We're often attracted to a car by its style, but come to love it by the way it feels, which makes the steering wheel a critical component, not just for the obvious reason, but because it's also the first really important tactile point of contact with a new-to-you vehicle.
Apart from the driver's side door handle and your backside's initial contact with the seat, the wheel is the first thing you lay your hands on when you climb into a strange vehicle.
And I rather liked the thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed unit in the newly redesigned - and new to Canada this past fall - second-generation Scion tC. A $20,000-something compact sports coupe now being marketed by Toyota to 20-somethings.
What was just a little unfortunate was that I'd just enjoyed employing a similarly shaped device in the $200,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS gulling. Not surprisingly given the 10-times price differential, the experience felt something like slipping a Tag-Heuer on your wrist and then a Timex. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with the Scion's wheel, in fact it's pretty cool, just a case of very different price points.
More importantly, I also liked what happened when I used it. By targeting the Scion tC at young buyers - in the United States its average buyer is in their mid-20s - the suspension tuners could focus their attention more pointedly on handling rather than ride and also had a revised platform to work with.
Aim a Scion tC through a long highway on-ramp's S-bends with your foot planted firmly on the gas pedal - more on what it's connected to in a moment - and you appreciate the electric power steering's nicely dialled in on/off centre feel and reasonably realistic degree of effort. And minimal body roll that lets you carve a smoothly paved curve with luge-like precision.
On the test track last fall at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's Car of The Year TestFest - at and, at times, beyond its limits - the Scion tC also proved eager and willing to play at a more serious level. It changed direction readily through a tight slalom's cones or at considerable higher speed through long sweeping gated arcs, and its all-season tires provided more than acceptable grip for cornering or when you applied the firmly progressive brake pedal. In AJAC testing, the Scion tC delivered shorter stops than the other four cars in its category.
The downside of this is that when the surface gets bumpy, the stiff springs and firm dampers, and the wide and low-profile (P225/45R18) tires transmit jolts that will get the needle on your personal seismic event recorder jumping. Again though, nothing supple 20-something spines can't deal with. And which my, now thoroughly compressed vertebrae, have learned to put up with.
Okay, so the handling is all it should be for a $20,850 sports coupe. How does it go?
Small is the new big as pump prices go up, up and up
Not bad in this category either, actually. The Scion's 2.5-litre, twin-cam, four-cylinder produces 180 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque - achievements broadcast by a sporty but not rorty exhaust note. And this is fed to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox (a six-speed automatic is available) whose shifter operates through a quick, tight and accurate pattern.
That much grunt is enough to provide both easy drivability and, again according to AJAC testing, 100 km/h in 8.6 seconds (although I've seen times better than a second quicker quoted), and good fuel economy, too. I averaged 7.8 litres/100 km, but this was mostly highway driving.
The tC's two-door hatchback styling is a little different, but not in a bad way and, of course, the hatch makes it practical for carrying stuff. A pair of rear-seat passengers won't complain too much about the accommodation.
Up front are sporty-looking and fully adjustable seats that locate you comfortably enough in a cabin that's a little on the low-rent side, with just a bit too much hard-looking and -feeling plastic. Fairly quiet at speed, functional and well equipped though: with air conditioning, power windows, mirrors, keyless entry, etc., trip information display, eight-speaker audio system with steering wheel controls (the ones on the radio itself aren't very nice), tilt/telescope wheel and eight airbags. Also standard are stability and traction control and ABS brakes and 18-inch alloy wheels.
About all you can add is a leather package and accessories to personalize it, such as different wheels, shift knobs and pedals. There are also some Toyota Racing Developments (TRD) go-fast goodies.
Toyota launched Scion with 45 dealers in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in September but will have 40 more on board across the country by the spring.
2011 Scion tC
Type: Compact coupe
Base Price: $20,850; as tested, $22,347
Engine: 2.5-L, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 180 hp/173 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Focus Coupe, Honda Civic Coupe, Kia Koup, Mini Cooper, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Hyundai Accent Hatchback