The 2011 Scion tC is an excellent example of why it pays to keep an open mind in this business. Before the friendly folks at Toyota parked one in my driveway recently, providing the requisite full tank of gas, I considered the brand to be pretty annoying.
It launched in the early 2000's, back when Toyota appeared invincible, and to me it epitomized a certain aura of false modesty that seemed to be the party line with the automaker back then: Toyota execs always said the right things about how they just wanted to do the best gosh darn job they could and humbly satisfy their customers, but you always had the feeling they really thought, deep down in their hearts, that they could do no wrong. Witness the very name they picked for their new youth brand: Scion, as in "descendant, child; especially: a descendant of a wealthy, aristocratic, or influential family"—that's per Merriam-Webster.
And of course, since the brand was supposed to attract just the coolest, hippest young customers in the country, Toyota first introduced Scion solely in California, where all the cool, hip people live, creating a false sense of exclusivity surely designed to stoke demand among the great unwashed.
Worst of all, many of the media outlets fell for Scion hook, line and sinker. I'll never forget reading one review of the original Scion xB, in which the writer noted the "chrome" finish on the car's gearshift was already flaking—but it didn't matter because the car was so darned cool, and inexpensive, too! Never mind a GM product would have be excoriated for that kind of poor interior craftsmanship.
Personally, I caught more than a slight whiff of desperation coming off the strategy, and the actual execution—which appeared to involve selling cheap cars with not-really-all-that-cheap MSRPs—was surprisingly weak.
But because I was able to put all that in the past when my Scion arrived, I can now honestly report that the tC is indeed a superior package for drivers—of any age—who are interested in a low-cost, high-fun sports coupe
The tC as Muscle Car
The first-generation tC was not unattractive, yet as Scion's "sporty" model, well, it just wasn't all that sporty, at least not right out of the box. There were some nice go-fast goodies available from TRD (Toyota Racing Development), but the car's stock power-to-weight ratio was still in the same ballpark as that of a Chevy Cobalt coupe.
Scion addressed that issue for 2011 by giving the redesigned tC a new 2.4-liter I4 worth 180 hp and 173 lb.-ft. of torque, so even though the car's curb weight has now cracked the 3,000-lb. barrier, it's notably quicker, with a notably more aggressive engine sound. The car also sits on a new platform and new suspension, and packs a new six-speed manual transmission, and even though this stuff is "new" only in the sense it's new to the tC—which rides on the same platform that starts back at the Japanese-market Toyota Avensis—this doesn't hamper its effectiveness at improving performance.
The tC's fresh sheet metal moves in a similar direction, using enough angular design cues to put me in mind of Giugiaro's "folded paper" design esthetic from the 1970s. Highlighted by a rear quarter-window design that is reminiscent of that on the Dodge Avenger, the tC's current look, combined with its enhanced performance, are almost enough to get people to consider it as a mini muscle car. In fact, although I didn't do an exhaustive search, a quick glance around the industry seems to indicate that the tC offers the most horsepower of any car on the market that's priced under $19,000.
The Kia Factor
Of course, there are a couple of cars that come awfully close and, unsurprisingly, they're from Kia. Bracketing the tC from both directions are the Kia Optima, which rounds up 200 horses with an MSRP of $19,200, and the Kia Forte Koup SX, with 173 hp under its hood and $18,395 on its window sticker. The Optima, obviously, is aiming at a different kind of driver, but the Forte Koup is aimed right at the tC's target audience.
And when you note that both the tC and Forte Koup SX have the exact same EPA ratings for combined fuel efficiency (26 mpg), it has to be considered a mark of just how impressive the Scion is that it's one of the rare cars on the market to have a direct South Korean rival that doesn't clearly surpass it in terms of price, power or fuel efficiency.