Americans have long heard about our preferences for big vehicles. Compared with the cars on the roads of Europe and Japan, our tastes run large. Thanks to wide roads and highways and ample suburban garages, Americans have the space for a full-size sedan or SUV. And despite rising prices, gas is relatively cheap here.
Growing Need for "City Car."
However, those who live in large cities may have a dramatically different take on what constitutes a "good car." With limited parking space, tight streets plus frequent stops and starts, urban environments can make drivers wish for something smaller, easier to handle and more efficient.
Microcars are smaller than subcompacts, purpose-built city cars designed with tight dimensions and efficient powertrains. From its 2008 US debut until now, the Smart ForTwo was the only production microcar on the US market. While some subcompacts, hybrids and diesels achieved economy similar to or better than the ForTwo's 33 mpg city, 41 mpg highway rating, nothing else offered the diminutive dimensions ideal for narrow city streets and parking spaces. Americans may not like small cars, but they bought 40,000 Smart microcars through July of last year.
Just arriving in the US and hoping to take a bite out of those numbers is the iQ by Scion, Toyota's youthful sub-brand. The iQ is a ten-foot-long city slicker that, with a tiny backseat, is the world's smallest four-seater.
"Four-seater" may provide a more accurate description of the iQ than "four-passenger." The vehicle does have two ample front seats and a split rear bench. But depending on the size of the passengers, the vehicle may accommodate as few as two people total. With the front seats in their most rearward positions, the iQ has no rear seat legroom. Still, it is flexible. The front seats are offset, allowing the passenger seat to be positioned forward. The passenger-side dash is exceptionally shallow thanks to a glove compartment relocated under the passenger seat. Two average-size adult passengers can feasibly join a driver of any size for a short trip in reasonable comfort. For the iQ to accommodate four passengers, not even one can be exceptionally big or tall.
Of course, the expectation of ample passenger space in such a tiny vehicle is not great. The iQ's back seat is small, but it is available in a pinch. The ForTwo, as its name implies, is a strict two-seater. With the iQ's rear seats folded down, cargo space increases from nearly non-existent to 16.7 cubic feet. The Smart offers a maximum of 12 cubic feet of cargo space. Most importantly, the iQs front seats are comfortable and the cabin has a surprisingly spacious feel thanks to large windows and sufficient head- and shoulder room.
The design of the interior is attractive, too. Scion calls the look "techno-organic," an accurate description of the intersection of sharp planes and gently curved surfaces. Both glossy and matte finishes are at play, and the result is youthful but sophisticated.
Controls are simple and easy to use, and a range of standard equipment adds comfort and convenience. The leather-wrapped steering wheel includes audio controls. Power locks, power windows, air conditioning and Bluetooth hands-free capability are all standard equipment. A tachometer is included, but its small size makes it difficult to read at a glance.
With no manual transmission available, a tachometer is not a necessity. The iQ uses a CVT automatic transmission to get the most in power and economy from its 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine. The motor produces 94 horsepower and achieves EPA-estimated economy of 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway on regular unleaded gasoline.
We drove the iQ in both environments, revealing its strengths on urban streets and shortcomings on the open road. The iQ is small and light, allowing it to quickly stop or change direction in low-speed city driving. It's exceptionally easy to maneuver, its short wheelbase yielding an astonishing 12.9-foot turning radius. On the highway, however, this means tiny, gentle steering inputs are required to maintain direction. Furthermore, its modest engine output means full throttle was required on an uphill entrance to reach a safe merging speed. It may not be an ideal road trip vehicle, but its city driving characteristics are tough to beat.
Scion's no-haggle starting price for the iQ is $15,265 including destination charge. By comparison, the top-spec Smart ForTwo Passion coupe is starts at $14,690 plus a $750 destination charge. The iQ is a mono-spec model, meaning that no factory-installed option packages are offered. Dealer-installed options, however, like upgraded audio, alloy wheels and fog lights are available.
While the iQ is inexpensive compared with the average new car, its tiny format may not be ideal for all drivers. Other, larger vehicles like Scion's own five-door xD or Kia's Forte sedan both start under $16,000. Among the tradeoffs for more doors, better highway performance and a more usable back seat are weaker fuel economy and more limited maneuverability.
The iQ has been available on the West Coast since late last year. Early this year, the microcar hits dealers in the Southeast, Gulf States and New York. By March, it will be available nationwide. If fuel costs continue to rise as expected, more city dwellers may choose the iQ to provide an economical and convenient transportation solution.