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Scion is shifting rather indiscreetly away from economy cars with its upcoming rear-drive FR-S sports coupe. But it's still focused on small cars done inexpensively, and one of its mainstays, the tC coupe, holds its entry price to under $20,000 while it tries to woo some of the performance-seekers who might be left behind by the FR-S' higher base price.
The front-drive TC made a fairly sharp transition last year, from a softly rounded, Celica-like shape to a crisper, more creased look that's part Camaro, part Cylon. It's chunkier, and the details are bolder, more upfront. The shovel nose kicks up into the fenders, and the line continues skyward at the rear pillars, where it's supposed to evoke the look of a racing helmet. It's a little more sci-fi than that, and as a result, the tC is a lot easier to pick out of the crowd. The same starch gets applied to the cabin, which gets bigger instruments and a flat-bottomed steering wheel--along with some glaring mismatched plastics and lots of cutlines that speak of intense cost-cutting. There's some design frill in the basic shapes of the cut-tube gauges and M&M-shaped climate controls, and the tC wears its red-lit gauges well.
A big four-cylinder engine spins under the hood of the 2012 tC, and it's coupled to either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The testosterone flowing into the sheetmetal isn't quite in evidence here, though the tC performance is pleasant enough. A 0-60 mph time of about eight seconds is on tap--7.6 seconds with the manual, 8.3 seconds with the paddle-free automatic shifter--and cornering is predictable. Ride quality's the winner, with a smooth, controlled feel even with big 18-inch wheels and tires. Electric power steering actually feels good here, too, as do the bigger all-disc brakes.
The usual rules of sporty coupes apply to the tC's interior. It's snug in front and back, and headroom is tight, even in front thanks to a standard sunroof. The front buckets are well bolstered, and they're wide enough for almost any build. The back seat, unusually, reclines a little bit, and the front seats tilt forward easily, which makes getting into the back seat a little better than in most coupes. The cargo area can hold a few roll-on bags and has deep bins for side storage, too.
The Scion tC scores exceptionally well in crash tests. The NHTSA and IIHS both give it top honors.
For less than $20,000, the 2012 Scion tC comes with a good set of standard features including power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; steering-wheel audio controls; XM satellite radio; tilt/telescope steering; and a sunroof. The standard Pioneer audio system comes with iPod and USB connectivity, while the available Alpine Premium system comes with a 4.3-inch color touch screen, HD Radio, MX and RCA inputs, and subwoofer capability. As before, Scion tC buyers will have a long catalog of possible aftermarket appearance and performance upgrades, available through the dealership. Keep it simple, though, or you'll set yourself up for disappointment: a loaded tC overlaps much more exciting machines, like the base 300-horsepower Ford Mustang.