SAN DIEGO – While it would be nice to live in a society that doesn’t assign gender to an automobile, the U.S. in 2010 isn’t there yet.

Exhibit A: The Scion tC.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s first tC coupe arrived in 2004 to mostly good reviews. Its clean appearance, with rounded corners, minimalist face and relatively high-quality interior lent a lovely European-ness to the small car – appropriate since Scion then sought to create a half-price Audi A4 coupe.

Apparently this scheme really appealed to women, who bought the tC more than men and thus it became saddled with the dreaded “chick car” label.

Aware this subtext is an anathema to males, Scion is aiming the second-generation tC, on sale Oct. 1, at the fellas.

Will it work? One could argue that with six years on the market, the damage to the tC’s reputation is done.

But Toyota, nevertheless, has tried, and pretty much succeeded, in imbuing the new version with masculinity:

  • Bigger, more-powerful engine? Check.
  • Beefier tires and brakes? Check.
  • Fat steering wheel with a flat bottom? Check.
  • More menacing appearance? Check.

Unfortunately, all this manliness seems to have come at the expense of the car’s interior materials. In a word: disappointing.

The tC now boasts 180 hp and peak torque of 173 lb.-ft. (234 Nm), a bump up from the first-gen’s 161-hp 2.4L I-4 engine that made 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm). Credit the current Camry SE’s 2.5L all-aluminum I-4 with dual variable valve timing with intelligence.

Other improvements include friction-reducing roller rocker arms and low-tension piston rings, as well as a variable-induction intake manifold system. Together, they help boost not only off-the-line torque but top-end performance.

The 6-speed transmission, manual or automatic, represents an upgrade from the current tC’s 5-speed self-shifter and 4-speed automatic.

Tires now are a standard 18 ins. vs. 17 ins. Front brake rotors grow nearly an inch, compared with the outgoing car, while the rear rotors are 0.4 ins. (1 cm) bigger.

’11 Scion tC
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 2-door coupe
Engine 2.5L DOHC inline 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 180 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 173 lb.-ft (234 Nm) @ 4,100 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 90 x 98
Compression ratio 10.4:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 174 ins. (442 cm)
Overall width 70.7 ins. (180 cm)
Overall height 55.7 ins. (141 cm)
Curb weight 3,060 lbs./1,388 kg
Base price $18,275 (not incl. $720 destination)
Fuel economy 23/31 mpg (10.2-7.6 L/100 km)
Competition Kia Forte Koup, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Mazda3
Pros Cons
Roaring fun to drive Clutch travel, notchy shifter
Nice seat fabric Instrument panel circa ’93 Pontiac
More manly Will women like it, too?

The car’s dimensions remain relatively intact, as the tC still rides on Toyota’s MC underpinnings that also shoulder the Toyota Avensis and Lexus HS 250h.

Equipped with a MacPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone rear, Toyota says the platform is “enhanced” with the addition of sway bars and tuned shocks and springs.

The tC has grown wider, though, by 1.6 ins. (4.1 cm), and has larger front and rear tracks, up 1.3 ins. and 2.1 ins. (3.3-5.3 cm), respectively.

The retuned suspension offers a coarse ride, though the car stays relatively flat in San Diego-area switchbacks, exhibiting minor body roll.

The engine is loud, but not whiny. Its exhaust tone is deeper and more pleasing.

Shifts climb quickly via the 6-speed automatic in a bid to improve fuel economy and we achieve 26 mpg (9.0 L/100 km) in mixed driving.

The Kia Forte Koup, considered the tC’s closest competitor, gets 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) from its 173-hp 2.4L I-4.

However, the Scion’s engine still wants for power, prompting bothersome downshifts in manumatic mode. The manual now has a shorter throw but would benefit from a tighter shift pattern. That also might mitigate its notchy feel.

The tC’s clutch pedal unfortunately still has a lot of travel, resulting in leg strain.

Throttle tip-in with both gearboxes is aggressive, all the more to emphasize the assertive nature of the car.

The electric rack-and-pinion steering, replacing the ’10 tC’s hydraulic setup, feels heavy. And while the thicker wheel won’t please everyone (it favors the big-handed among us), it lends a confident feel.

Much debated is the look of the new tC, mainly because it doesn’t appear too different than the first one.

The changes are subtle and may not be to everyone’s liking. But the exterior is far from offensive, as some critics claim.

The front end slopes more steeply, leaving the Scion logo to rest on the bottom of the grille instead of floating. Headlamps are adjacent to the grille and sweep upward more dramatically than before.

The rear, which features larger, L-shaped taillights, now is squared-off. The decklid also gets an integrated “lip-style” spoiler.

Perhaps the most noticeable is the tC’s flat roof and severely backswept C-pillar. But we still prefer the clean, well-proportioned look of the first tC, with its bullnose front fascia and gracefully sloping roof line.

Despite Scion claims of a Lexus-like interior, the most disappointing element is the cabin, especially when compared with the first-gen’s low-gloss, textured plastics and upscale touches such as a hinged door to conceal the audio unit.

That is all a memory. The new instrument panel is utilitarian, with three large knobs to control heating, ventilation and air-conditioning functions.

And Scion has used chintzy materials, notably a rat-fur headliner and hard plastic with a shiny, faux-leather look. All combine for an aura best described as early 1990s domestic.

Interior pluses include larger audio-control buttons and woven grey-on-grey seat fabric with varied patterns.

But overall the cabin is comfortable. The front seats live up to the hype that they grip well and provide support, especially in the lumbar region.

Rear-compartment comfort also is good, with recessed seat cushions allowing for more headroom than is usually found for an adult in a coupe backseat. The tC’s middle seat predictably is cramped.

Rear seats are 60/40 split and fold nearly flat to boost cargo room.

The hatch is easy to operate one-handed and also has a handy light for nighttime loading.

The ’11 tC begins at $18,275 for a manual model and $19,275 for an automatic, up $1,175 and $575, respectively, from ’10 pricing.

Buyers who prioritize driving enjoyment will not wince at the price bump, but those who enjoyed the more upscale, Euro disposition of the first tC likely will feel differently.

The understated nature of the old tC also made it more unique in its class. Now, especially with a coming Hyundai small coupe, it’s just one of the burly boys.