wasn’t considered, for cost reasons. I asked.)


Toyota hasn’t released final weight specifications for the tC, but we’re told it gained less than 100 lb over the last model, which would make the 2011 tC weigh a bit over 3000 lb. Thanks to the additional horsepressure and gears in the transmissions, Toyota says acceleration times are significantly improved. The automatic is said to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds (down from 9.1). The six-speed manual does the deed in 7.6 seconds, down from 8.2.

From the (comfortable, wide, and supportive) driver’s seat, the tC feels quick and fun. The automatic’s considerably longer top gear makes up for any fuel economy disadvantage inherent in its design (both cars are EPA rated at 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway), but gaining additional speed on the highway requires a downshift or three.

The tC suffers from no major torque steer, and its power steering, now electrically boosted, feels commendably natural. Not a huge amount of steering feedback comes through, but neither is the system numb. The tC will exhibit some wheel hop on grippier surfaces, but its front end is overall well behaved.

Sadly so, too, is its rear. The tC understeers ferociously, and with moderate grip limits. We drove a tC equipped with TRD sway bars, and it improved handling balance considerably — trail-braking now helped rotate the rear rather than causing the front to wash out farther — with no real sacrifice to ride comfort. In fact, the tC rides very well, especially considering its diminutive size. (A fully tricked-out TRD tC didn’t, however. The combination of nineteen-inch wheels and lowering springs made for a brutal ride. That itself wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the sunroof hadn’t rattled incessantly because of it. Luckily, we could drown the rattles out with the exhaust note. Vroom!)


The tC is a fun package right out of the box — and it’s easy to see why it’s a tuner favorite. Some of the interior materials are a slight letdown, but in sum, this Scion offers a lot for the money. Base price for the 6-speed manual is $18,995 (with destination; the automatic adds $1000) and that includes eighteen-inch alloys and the panoramic sunroof. In fact, the only big omission is Bluetooth audio, which is a dealer-installed accessory, and its availability depends on which stereo you’ve selected.

Perhaps the same Toyota engineers responsible for the ancient LED clock and the unusable Alpine head unit were also the ones who decided that Bluetooth wouldn’t come standard. After all, California and Florida are Scion’s biggest markets. California requires the use of a hands-free device, and such a law is pending in Florida’s senate. Why force customers to make use of the tC’s airbags and crumple zones instead of equipping the car with Bluetooth for, what, $25? This car’s average buyer is 26 years old. When was the last time you saw a 26-year-old driving while *not* on the phone? Let’s teach these kids to be safe, allright? Oh, and move that damn USB port to the glovebox so they can’t futz with their iPhones while driving, either. Putting the USB port out of view also solves the other problem of having to disconnect and hide a USB stick or iPod to avoid grabbing the attention of thieves. See? Was that so difficult?

Um, yeah, as I was saying. tC = cute little car. Fun little car. Funner than before, actually. Better-looking, too. Faster, also. More efficient, even. And only marginally more expensive. Looks like Scion dealers have something to keep them busy until the totally awesome, totally different iQ comes out later this year.

Buying Guide
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2011 Scion tC

2011 Scion tC

MSRP $18,275 Base (Manual) Hatchback


23 City / 31 Hwy

Safety (NHTSA):


Horse Power:

180 @ 6000