2011 Scion tC: Test Drive

Let me start by saying that this will not be your average car review. In fact, none of the reviews on Up-Shift will be. We’ve always been a group of driving enthusiasts, so the driving experience is always what is most important to us. That’s why I can say that after being let down by my test drive of the first-generation tC, I really wasn’t looking forward to driving the 2011 2nd Gen car. One thing I have learned from my adventures in automotive journalism though, is to never judge too quickly. After just one accumulated hour of driving in the 2011 Scion tC, I was again forced to change my opinions. In fact, looking back on my week with the 2011 model, the negatives were quite few.

The first mistake you would make when approaching the tC is to judge this book by its cover. Ok, you’re thinking it and I’m thinking it, so let’s just come right out and say it: the car is pretty ugly. Many people I showed the car to agree that the styling of the vehicle is simply off.

In my opinion, the original styling of the first generation tC was amazing. The car looked fantastic and all I ever wanted was for there to be a RWD version. For some reason though, 9 times out of 10 when you saw one on the road, it was being driven by a female. My wife even test drove one. Thus the first gen tC’s reputation as being a bit of a “chick car”. It’s understandable, then, that Toyota would make such a huge styling change in an effort to move away from that image and provide a sportier and more masculine-looking vehicle.

The most noteworthy feature that is mentioned repeatedly is the rather flat roofline. It’s such a departure from a typical arched roofline that it stands out like a sore thumb. This also gives the appearance of very long doors. However this is no optical illusion; the doors of the new model are very long indeed. But so are its windows which I was very pleased with thanks to the wide-sweeping field of vision they provide.

While we’re on the subject of visibility, some consideration had to be given to setting the side mirrors. The 2011 tC is the first car I have driven in a while that has a driving position that sits so low. This requires the mirrors to be angled up more than you would with the average car, leaving you with less ground to look at while backing up. It also requires a quick second glance to double check the mirrors before changing lanes. One thing I highly suggest is pulling in to a parking spot that faces a wall. Pulling in to parking spaces is a good way to get to know where the front of your vehicle is and will give you an idea of how far to the sides you can see with your mirrors. This little procedure is probably the quickest way to learn with the tC.

At this point you might get the impression that I’m not a fan of Scion’s new coupe. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the rest of this article will be dedicated to how awesome everything else about this car is and why I say you should definitely put the 2011 tC in your top three if you’re looking for a sporty coupe to put in the driveway.

Again, as an enthusiast that likes a driver-centric ride, I am more focused on what is important to a driver. So, if we’re being realistic, which you know we always are, you’re hardly ever going to take a lawn chair out to your front porch to sit and stare at a car like this. In fact, once you drive the tC, you’ll find every excuse to get behind the wheel. I was actually begged this week to take our other car, an ‘04 Mazda 3, instead of the Scion. I honestly never enjoyed getting out of the car. I very much looked forward to getting into it.

 

When the key is inserted and turned to the on position, you are greeted with a wonderful light show and needle dance which is just an opening act to an impressive headlining concert called starting the engine. A great sound is something that always pushes an enthusiast’s buttons. So, the fairly deep (though slightly constrained) throatiness from the 2.5L V4 says “Hello!” and lets you know right from jump street that your button is in for a lot of pushing.

I’m used to quick and peppy little sport compacts. In fact, I cut my teeth on them. So, I am used to the type of fun and seemingly endless grunt that was delivered by the tC. However, I am also used to having to wring every ounce of performance from small and underpowered low-compression engines. The 2AR-FE equipped tC comes with a 10.4:1 compression ratio. A ratio more commonly found on sport-tuned track cars. The 173lb-ft of this 2.5L gives you its business very early in the rev range, thanks to its much larger displacement. 180hp has no problem keeping this engine responsive at highway speeds. When it comes time to stand and deliver, the tC does so with no questions asked; all while keeping its promise of 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

It seemed that for an entire 7 days the tC almost literally begged to be driven, and I didn’t give it an easy go of it. But even though I put the car through its paces every single day, I still ended up with a quarter of a tank of gas left. Let me stress this next statement. I know of no other car for sale right now that can be driven the way I did the tC for an entire week without needing to take a trip to the pump! In today’s world with the explosive growth of gas prices, this factor in and of itself is priceless.

I was also heavily impressed with the tCs scrub radius. Never heard of a Scrub Radius, huh? If you’re reading a review on this site, you’re a rather serious car enthusiast. So why should you care about it? Well, I won’t bother you with the details, but let’s just describe scrub radius as the amount of friction created on your tires’ contact patch when turning the steering wheel. You see, every tire has a limited amount of grip it can produce because its contact patch is limited. If a car has a high scrub radius it creates a lot of friction instead of traction. So the amount of available grip is basically eaten up, thanks to a poor suspension design. How do you know if you have a high or low scrub radius? Just sit with your vehicle stationary. Take one finger and try to turn the wheel. If you’re having a hard time, you have a high scrub radius. If your wheel turns with very little effort, you’re in a finely-tuned, purpose-built machine, much like the Scion tC.

This also means that the tires can do their job of taking the car around corners with far more grip and a much more confident feel, and any steering adjustments that you make are translated effortlessly. Feedback from the road is more direct and precise, allowing you to feel far more of the road than you could with the previous model or its competitors. This design is coupled with 18×7.5 255/45R18 tires, equipment you would expect to find on much more expensive, high-performance sports cars.

That combination of features, in my opinion, is the biggest reason to suggest to anyone who wants an extremely fun, yet very affordable, sport compact – take a serious look at the Scion tC.

 

The car we tested was equipped with an Alpine Premium HD Radio, iPod Ready CD deck, Bluetooth Hands-free system, Floormats and a Cargo Mat, a super expensive Rear Bumper Appliqué, and an XM Satellite Radio Kit. $1,422 worth of optional equipment as well as the $720 destination charge brought the price to $21,417. Now, one of the rules we set very early on when we established Up Shift is that a great vehicle should deliver a total package for no more than $20K. If you can do without the toys, the base price of $19,275 for the 2011 tC weighs in just under the limit. For only an extra $30 a month in payments though, you can be forgiven wanting to enjoy the finer things in sport compact life.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I really wasn’t looking forward to my week with the 2011 Scion tC. I came away blown away with what Scion has been able to produce. Don’t be surprised if you see the tC again, later this year, as a strong competitor for Up Shift’s Car of The Year.

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