On The Road Review: Toyota Scion tC

From late 1970 until 2006, Toyota sold a sportily styled coupe/hatchback car called the Celica. During seven generations of this fuel-efficient compact, Toyota created tons of sales as well as untold fans of the brand as the Celica had an almost cult-like following among certain drivers. In many ways, the Celica defined a whole generation of Toyota drivers.

During the run-up to the late 1990s, Toyota realized that its buyers were getting a little long-in-the-tooth. Buying surveys indicated that Toyota owners were approaching late baby boomer status. Toyota was no longer the trendy hit car brand for young buyers.

After the ultra-successful rollout of the Lexus luxury brand, Toyota executives knew that they could create a consumer-specific auto brand that could satisfy their buying-age shortcomings. The Scion ‘youth’ brand was created in 2000 with the first models on display at auto shows in 2002.

In late spring 2003, the first Scion models debuted in showrooms. The diminutive xA and the boxy xB were decided departures from the usual staid offerings that were fixtures among the Toyota process. Approximately a year later the swoopy tC hatchback debuted to flush out the lineup and give Toyota/Scion dealers a more meaningful assortment of cars for a new generation of drivers.

About the same time, Toyota started thinking about eliminating the Celica and finished production in late 2005. Sales had been slowing — as had many small cars — yet the Celica still retained a fairly captive niche. The similar Honda and Nissan products had nowhere near the same market recognition, but Toyota pulled the plug on the Celica anyway and a stalwart of their lineup was put to pasture.

These thoughts clouded my impressions as I plied the rural roads of Maine with the newest Scion. Day after day, I saw older Celicas at the gas station, out on the road, tucked in dooryards, or, sporting ‘custom’ paint and bodywork. This car really represented multiple values — from sporty coupe to attractive and fuel-miserly commuter car — for a host of owners who have not ended their relationship yet.

Even though the Celica spawned a real sports car, the Supra, Toyota doesn’t have a long history of building real mass-market sporting machines such as Nissan’s ‘Z’ car or Chevy’s Corvette or the Ford’s Mustang. Since the first rear-drive Celicas and the Supra, the only other rear-drive Toyota is today’s NASCAR racer.

The Scion tC won’t change that reality, but it will prove to be attractive to a younger driver who has a different perspective.

Launched last year with a styling makeover, more power, and more standard equipment, the tC hones its image and exudes more pizzazz at a time when Scion needs the jump-start. This year, tC sales have doubled to over 12,000 units through June, helping Scion to increase volume by 19 percent in 2011.

By reshaping the front end and stretching the roofline farther back into the lift-back, the new tC looks larger and is larger inside. Rear seat space is actually hospitable for real people while the low front seats are aimed to support the sporty car image. Seat comfort was good enough that a long 490-mile day in the saddle produced no issues — except for the query of why does the lightly traveled 103-mile ride from Fort Kent to Sherman on rural Route 11 have no fewer than five official rest areas, yet the 80-mile highway ride from Bangor to Gardiner has one open rest area? Probably the Scion owner won’t care about that.

Drivers sit behind a comfortable thick-rim steering wheel with practical if unexciting gauges well positioned. The center info-station only displays one piece of data at a time — trip mileage, fuel mileage, outside temp, etc. — plus the overall feel of the cabin is not quite as polished or premium feeling as some of the Scion’s rivals. At highway speeds the Scion’s cabin could be quieter, too.

On the plus side, a new dual-panel panoramic sunroof is standard as are a split-folding rear seat and 18-inch alloy wheels. The in-dash stereo has the appearance of an aftermarket unit, with tiny control switches that are probably irrelevant to a driver who will use an auxiliary entertainment device anyway.

Under the hood, the tC gets a 19-horsepower boost in output — now 180-peak horsepower from a larger 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic, units that replace older four-speed auto and five-speed manual transmissions. Fuel economy is up slightly to 23/31 mpg. With little regard for maximizing fuel economy, my test car exceeded 31 mpg for our whole week together, so the tC carries on the Celica’s fuel-miserliness traditions.

Teamed to the new automatic, the Scion displayed a tendency to want to get into the highest gear as soon as possible. This helps your fuel mileage, but stunts the performance aspect of your ‘sporty’ car. This action also highlighted the slightly tuned exhaust note’s propensity to drone and moan, an unenthusiastic mechanical note that was eliminated by more robust pedal application, or, perhaps the selection of a manual gearbox that lets you the driver decide when to maximize power or economy.

Driving the Scion, however, is very much like the Celica. Sight lines are pretty good and the car is responsive to your inputs with adequate steering feedback, controllable body lean and a compliant suspension. You won’t win any Solo One road rallies with the tC, but you won’t look foolish enthusiastically enjoying your favorite Sunday drive either.

While Scion sales have been significant, they have not been robust and surely Toyota expects more from this brand. The new tC shows evidence that the Scion brand can sell if it gets the product young buyers are looking for.

Just the Facts: Toyota Scion tC

Scion tC is a compact class two-door hatchback with front-wheel drive. Pricing starts at $18,275.

The tC measures 174.0 inches long on a 106.3-inch wheelbase. Base weight is 3,060 pounds.

Scion’s 2.5-liter engine makes 180 hp and 174 pound/feet of peak torque. The tC has a 14.5-gallon fuel tank and EPA mileage estimates of 23/31 mpg.

Compare to Honda CR-Z, VW Golf or Mini Cooper.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.