A 21st Century Celica?

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2011 Scion tC

Twenty-five years ago, I lost my father to a heart attack due to complications with diabetes.

In retrospect, my relationship with my father was, at best, interesting. I wanted a relationship with him, but he was more interested in his own life than the lives he helped create. It took me a long time to realize the disconnect that he had with my brother and I.

To pay our final respects to him, my brother and I had to go to the San Francisco Bay Area for his memorial. I arrived a day or so later and rented a vehicle for us to get around in. When I arrived at the National Car Rental counter at San Francisco International Airport, they put me in a somewhat appropriate vehicle: A black 1986 Toyota Celica GT Liftback.

Granted, it is appropriate color-wise. The car? I have to admit to having a bit of fun in it. Though I should heed the words of any good human being: It’s not Kosher to arrive at a memorial service for a relative in a sports coupe.

Driving that Celica did confirm one thing: How much I loved them! That began when they first came out – a Japanese reinterpretation of the original Ford Mustang. Still, the small coupe left an indelible impression at various points in my life. There was a story my mom told how I was brought into the main office of my elementary school to be asked by my principal what car he should buy. Inadvertently, I said the Celica. He bought one and kept it for well over a decade. That was in 1971.

Prior to buying the Acura Integra in late 1990, I had the Celica on my list. For some reason, I should have bought it instead – except I had a quandary. If I wanted to pay less than $15,000, I would end up with the ST coupe with the smaller 1.6liter engine. Yet, I wanted the GT Liftback with the same engine in my brother’s Camry (he bought his first Camry about the same time I bought the Integra). Sadly, I balked at the price. Silly me.

The Celica was dropped from the Toyota lineup in 2005 due to low sales for sports coupes of its kind in North America. It may have been gone, but definitely not forgotten. That spot was filled after Toyota Motor Sales USA created the Scion brand to target younger buyers looking for inexpensive vehicles to modify and personalize. In the summer of 2004, the Scion tC arrived on a Toyota Avensis platform, four seats and a coupe profile with a hatchback. I drove one on a test drive during that first summer of released. I loved how it combined the Celicas I've driven in the past along with my old Integra to create a mature coupe feeling.

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Last year, the old tC gave way to a new one. Now, I ask whether it repeats the same formula as a mature coupe for average drivers like the last one…or, has it reached back into the past to capture that Celica feeling again.

Design-wise, it is far removed from even the last Celica sold in this country. Though Toyota took the last tC and boxed it up, there are cues that are shared from the previous one. I will argue that the first tC was a pure design reflecting of the mature sports coupe I experienced in 2004. This one just looked like something a tuner already got their hands on. The only word I could find in the new tC’s looks is polarizing.

In other words, I'm not entirely won over by the boxed styling.

To feed into my concerns about the design are the 18-inch rims standard in a medium satin finished. On the surface, they seemed more plastic feeling than aluminum. Again, I was looking for maturity and found "boy racer" instead on various levels.

There are some positives to the design. You get repeating turn signals on the side mirrors and the panoramic glass roof panels send a multitude of light into the cabin. The hatchback is huge and provides ample loading for the rear area, especially for a tall guy like me.

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The cabin yielded a few surprises – both positive and otherwise. I took my closest friends along for a ride into the suburbs. It's been a long time since I had them both in a car with me. One of them happens to be six-foot-four (the other is six-foot-two), and I feared he would not like the back seat. Then, I recall that he’s amenable to practically everything. He reported that he was fine back there. Both fit just fine. That was the biggest surprise – how the tC's sporty cabin can fit a tall adult up front and another one in the back.

The reason is quite simple: The tC is still based on the current Toyota Avensis sedan sold in Europe. The long wheelbase created the space my friends demonstrated to be roomy for their tall bodies to manage.

The tC's seats were also pretty supporting and well bolstered. Once set up properly, I had command of the car with plenty of headroom to spare for the sunroof. The shifter was angled to my right foot and the pedals were spaced properly for my sasquatch-sized feet.

The steering wheel was designed to emulate a racing car's with a flat bottom. I'm not sure who came up with this idea, but it did not inspire any want to hoon around the Twin Cities. Instrumentation was framed correctly for my field of vision, but I wasn't crazy about the long and deep flat top of the fascia. The entire dashboard created a huge distance between myself of the leaning edge of the windshield.

The sunroof did not inspire confidence in the tC. I expect when I touch the switch to open it – even for a short touch – that it would open smoothly and completely. It took an effort to have that happen. Since the panel scaled over the second glass panel on the roof, I had a partial opening to enjoy. I kept the sunroof closed while driving – with both shades open.

My biggest complaint about the tC's cabin: The Pioneer audio system. There was plenty of confusion on how to work this properly. Once I learned how to get to at least one menu on one of the switches, I was unable to get to another menu. Then, there’s the knob that is supposed to control both tuning and volume. It's quite fidgety to manage. Luckily, there are controls on the steering wheel that work much better than the ones on the audio head unit – that is, of course, once you set the presets. You can sync your iPod with the audio system, provided that you have a compatible unit and the system is able to boot up your device once it locks into the USB port.

I'm certain that Scion owners can master this audio system better than I attempted to.

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Under the hood is one of Toyota's big four cylinder motors, the 2.5liter 2AR-FE. In the Camry, it works just fine. In the Scion tC, this is a screamer. With 180HP on tap, it gobbles up the road and sticks with a nice cruise. Take it the limit, it howls. It is a pretty loud motor overall – it never wants to quiet down to let you know that it's working. The big four is connected to a six-speed automatic gearbox. It works very well, as a Toyota automatic should. There were times when first gear didn't kick in quick enough before hitting the limit on highway passing scenarios. Afterwards, gear changes were quieter and smoother. The Scion tC is front wheel drive only.

With the noise comes the curious case of its driving dynamics. The tC certainly corners well. It steers pretty sharply as well. The tC has the sportiness down in those departments. There are some faults, however. The ride is solid, but when the road surface becomes uneven, it transmits those faults into the cabin. The brakes were just fine. However, when the brakes were actuated, the transmission decided to kick down presenting some concern on whether the brakes actually work. Is there an engine brake somehow? I can't figure it out…

Fuel consumption-wise, it was about what I expected a sporty coupe with a big four under the hood would get. In this case, the tC got 24.2MPG for the entire time in my care. Admittedly, that’s a little better than I expected considering my right foot. Keep in mind that Scion claims it can get 31MPG on the highway.

For about $20,000, you get enough standard features to get you through. It is also at a price point where you can take Scion's offer to customize your ride with various doo-dads from Scion and Toyota Racing Development. Maybe you could keep it stock…or, strip it down further to make it a racetrack special.

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Two generations in, the Scion tC was deemed the Celica's spiritual ascendant by those in the know. Yet, I am trying to figure out how much of it can be attributed to the legend of the East Africa Rally champion and the champion of an elementary school principal, an egotistic ex-friend and a former supervisor way back when. Is this the spiritual love child of the black 1986 GT Liftback that helped me get through dealing with dad’s side of the family 25 years ago?

Yes and no.

Yes, it is a sports coupe. It has the right engine size if the Celica would have survived the marketplace. It also has the right moves – almost. The engine revs high enough to scream the name of its distant descendent. It also tracks quite well. There are some cues inside that would point to a Celica relative.

Because there are still questions or doubt regarding the Scion's design and other quirks – it would also be a no. There's just some fussiness and silliness involved in the tC that would make me question its worthiness in the footsteps of the old champion.

However, I realize that the world of the sports coupe has changed since my interest in vehicles such as the Celica, Integra and the like. Driving the tC may seem like fun, but I found limited pleasure in enjoying it. Not with the constant engine noise that made thinking a challenge. Not with the drop in height for a tall person to maturely enter and exit gracefully from a good run – such as my overnight adventure to the historic Mississippi River town of Red Wing while the tC was in my care.

It's not me – anymore.

The Celica was from a time when I was young and foolish. It was right for that time. My taste in automobiles has changed. Sure, I appreciate a Porsche, a Ferrari or something along those lines. However, my right foot and driving skills demands a balance between performance and maturity.

But, a boy racer such as the Scion tC? Perhaps not.

Maybe the Scion tC is for you. If it is – it’s all yours.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

All photos by Randy Stern

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