Subcompact cars may be the future. For a lot of us, a tiny car makes a lot of sense. Smart Cars have been treated as a bit of a novelty, with modest sales impact to date. Now Scion enters the fray with the 2012 Scion iQ, rolling out in the US beginning in October 2011. The 2012 Scion iQ will carry a base price of $15,995 (including delivery), and will conform to Scion's "Pure Price" policy -- no haggling allowed. The iQ comes with Scion's 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty and fuel economy ratings of 36 mpg city/37 mpg highway.
First Glance: Aren't you cute?
Scion invited me, along with a group of journalists, to San Francisco to drive the new iQ. The City by the Bay turned out to be the perfect venue for the iQ. After all, San Francisco is famously stylish, and the iQ is nothing if not a style statement. SF is also a crowded, bustling city with a wide variety of driving conditions, from bumper-to-bumper city gridlock to wild changes in elevation to high-speed freeway interchanges, all within the same commuting radius.
Even in all the hustle and bustle, the iQ captured a significant number of eyeballs. Like the Smart Pure Coupe, iQ draws attention because of its size -- the iQ is barely over 10' long, five and a half feet shorter than a Toyota Camry. A 2011 Toyota Tundra CrewMax pickup is almost twice as long as the iQ. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is 109 times as long as the iQ. It would take a chain of 126,115,000 Scion iQs to reach the moon, a useful fact to know if you happen to run into Buzz Aldrin at a cocktail party.
iQ bears a family resemblance to the other vehicles in the Scion lineup -- what designers like to call "Design DNA." In particular, it looks like a toy designer got a chance to reinterpret the xD. Close inspection reveals that iQ's wheels have been pushed out to the corners of the vehicle, with very little overhang front or rear. iQ is just over 59" tall, which seems about right. Fit and finish are both excellent, as I've come to expect from Scion products.
In the Driver’s Seat: Bigger on the inside
Scion's designers managed to squeeze a lot of space into the iQ. They are particularly proud that there's an actual back seat big enough for real full-sized humans. Well, kind of. The front seats have thin backs to maximize leg room, the front passenger seat track has been mounted 3" forward of the driver's, and the glove box has been eliminated, replaced with a flimsy underseat tray beneath the passenger's seat. As a result, I was able to sit comfortably in the back seat on the passenger's side. I'm 6'2", and my head was in contact with the roof, but I would have been fine for a short spin. The seat behind the driver was another story -- I couldn't fit back there at all. It would be tight for most adults, even if the driver moved close to the steering wheel. So, the seating capacity is really 3 and change, not 4. With the back seats in place, the trunk holds a scant 3.5 cubic feet of cargo; folding the seats down opens that up to a reasonable 16.7 cubic feet.
iQ's dash is simple and rather elegant. By relocating the air conditioning blower motor from the usual position on the passenger side to the center stack, the engineers freed up the space for the front passenger's legs. The center stack bulges out a bit as a result, but in in doing so it puts the A/C controls within easy reach. The stereo (or optional navigation system) is smartly mounted at the top of the stack. An organically shaped instrument panel sits in front of the driver above the steering wheel, a much better arrangement than on other Scions, where the speedometer perches above the center stack. Bluetooth hands-free phone and streaming audio is standard, as it should be on every new car.
A few quibbles: The tiny side rear windows don't provide a very good visibility when changing lanes or reversing, and contribute to the claustrophobic feeling of the back seat. I was disappointed with the visibility in most directions, including the low windshield, which forced me to lean forward to see traffic signals. Shorter drivers might not have the same problem. The fiddly piece of trim above the gauge cluster doesn't seem to have any function, and doesn't really add to the iQ's looks either. Other than that, I was so impressed with the spaciousness and simple comfort of the interior, that I'd be able to overlook the iQ's design flaws.
On the Road: You're smart, but are you fast?
Horsepower figures are like intelligence quotient points -- bigger numbers are better, until you get to the point where the numbers make you evil. The iQ's 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine barely makes it into the "dull normal" range, with a paltry 94 ponies lining up at the gate. Of course, horsepower is only part of the equation; weight is another big factor, and the iQ weighs in at just 2,127 lbs. The Smart Fortwo weighs 1,808 lbs but gets only 70 hp. That's 22.6 lbs/hp for the iQ, versus 25.8 lbs/hp for the Smart, which partially explains why iQ can scamper from a standing start to 60 mph in 11.8 seconds, while the Smart takes 12.8 seconds. iQ's top speed is given as 100 mph, which I didn't get a chance to test. I did drive iQ at San Francisco's extra-legal freeway speeds, and it felt as solid as a rock.
iQ doesn't impress with speed, but it does cause jaws to drop with its agility; its turning radius of 12.9' is easily the best of any production car. U-turns that are too tight for most vehicles are routine for iQ, and parking is a breeze -- not only can iQ fit into tiny spaces, it has the maneuverability to get in and out.
The only thing I didn't love about the way that iQ drove was the iQ's continuously variable automatic. The advantage of a CVT is that it can keep the engine in its power band, where it can do its work most efficiently at all times. Unfortunately, iQ's power band results in a droning engine sound, especially at freeway speeds. The transmission keeps the revs up while you apply throttle, and the sound quickly becomes fatiguing. The little 1.3 feels like it's working awfully hard, which is never much fun.
I was also a little disappointed with the 7" drum brakes on the iQ's rear wheels, a mismatch with the 10" ventilated discs in front. Tweak that transmission, fit some disc brakes in the rear and upgrade some suspension parts and the iQ would make the world's best autocross car.