Affordable compact among the best in its class
by: Courtesy of Scion Scion has upped the ante in the compact coupe market with a beefier, more powerful but still economical tC.

Affordable compact coupes and hatchbacks occupy a small but important market niche. With only two passenger doors and small back seats, they are aimed at singles and couples without children. Buyers are looking to save money, otherwise they'd choose a more expensive car. But they also want a little style, which is why they're not buying a sedan. After all, compact sedans have historically been among the homeliest cars ever made.

As a result, affordable compact coupes and hatchbacks are the first new cars that many people buy, especially young people. This gives manufacturers a chance to impress them with one of their products and begin building sought-after brand loyalty. At the very least, they should be fun to drive. Because they weigh so little, even a small four-cylinder engine should offer lively performance, especially when mated to an automatic transmission.

But instead, over the years, a lot of affordable compact coupes and hatchbacks have been disappointing - slow, unresponsive and boring. Older cars like the two-door version of the Chevrolet Caviler were dull. Newer ones like the Pontiac G3 helps explain why that company went out of business. Even the sport versions were little more than decal packages.

Toyota bucked that trend when it launched its Scion division in 2004 and introduced the tC the next year. It looked sporty and handled well. The sloping roofline disguised a practical hatchback door. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produced 160 horsepower and 163 foot-pounds of torque, enough for spirited driving while still saving at the gas pump. Although Scion offered many performance and styling upgrades for all its cars, the tC was a winner right out of the box. And with a base price at under $17,000, young buyers could afford it.

Now, seven years later, Scion has introduced the second generation tC. At first glance, it seems little changed from the first version. But in fact, all of the sheet metal is new. Compared side-by-side, the 2011 tC is more muscular looking, although the deep purple color of our test car made that a little hard to see.

The engine is also larger. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine now cranks out 180 horsepower and 173 foot-pounds of torque. Although not as powerful as the V6 and turbocharged engines found in some compacts, it is strong enough to spin the tires in first gear and challenge bigger cars, at least in town.

As a result of the all the changes, the 2011 tC is even more fun to drive than before. The engine revs freely, the suspension is firm but not harsh, and bigger disc brakes stop it quicker. Our test car was equipped with a slick shifting six-speed manual transmission that encouraged aggressive driving, at the cost of reduced fuel economy. More restrained drivers should be able to achieve the EPA estimated 23 city/31 highway miles per gallon, however.

Inside the tC is cleanly laid out with big, easy to use knobs for the major stereo and climate controls. The large sunroof let in plenty of light, making it feel even roomier. The front seats were comfortable and supportive through fast corners. Standard features include a good-sounding sport tuned exhaust, 18-inch wheels, eight air bags, stability control, and an eight-speaker audio system with steering wheel mounted controls, and USB and AUX ports.

For those who want even more performance, Scion offers a wide range of Toyota Racing Development parts for the tC, including lowering springs, 19-inch alloy wheels, bigger brakes, a quick shifter, sway bars, a performance exhaust and a cold air intake system. Most buyers should be more than satisfied with the stock car, however.

Since the Scion tC was introduced seven years ago, the competition in the affordable compact coupe has increased significantly. Viable alternatives now include the Kia Forte Koup and the Honda Civic Si. For a little more money, the Hyundai Genesis Coupe offers a surprisingly higher level of performance.

Affordable compact sedans also look better than before, especially all new Huyndai Elentra and Chevrolet Cruze, which is the most attractive small four-door that General Motors has every produced.

But with this year's changes, the Scion tC is still a top contender for those who want style, performance and economy at a reasonable price.

• Model: 2011 tC.

• Manufacturer: Scion.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Three door, five-passenger car.

• Powertrain: 2.5-liter inline 4 (180 hp, 173 lbs-ft).

• Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 23/31

• Price: Beginning at approximately $18,000

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