The late 1970s and early ’80s were a dark time in our cultural history. Disco, synth-heavy cheese metal and of course, the great Automotive Malaise Era. An unfortunate 90s disco craze notwithstanding, we’ve managed to leave most hallmarks of the era behind, with one exception: exercise wear as everyday attire. The era’s fitness boom brought us the track suit, of which a mere 4% have ever been anywhere near any kind of running event, the remainder accumulating in stereotype-heavy neighborhoods across the country. We’ve come to accept yoga pants, basketball shorts and cross trainers as casual attire, knowing full well the wearers will break no sweat that day.
With its low-slung stance, big brakes, 19″ wheels and aggressive marketing, the Scion tC’s the cross trainer of the automotive world. But is it fit to hit the track, or just wait in line at Starbucks?
Our tC tester showed up in Dirt Magnet Black, sporting no factory options on the window sticker, despite being equipped with 19″ wheels, a big brake kit and an exhaust from TRD. The exhaust is $699, but Scion appears to have no official pricing released on the wheels or brake kit. Ah, but back to the car: $18,275 (plus, plus) gets a pile of features that’s de riguer these days, but impressive to those of us with our minds stuck in the ’90s: AC, cruise, power everything, keyless entry and a thumping stereo with AUX/USB/iPod inputs. Under the hood drones (more on that later) a 2.5L, 180hp 4 cylinder. Thankfully, our tester was missing one $1,000 option: an automatic transmission.
Among my reviews, you’ll notice a common theme: a low tolerance for poor interior ergonomics, particularly in cars with sporting pretensions. Poorly laid out driver’s controls, insufficiently bolstered seats, or terrible sight lines are inexcusable in
2010 2011. Why? Because a frickin’ Scion can do them right. The wheel, shifter, pedals, and mirrors were where I wanted them to be and the cloth seat had just the right mix of bolstering and comfort. I shouldn’t have to compliment Scion for building and interior with seats that lean/fold easily and storage trays of useful size and location, but I will. With the the rear seats down, there’s just enough room for a couple of occupied sleeping bags and a box of wine, which is to say all that’s needed for the target buyer. Others who’ve been in the 2011 tC claim the interior materials felt cheap, but I honestly never even noticed them.
Around town or on the highway, the tC makes a great commuter. It’s the kind of car I should be driving on my 85 mile round-trip slog if I wasn’t a nutjob who thinks a 47 year old V8 Falcon is a reasonable car for the job. The 2.5L engine has a broad enough torque curve for easy hill starts without much clutch abuse or chugging along at low RPMs when traffic gets slow. You can also make use of the 6 speed’s relatively tall gears and pull roughly 30mpg despite regularly exceeding the speed limit by 35%.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish within 30 minutes of my house in northeast LA. For one, you can reach the slightly snowy peaks of the Angeles National Forest. On the way, you can learn a lot about a car. In the case of the tC, it’s evident that any comparisons to the Celica GTS, RSX/Integra or even Prelude of days gone by would be wholly inappropriate. Winding up the mountainside, the tC felt competent, sure, but never nimble. Under the hood strums a lump of a 2.5L motor, not the revvy 1.8 or 2.0s of hot hatches that came before. It sounds no more excited at redline than 3800rpm, just louder. The chassis feels like it needs another 50 horsepower (or 2″ less tire width) to make things interesting. Despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed my Sunday morning drive (in contrast to the same trip in the Camaro), as the whole cabin seemed engineered around someone my exact size.
In case it’s not yet obvious, the tC is not a sports car. In fact, by the definition of most here, it’s barely a sporty car. Long ago, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was still possible to find two-door, manual transmission versions of workaday midsize commuters like the Accord or Camry. These weren’t pretend sports cars, just oddball options combinations for cheapskates. Like the coelacanth or The Darkness, the tC revived a segment previously thought to be extinct: the kinda-sporty-but-not-really-despite-having-two-doors-and-a-stick. On its coattails we find the Altima and Accord Coupes.
In a way, it’s too bad that an otherwise likable vehicle could be considered as a total failure for daring to look a little sporty and offer the manual transmission we clamor so for so loudly. No doubt there are those among our readers with fond memories of flogging an otherwise totally unworthy coupe, aided in their hoonage by a stick. The tC has potential to be such a car, one that a future owner of a real sports car looks back on as being not particularly fast, but not a bad car by any measure. Alas, today two doors = “dood whatz u ring time?”. Which is unfortunate, because viewed through the former lens, the tC makes a dang good car; viewed through the later it’s kind of a joke of a poseur-mobile.
Part of its problem is its price: playing “I’m not touching youuu” with $20k instantly invites comparisons to the likes of a V6 Mustang, GTI or MazdaSpeed3, all of which have real sporting tattoos to the tC’s rub-on. Whether the the $3-4,000 price jump constitutes significant difference is a matter of some debate. It’s worth noting that for your average 18-25 year old male, there’s a major difference in insurance premiums between a FWD 180hp tC and any of the above. Back down in the 3.0GPA graduation present range, the tC contends in a crowded kinda-sporty segment that includes the base (2.5L) Golf, Sentra SE-R, Mazda3 and Lancer GTS. For my money, I would (and did) take a used WRX, but that’s cheating.
If the previous 927 words didn’t make it clear, I like the tC, despite being a little embarrassed for it. If you’ll permit yet another metaphor in its favor: Apple Jacks neither look nor taste like apples, but they can still make for a delicious Saturday morning.