First Drive: 2012 Scion iQ

By Charles Krome

Toyota wasn’t the first automaker to build something approaching a livable hybrid vehicle for the U.S.; that honor, of course, is usually given to Honda and its first-gen Insight. But what Toyota did do is create the first hybrid that people actually wanted to buy, and here we are ten years later with more than 1 million Prii having found their way to customers in this country. And while I don’t think we’ll see similar numbers out of the Scion iQ, it’s definitely the Prius to Smart’s ForTwo, if you follow me here. The difference isn’t just timing, either. At the recent media event for the iQ, Scion VP Jack Hollis told me (and assorted other journalist types) that there was no comparison between his new premium micro-subcompact and the FourTwo, and, now that I’ve been behind the wheel of both, I can tell you that he’s exactly right.

A good way to think of the iQ is as the front half of a fairly upscale compact. The interior offers front-seat passengers more shoulder and hip room than a Ford Fiesta, and that’s even though the latter is more than 53 inches longer in sedan form than the former. That’s no typo; no matter how many times I do the math, the Fiesta sedan comes out being nearly 4.5 feet longer than the iQ, which, for the record, is listed at 120.1 inches. For some further context, the Fiesta hatch is a not-insignificant 40 inches longer; a Mini Cooper exceeds the iQ by 26.5 inches; and the Fiat 500 extends 19.5 inches longer. The Scion does happen to be 14 inches longer than the ForTwo—and boy, is that an important 14 inches.

As I implied above, the iQ’s designers really were able to create a front row that provides a more premium experience than available from most subcompacts. And I’ll also point out that, just randomly picking on Ford, the iQ also has the exact same front-row hip room as you get in the compact Focus, which is (obviously) yet another class larger.

Needless to say, things aren’t quite so friendly in the back row. On the other hand, Scion’s interior designer should get plenty of love for what they were able to accomplish. By offsetting the position of the two front-row seats and making some other nifty moves,* Scion’s six-foot- Hollis claims there’s room for an adult to sit in the second-row seat on the passenger’s side, and he showed us a picture of him doing so as proof. I put my 5’9” self back there, and while my knees did not, in fact, touch the seatback ahead of me, my hair was brushing the roof. Going back to the spec sheets, I can see it’s roughly the size of the back seat of a Honda Civic coupe, but having just had a chance to be in an example of said Civic, I felt more comfortable in the iQ. There are even two cup holders back there.

But just to be clear, for the vast majority of front-row passengers, space will not be an issue.

(*For example, eliminating the glovebox and replacing it with an underseat storage tray beneath the passenger, moving a climate fan, shrinking and moving some of the a/c hardware, and aggressively sculpting the front seatbacks.)

The iQ also showcases the kind of avant-garde styling one would expect from a car targeting young urbanites, but without crossing the line into becoming cartoon-ish. I thought the exterior look was aggressive and well-sculpted, and Scion certainly deserves kudos for not slapping a Mazda-style “happy face” front end on the car. There’s a subtle hint of a smile, but it’s a confident, eager expression, not the slack-jawed grin of a village idiot. The rear of the car was a bit too extra busy, though, with too many shapes competing for your attention, a subjective fault that carried through into the interior. Most of the cabin has the traditionally restrained, circle-themed Scion design language, but the audio head, door-mounted tweeter speakers and a sort of “eyebrow” over the main gauges all incorporate large (albeit very nice) hard plastics that look like add-on pieces that weren’t integrated properly into the rest of the cabin.

If you take a look at the photo that shows the edge of the audio unit on the top of the dash, you’ll see what I mean. The accent piece looks as if it were placed there without any effort made to have it smoothly flow into the dash proper. Again, it’s a subjective styling decision that some people are probably going to enjoy; I’m just not one of them.

But this being a “first drive” report, let’s now spend some time on the actual driving experience—which turned out to be quite good. The basic setup here sounds uninspiring, with a combination of 94 hp, 89 lb.-ft. of torque and a CVT as the only transmission. When asked, the Scion team quoted a 0-60 time of about 11 seconds. Yet no doubt because the car is exceedingly light—with a curb weight of 2,127 lbs.—it felt noticeably quicker than that. The car does have a better power-to-weight ratio than the Fiat 500, and it’s rather square proportions made for decent handling. It ran up to 70 mph on the expressway without a problem, and the only reason I didn’t push it any faster was because I was in downtown Detroit during a rainstorm. A manual transmission would have been a lot more fun, but the CVT was better and quieter than I thought it would be. The droning sounds one often gets with this type of transmission were apparent in the otherwise quiet cabin, but not particularly intrusive.

The Scion’s short wheelbase did discompose the car’s handling on particularly rough stretches of road, but not notably more than is the case when driving some of today’s subcompacts and compacts. The steering was electrically boosted, which meant it wasn’t all that communicative or quick to respond, perhaps even more so than with some other such systems I’ve experienced. I’m thinking the culprit here is the car’s uniquely high-mounted steering setup, specifically designed for a compact package, not necessarily for superior steering.

Pedal feel and operation were above average, and the brakes handled the slippery streets without a hiccup.

Overall, the driving experience served to reinforce what I mentioned earlier: From the driver’s seat, the iQ offers everything you’d expect in a top-tier mainstream subcompact, and the car certainly would place in the upper half of the compact segment in terms of quality and appointments. And it does so while providing expected EPA marks of 36 mpg city/37 mpg highway/37 mpg combined; that last number is tops among non-hybrid gas-only vehicles in the U.S.

A few minor nits worth picking, though:

  • The rear glass is small and the rear-seat headrests are large, so visibility out the back is terrible—although the headrests do pop right off, and they even have their own storage spaces for when the rear seats are folded down.
  • The under-seat storage tray that essentially takes the place of the glove compartment was a cheap, unlockable bit of business.
  • The gear selections include the normal P-R-N-D, but then there’s an “S” that holds the transmission ratios for longer periods of time and a “B” that prevents upshifts entirely; what’s weird is that those letters don’t stand for anything—I asked.
  • There’s no “auto-lock” function that automatically locks the doors once the car is in motion.
  • There’s just one center cupholder between the front seats, and no covered storage there.
  • The dome light, while it’s set in a flexible housing that can be adjusted to focus the illumination in specific areas of the interior, was too dim.

Price-wise, the Scion iQ will start at $15,265 with a strong list of standard content, and it will remain under $16K even with destination charges. That slightly undercuts the $15,500 starting point of a Fiat 500, while topping the price of admission to a Smart car by more than $2,700. Yet I’ll fall back one more time to the comments made by the brand’s veep about the lack of direct rivals for the iQ. It doesn’t offer the retro-style and iconic heritage of the 500 or Mini, and it’s much much (much) more of a “real” car than the Smart.

Scion’s Hollis said the company is looking to sell 1,000-2,000 units a month once production is fully ramped up, and, based on what I’ve seen so far, there’s no inherent reason that the car shouldn’t do even better.

Scion made the vehicle available at a media event for this review.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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  1. S = Sport
    B = Brake

    Probably just did not want to imply to much by actually saying that.

  2. That was my guess, too, but the Scion guy said it was some kind of decision from Japan and that the letters didn’t literally stand for anything.

    Oh, and it’s not related, but I forgot to mention the iQ will have 11 airbags, more than any other mainstream car in the U.S.

  3. I’m looking way forward to riding in one of these!

  4. I like the engineering solutions in this car, and I’m sure the solutions will become more refined with the next iteration of this platform. What could those engineers and design people at Toyota do if they were allowed to really cUut loose?

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