Thumbs Up: We’d choose this over the Smart Fortwo.
Thumbs Down: Makes sense only for inner-core urban dwellers.
Buy This Car If: Parking space is your primary concern, and you never drive on the highway.
If you’re not familiar with driving in Europe or Japan, let us sum it up as succinctly as possible: everything about it is different than driving in the United States, from the amount of time and money it takes to get a driver’s license, to the width of the roads, to the size of the cars. Since space in European and Japanese cities is at a premium, and gasoline is considerably more expensive, smaller and more fuel efficient cars are the norm.
A family of four living in the suburbs would likely consider a Volkswagen Golf or a Toyota Vitz (our Yaris) to be a perfectly suitable family car. A young couple living in the urban core probably wouldn’t want more than a Smart Fortwo or a Toyota iQ, since both take up very little parking space and are above average in fuel efficiency. Neither car is ideal for highway use, but trips of any significant distance are generally taken by train, anyway. With rock-solid mass transit options, the need for a car that can take you cross-country is greatly diminished.
Things are different in the bigger-is-better United States, where the Toyota iQ is sold as the Scion iQ. Like it’s foreign relative, the Scion iQ is diminutive in size, fitted with a modest engine that should deliver above-average fuel economy and priced to be affordable for a large segment of the population. Given its cartoon-cute looks and reasonable content for the money, you’d think it would be a hit, but sales through June of 2012 have only totaled 5,084 units. That makes the iQ the lowest-volume vehicle in Scion’s current product mix.
We doubt that has anything to do with the car’s styling, which despite its odd proportions is well-executed. The front is dominated by a tall and relatively flat fascia, which curves into a very short hood. Headlights, which also include directional signals, are scaled appropriately to not look out-of-place.
From the side, the iQ’s steeply-raked windshield and cut-out C-pillars are its most striking design details, although we like the metallic mirror and door trim, too. We’re also fond of the optional alloy wheels and roof spoiler, both of which combine to give the car a more finished and upscale look.
The same flat-fascia design from the front carries over to the rear, where the iQ simply looks like a small hatchback of Japanese origin from behind. It’s not the car’s best angle, but we’d argue that it’s the iQ’s most conventional one.
Inside, the iQ feels sparse, but not cheap. A uniquely textured vinyl tops the dash, where other companies may have been tempted to use cheaper materials and call it done. There’s a bit of piano black on the instrument shroud and on the lower crash pad, while metallic trim is used to highlight the oddly-empty center stack. Even in economy cars, we’re used to controls arranged in a horizontal pattern, not a vertical one, but that’s part of the iQ’s quirky charm. Our Scion-supplied tester came with a touchscreen navigation and entertainment system, which adds a staggering amount of money to the iQ’s sticker price. We’re genuinely surprised to see a manufacturer asking nearly $2,000 for a navigation system these days, especially in a price-sensitive model.
We’re sure there’s some zen meaning behind the iQ’s instruments, which are shaped to resemble a cresting wave. Front and center is a large speedometer, with a too-small and unneeded tachometer below. To the left of both is a driver information display, which can be hard to read in bright sunlight. Overall, we liked the instrument panel’s attention to detail; like the dash itself, this is something often overlooked by manufacturers in entry-level cars.
Front seats do what they can to add an element of style to the iQ, but they’re clearly from the bargain parts bin. Wrapped in patterned fabric on the seat bottoms, seat backs are covered in a plain black stretch nylon. Don’t expect side bolstering or much in the way of adjustability, since the iQ is meant for short intra-city trips only.
Why it even has a back seat is beyond us. With the front passenger seat moved as far forward as possible, we suppose it’s theoretically possible to squeeze a small human into the rear seat, but it certainly wouldn’t be an enjoyable experience. There’s little room, and the rear seat is a drab bench wrapped in the same black stretch nylon as the front seat backs. With the rear seat backs up, there is zero room for any kind of cargo in the hatch, not even a small laptop bag or a briefcase. We suspect that most owners will simply yank the headrests, fold the rear seat backs down and call it done, since the iQ makes a lot more sense as a two-seat hatchback.
Under the short hood lies a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. That may not sound like much, but the Scion iQ only has around 2,100 pounds of mass to move; besides, the powertrain’s real weakness is its continuously variable transmission (CVT), not its engine. While nowhere near as bad as the insufferable gearbox in the Smart Fortwo, the iQ’s CVT is noisy and harsh, delivering reasonable forward motion only when coaxed gently. Around town, there’s enough acceleration on tap that the iQ doesn’t cause us worry. On the highway, however, passing other vehicles takes careful planning and more than a bit of patience. No one will buy an iQ for its ability to sprint from 0-60 mph, but doing so will take you a little less than 12 seconds. As you’d expect, the iQ’s strength lies in its fuel economy, which is EPA estimated at 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway.
A test drive is all it takes to show if the Scion iQ is right for you. We found its suspension to be too stiff, which made even low-speed bumps and potholes jarring. Worse, the short wheelbase meant that constant steering correction was necessary to keep the car from wandering. Turn-in was very quick (as you’d expect) and body roll was minimal, but the car never managed to instill a sense of confidence in us. Whether real or perceived, the iQ feels like it has a relatively high center of gravity; while low-speed avoidance maneuvers won’t pose much of a challenge, we wouldn’t want to try to dodge road debris at 70 mph, and we’ve got more seat time behind the wheel of various cars than most. We’re not saying the Scion iQ is unsafe (in fact the NHTSA gives it four out of five stars for crash protection), we’re just saying that it isn’t optimal for highway use. In our opinion, other subcompact cars deliver more predictable handling and improved practicality for the same amount of money.
If you live in the inner city and don’t rely on a car for daily transportation, the Scion iQ may make perfect sense (especially if parking is an issue). We’d recommend it over the Smart Fortwo, but for any other circumstance there are likely to be choices that are less filled with compromise.
Our Scion iQ press fleet tester had a base price of $15,995, including a destination charge of $730. Dealer-installed options included the $285 Rear Spoiler, the $1,999 Scion Navigation System, the $749 Alloy Wheels, the $340 Fog Light Kit, the $449 SiriusXM Satellite Radio kit and the $65 Cargo Net, for an as-tested sticker price of $19,882.
For comparison a similar Smart Fortwo (which isn’t available with navigation) would sticker at $18,000, while a comparable Honda Fit Sport with Navigation would price at $20,480.