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Scion tC balances thrift, sporty performance

It’s a fact that the Scion tC is part of a very exclusive club.

Amidst the myriad new 2011 vehicles, from the highest of high-roller exotics to the humblest of econo-boxes, the one area where choice is at a premium is the affordable sport-coupe category. Among the few that qualify, the tC earns a spot near the top of the scope-it-out list.

Since opening shop for the 2004 model year, Toyota’s youth-centered Scion brand has presented an assortment of mainly boxy designs that have been met with mixed success. However the one continuing bright light has been the tC hatchback coupe that launched for the 2005 model year. As with all Scions, the tC was loaded with normally extra-cost content, but proved to be light on its feet as a driver’s car and required only a light touch on the pocketbook.

For the 2011 model year, the new tC uses the same basic platform as the original, but nearly every other piece of the car has been updated, refreshed, replaced, or significantly improved. The nose has a more aggressive look and the reshaped roofline gives rear-seat passengers a bit more headroom. As well the new rear taillights that frame a generously sized hatch-opening are neatly integrated with the fenders. While not drop-dead spectacular, the tC appears more grown-up, perhaps in keeping with its aging fan base.

Although the car’s original architecture carries over and most of the basic dimensions remain about the same, modifications were performed on the front and rear suspensions in an attempt to enhance nimbleness. The front and rear disc brakes have been upgraded and a set of seven-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels (up an inch from the 2010 standard size) have been installed.

The cabin area has come in for special scrutiny and features thicker seats with improved bolstering. The larger primary gauges display a three-dimensional effect that’s designed to make them more visible to the driver. Additionally, a flat-bottom steering wheel has also been installed to provide more knee/thigh room for the driver, which is especially handy during ingress/egress. Carrying over is the 60/40 split-folding rear seat that reclines up to 10 degrees and a floor-console storage spot that will store up to 18 CDs (or more likely plenty of space for your cell phone, iPod and digital camera).

To achieve an elevated degree of sportiness, the new tC runs with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 180 horsepower, up 19 from the outgoing 161-horsepower 2.4-liter powerplant. Torque has also increased to 173 pound-feet, up 11 from the previous 162 rating. The tC’s new engine sees service in other Toyota-branded products, but revisions to the intake and exhaust systems have been tuned for more power and growl.

Transmissions consist of a six-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic (for 2010 a five-speed manual/four-speed automatic team were available).

The new powertrain earns the tC a rating of 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, regardless of transmission choice. Efficiency is claimed to be slightly greater than that of the outgoing model.

A major attraction for the tC, as it is for all Scion vehicles, is the impressive amount of standard content centered around air conditioning, keyless entry, cruise control and various powered accessories. You also get a panoramic moonroof, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls and a 300-watt, eight-speaker Pioneer-brand sound system. All this comes at a price that ducks below the $20,000 threshold.

Scion dealers can install a variety of extra-cost add-ons, including 19-inch wheels, beefier suspension parts, cold-air intake, premium Alpine stereo and lower body graphics, just to name a few.

All that’s left for you to do is pick a color and drive away in one of the best sports car deals around.

Welcome to the club.

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