By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
For the first half of 2011, the updated Scion tC hatchback coupe was pretty much the only Scion model that was selling well – roughly doubling its monthly numbers relative to the same six-month period in 2010. But in July of ’11 it was as though someone flipped a switch.
From 2,053 tCs sold in June (vs. 1,137 of the old model in June of 2010) sales of the new tC dipped to 1,590. Come August, things got worse – only 1,114 tCs found buyers – a mere 22 more than were purchased in August of 2010.
Since then, the pattern has continued. With the exception of a one-month blip in September 2011, sales of the new tC have been hovering at slightly below sales of the old tC.
That’s not good news for Scion.
So, is it a bad car?
Or is the competition just better?
WHAT IT IS
The tC is a sport-minded two-plus-two hatchback coupe that’s larger inside (and a lot more practical) than the typical purely sporty two-plus-two compact coupe. It has back seats with adult-adequate leg and headroom – and almost 15 cubic feet of total cargo space behind those back seats.
More, when you fold those seats down.
When the first tC came out back in 2005, there were few, if any, sporty coupes on the market that were both fun and practical.
Unfortunately for Scion, since then – and especially since last year – a number of newer (and lower-priced) competitors built along similar lines have entered the ring, including the three-door Hyundai Veloster – which has a base price of $17,300 – and the Kia Forte, which starts at $17,200.
Prices for the 2012 tC, meanwhile, start at $18,575 and run to $20,905 for the Release Series 7.0 version, a limited edition tC painted “High Voltage” yellow that also comes fitted with a body kit, special 18-inch wheels and yellow-trimmed black upholstery inside.
The current tC was “all new” in 2011. Other than the addition of the limited-edition Release Series 7.0 and the addition of an upgraded HD audio system with Bluetooth streaming capability, the 2012 tC is a carryover.
Distinctive chunky monkey styling.
Serviceable back seats; lots of cargo space.
Punchy engine; sharp-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.
Lots of dealer-available Toyota Racing Development (TRD) performance enhancers, including high-flow exhaust and air intake, lowering springs, strut tower brace, etc.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Chunky monkey styling.
About 300 pounds too heavy.
Too-intrusive traction/stability control (TCS).
Fumbly audio controls.
UNDER THE HOOD
By the numbers, the tC certainly qualifies as a sporty car.
It comes standard with a 2.5 liter, 180 hp engine – a much stronger engine than the Hyundai Veloster’s standard 1.6 liter, 138 hp engine and the Honda’s Civic’s standard 1.8 liter, 140 hp engine.
More to the point, it’s strong enough to chuck the tC from 0-60 in just over 7 seconds.
That’s on par with what you’d experience in a true sports car like the Mazda Miata – and nearly two seconds quicker than either the Veloster or the Civic (excepting the more powerful – and much more expensive – Civic Si, which starts at $22,205).
You can go with the standard six-speed automatic or opt for the available six-speed automatic – which by the way is also a very sporty automatic (more on this below).
However, there is also the Kia Forte SX.
It comes standard with a similarly potent 2.4 liter, 173 hp engine that does the 0-60 sprint in about the same low seven second timeframe, offers both six-speed manual and six-speed automatic transmissions – and its base price of $18,600 is within $25 of the tC’s base price of $18,575.
A close shave.
It’d be less close if the tC dropped some weight. At 3,060 lbs. the Scion is heavier by 300-400 pounds than others in this segment, most notably the 2,584 lb. Veloster and the 2,594 lb. Civic.
It’s also 323 lbs. heavier than the Kia Forte SX (2,737 lbs.).
Fuel economy would be better, too, if the tC went on a diet.
EPA rates the tC at 23 city/31 highway with either manual or automatic. It’s not bad considered in isolation, but compared with the competition, it’s only so-so.
For example, Kia’s similarly powerful but 300 pounds lighter Forte SX delivers 22 city/32 highway with the manual; slightly better (23 city) with the optional automatic.
The Honda Civic rates 28 city, 36 highway.
And the flyweight Veloster comes in at a very impressive 28 city/40 highway.
If the tC weighed about the same as the Veloster or the Forte, its mileage would probably be significantly better rather than just par.
And of course it’d be much quicker, too.
(Buyer’s note: Honda does offer a max-effort HF version of the Civic that gets 29 city, 41 highway but the package is only available with Civic sedans – and the $19,455 MSRP price is about $1,000 more than the tC coupe’s base price of $18,575.)
ON THE ROAD
Despite its weight, the tC is still an engaging car to drive. The larger, more powerful standard engine (the original tC had a 161 hp engine) makes up for the sheetmetal beer belly in a straight line and – surprisingly – you don’t notice the 300-plus pounds too much in the curves either. Not unless you’re really hustling, anyhow. Then you’ll notice the typically Toyota over-intrusive traction/stability control engaging frantically.
Of all the major automakers, Toyota is probably the most pre-emptively nannyish. Scion – its youth-intended spin-off brand – should be less so. It’s one thing for a Prius or an Avalon to get upset when it’s driven a few miles faster than the posted speed limit and tossed into a curve without braking to 10 MPH less than the posted limit. A car like the tC, on the other hand – and a brand like Scion – ought to have a higher threshold of tolerance for envelope pushing activities before Big Momma steps in to call a halt to the fun.
There is an “off” switch for the TCS on the console but, as in all current Toyota cars, “off” is not all the way off. The system will still interrupt your activities beyond a certain (low) point even though you thought you’d turned it off. There is probably a way to rig it so that “off” means off. But as with GM’s noxious DRLs, you should not have to go through all this rigmarole to do so.
A bright spot is the tC’s superb six-speed automatic. This transmission greatly impressed me with the sharpness – and sharp timing – of its shifts. For example, it will do a double downshift for you during hard braking, which adds a helpful engine braking effect. And it’ll drop – and hold – a lower gear in a descending high-speed corner, working with you just like a manual transmission would instead of making you do extra work (manually forced downshift) to avoid the car getting too light in the tail in said high-speed descending corner. Toyota doesn’t claim this transmission has a rev-matching shift function – blipping the throttle just before a gear change to keep the engine right on the frothy top of its power curve – but it feels like it does.
I normally prefer a manual transmission, especially in a sporty car. But if I were about to buy a tC, I’d be very tempted to buy the automatic. If you’re considering the tC, be sure to try both versions before you commit.
AT THE CURB
The cars in this segment are designed to be fun but not so much fun that they’re not very practical for everyday use. It’s why they have not only back seats but usable back seats, with adequate head and legroom for all but the tallest adults – and long road trips.
Let me give you an interesting cross-reference:
The tC’s got about four-and-a-half-inches more backseat legroom (34.6 inches) than the much larger overall Chevy Camaro (29.9 inches) and about an inch-and-a-half more headroom, too. These extra inches are the difference between back seats humans can use and back seats that are for kids (and gym bags) only.
A more purpose-built sporty car like the Camaro also comes with a compromised trunk – 11.3 cubic feet. You can barely get the aforesaid gym bag in there, so I guess it’s good you’ve got the back seats for that. But in the tC, you’ve got almost 15 cubic feet and because it’s a hatchback with easily foldable back seats and a completely open pass-through area, much more usable space than that, if you need it.
The tC also has more cargo room than the Kia Forte (12.6 cubic feet) and Honda Civic (11.7 cubic feet).
Hyundai’s Veloster, on the other hand, has slightly more space (15.5 cubic feet) and it has that extra door, too.
As far as looks – well, that’s up to you.
The tC has an usual shape – blocky and even chunky in a class where round rules. Objectively, the upright and angular roof profile serves the purpose of making the back seats human-friendly. Subjectively, it looks more sedan-ish than coupe-ish to me. But it’s how it looks to you that matters.
Inside, there’s a lot of dull-finished hard plastics which I am not a big fan of. To me, the tC has a Batmobile ambiance – dark and somber, though purposeful. Again, it’s a subjective call.
Objectively, I really liked the generous envelope of space. Total interior volume in the tC (105.5 cubic feet) is substantially more than in much larger (alleged) two-plus-twos like the Chevy Camaro (93 cubic feet). Though I am 6 feet 3 and over 200 pounds I never felt claustrophobically confined inside the tC.
The openness vibe is added to by the available two-piece sunroof, which includes a second piece for the back-seat riders.
I also liked the racy-fat TRD (Toyota Racing Development) steering wheel – and also the fact that you can upgrade the handling and braking capability of the tC with numerous factory-engineered, dealer-available TRD accessories.
The one sad mention is that – apparently – the formerly available TRD supercharger kit that you could use to up the power/performance of the old tC is not being offered for the new tC. Toyota apparently decided that while the old car (161 hp) maybe needed a boost, the current car, with 180 hp, doesn’t. I think Toyota should reconsider. An available TRD supercharger kit would give the current tC enough muscle to easily knock out the Civic Si – and possibly threaten 300 hp Camaros and Mustangs, too.
Scion touts the tC as a car built to appeal to current young 20-somethings, so as a 40-something, I just may be too old and unhip to “get” the (to me) cryptic and fumbly-to-use audio controls. There’s a rubbery mouse-like main knob you use (or in my case, try to use) to toggle through the radio stations and numerous very small buttons to engage other functions. I found it hard and not-fun to use, even when the car was parked – much less when it was moving. But again, maybe it’s just me – and my ggg-Gen X generation.
I did like the pull-up emergency brake on the center console. Note my careful word choice. All-too-many cars come with parking brakes you engage by pushing on a pedal with your left leg or by pushing a button with your finger. Neither will do you much good if you ever have to deal with a brake system failure. A pull-up parking brake will – and could possibly save your life. It also makes it possible to execute “Rockfords” – not that you would, of course.
But, you could.
And in a sporty car, you should be able to do that, if you wanted to do that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I think if Scion could cut some fat – and up the MPGs – the tC might do better than it has been doing. It is by no means a bad car. In some areas – like power/performance – its an objectively better car than most if not all of its immediate competition.
The problem is the competition’s got its own appeal – and in other areas (including mileage) is clearly better.
Scion needs to do more to make the tC the clear best-choice, or at least, one of the top two or three best choices in this class.