The contrast between my previous test vehicle and this one could hardly have been greater. Last week, a mighty GMC Sierra 2500 Crew Cab; this week, a tiny Scion iQ, second smallest automobile on the road (after the Smart Fortwo). It’s a squat amphibian with a stunted body, designed for metropolitan lifestyles, meant to slip easily into half-sized curbside parking spaces and nip between stray shopping carts at your local mart. Japanese sales began in 2008 and European sales the following year, and in both markets it’s doing quite well. Overseas it’s a Toyota, but Stateside, where sales began earlier this year, the Scion brand better suits its bespoke individualism and intended youthful clientele.
They’re not giving them away, mind you, so these will have to be well-heeled youths. Pricing starts at around $15K, and can rapidly climb toward realms inhabited by much bigger cars; my tester had a sticker of nearly $18,000, which would net you a top-trim version of the iQ’s own (four-door) cousin the Yaris, or a Corolla. With spunky competitors like that, as well as the Ford Fiesta (base price $13,320) and Honda Fit ($14,900) in the same price range, or even below, the iQ faces a real challenge in making its case in the marketplace. I know I wouldn’t have looked at it twice before driving one for a week. To me, it was just a Japanese Smart, and I’d long since dismissed the Smart from serious car conversations. “This is a car?” self-interrogated I. “If so, what’s the point? If not, what’s the point?” So, did a week’s acquaintance make me warm up to the little bugger? Gather around, children, and I’ll tell you the tale.
First off, it’s cute. At 120.1 inches long, a whisker over 10 feet, it’s 14 inches longer than the cute but slightly weirder Smart ForTwo, but 19 in. shorter than the Fiat 500 and 26.5 in. shorter than the Mini Cooper. Too small for me, I thought. But it had some surprises in store. I heaved myself on board with surprisingly little effort, and found myself in what seemed to be the driver’s seat of a real car, with plenty of leg- and headroom, ditto for the passenger, although behind me was space sufficient only for dwarfs, and small ones at that, or amputees. Ahead of me was a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel, with redundant audio controls but no cruise control stalk–because no cruise control, deemed superfluous in an urban runabout (my guess). Behind the wheel stretched a sizeable two-tone gray dashboard, with in the middle what appeared to be the misplaced costume-jewelry case of a provincial madam, but was actually the info screen and audio center, illuminated in Toyota’s trademark Halloween orange-and-black and infested with little touch-switches that were at first altogether unintuitive to operate. Operate it I did, however, through trial and error, but I was disappointed by the sound system: a trifle tinny, no matter how much you turned up the bass, and with poor reception, even of local stations. On the side, the iQ comes standard with Bluetooth, USB and IPod hookups, hands-free phone and streaming-audio ability, all intended to appeal to its Gen Y or Z buyers, or whatever Gen we’re at now. The rest of the dashboard, including two-in-one speedometer and tachometer, is fairly conventional, except in its lack of a glove compartment (replaced by a plastic drawer under the passenger seat), victim of the ingenious packaging that integrates a compact a/c unit into the dash in order for the front passenger to move far enough forward for a “full-size passenger” to fit into the narrow rear seat, thereby allowing Toyota / Scion to claim the iQ as a “3+1” rather than a “2+2.”
Does it work? Well, it all depends how full-sized that passenger is. Speaking as one decidedly so, I had a rough time getting back there, even with the passenger seat pushed forward, and a rougher time sitting there, unless the front passenger seat was pushed forward far enough to render it uncomfortable for its occupant. I fell, as it were, between two stools. A mite might fit in the back, though, so it’s best to consider the iQ a two-adult car with occasional room for your designer kid, or dog. Otherwise, just flip down the rear seats—yes, there’s another one, of entirely imaginary practicality, behind the driver—and stash your groceries in the 16.7 cubic feet thereby made available (from 3.5 with the seats up). It’s not exactly capacious, but it accommodated my weekly groceries, and I didn’t need to use the front passenger seat as an overflow shelf.
Driving the iQ is a strain at first. I confess that I felt self-conscious, half-expecting crowds of onlookers to double over in fits of laughter as I drove by. This didn’t happen; why do I find it so hard to remember that most people just don’t notice cars? (Or much of anything else?) One or two did, though. I got a thumbs-up from a Smart driver, and an old gent came up to me in a parking lot to confess that he owned a Scion xD and went on to express the opinion that it was too big and that all cars should be the size of the iQ. This was a most unorthodox viewpoint for a Texan, I thought, and refrained from comment. Maybe he was a tourist from Oregon; I didn’t see his tags.
Once I started feeling less weird, I started to have a little fun. But first, all the techniques for maneuvering out of parking places that I’d had to master while driving the Sierra had to be unlearned and their opposites implanted instead. For instance, I had to train myself to recognize the rear window, just behind me, as the actual rear of the car, with no overhang, no trunk, no cargo bed extending for miles, nothing—just ending there. Kind of disturbing. Getting rear-ended in this car would be a literal fact, which is why Toyota has installed the industry’s first rear air bag there, to protect your aft angle and keep the minicar’s other 10 airbags company. At least, if anyone hits you in this thing, you’ll be afloat in airbags. And that’s good, because otherwise you’d be a bug smear under the wheels of, say, a full-size pickup. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has yet to crash-test the iQ, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has (http://1.usa.gov/IUEUID), and it gives the runt an overall score of four stars: three out of five stars in side crash tests, four in frontal crash tests. OK results, but not sufficient in themselves to make me want to head for my Scion dealership, checkbook at the ready.
Now for the fun part. The first time you hang a U in the iQ, you want to do it again—and again. The turning circle is 12.9 feet, about half that of the Smart ForTwo, or, as Scion says, the width of two king-size mattresses. Then, when the dizziness has subsided and you want to head down the road in a straight line, you discover that you can do it with some actual pep. Under the hood is the sole powertrain combo available in the iQ: a 1.3-liter 94-hp four-cylinder that generates 89 lbs-ft of torque at 4400 rpm and is hooked up to a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) that mostly succeeds in keeping the engine in the middle of its power band, hence the iQ’s peppy demeanor. Indeed, my own stop-watch observations suggested the manufacturer’s claims of 11.8 sec. from 0 to 60 time to be too conservative by at least a second, not a common failing on the part of carmakers. (Maybe they timed it in standard Drive mode; the sporty S mode, which I used, is the preferred one for spunky performance.) The CVT works fine, but a car with such a small engine really needs a manual transmission for maximum performance, and the iQ offers one in its Japanese and European iterations. Whether American drivers will ever be offered a stick is a moot point. I doubt it; the Smart doesn’t have the option. And Toyota’s mum on the subject.
Road noise is considerable, as you’d expect on a wheelbase this small, but at least you can’t fault the car for excessive road lean through the twisties, not with a wheel at each end and no overhangs. It stays firmly planted, and gets you where you want to go with minimal fuss. The EPA’s fuel economy estimates seemed to me to be right on the money: 36 city, 37 highway, and 37 mpg combined. Stellar figures for a non-hybrid, the only drawback being the diminutive size of the 8.5-gallon fuel tank, which is housed in the floor under the seats, another space-saving measure. (Why do I not find this reassuring?) This means you’re still making fairly frequent refueling stops, even while getting great mileage. On the other hand, you probably won’t be taking any long road trips in this thing, so maybe you’ll come out ahead. But again, it’s not enough to start me off toward the Scion lot.
To paraphrase Mark Twain’s quip about Wagner’s music—that it’s better than it sounds–the iQ is a better car than it seems. At the very least it’s a fiendishly clever little package, clearly the fruit of many long nights at the drawing board, and all in all it’s a surprisingly livable car. So, to answer my original question, I did warm up to the little bugger, but not so much as to want to drive one every day. I’d just rather have a lot more sheet metal around me in all circumstances and plenty more horses under the hood. There are a lot more full-size pickups than iQs on the roads around here, and I know which one I’d rather be in when the shoe drops. But in San Francisco or Boston it would be a different story, and that’s where the iQ really comes into its own.
Scion provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.