Pros: Tiny footprint; surprisingly entertaining handling; impressive combined fuel economy
Cons: Costs as much as more capable cars; performance-sapping CVT
Quick, what's the only model in the Toyota/Scion/Lexus corporate fleet that's also sold as an Aston Martin? We'll get the Jeopardy! music going, because you're going to need a Google search for this one. Believe it or not, the answer is the 2012 Scion iQ-a funky two-door city car that looks kind of like a squashed phone booth on wheels. Hey, if it's good enough for Britain's premier sports-car manufacturer, which sells it as the Cygnet, it must be a steal for Scion shoppers. Right?
Well, let's talk this over. There's no doubt that the iQ gets great overall fuel economy, yielding 37 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving. And if you need a car that excels at squeezing into tiny spots and isn't called the Smart Fortwo, this ten-foot-long Scion is your ticket to parking nirvana. However, the iQ is priced like a real car, and that's where reality starts to sink in. Do you really want to spend more than $15,000 on a car that's slow, noisy and good for three occupants at the most?
If your urban lifestyle demands a tiny set of wheels, then yes, maybe you do. And with the Scion, you'll at least be getting a car that's better than the Smart in every way. Would we call the iQ the Aston Martin of subcompacts? No, not exactly. But the 2012 Scion iQ is the best microcar we've driven yet, and that's got to count for something.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Scion iQ is offered in one trim level with a range of optional accessories. Standard features include 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, air conditioning, power accessories, a tilt-only leather-wrapped steering wheel and a four-speaker audio system with HD radio and iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.
Scions are all about accessorizing, so the iQ has a long list of add-ons, notably 16-inch alloy wheels, an SD-based navigation system, premium Pioneer audio, satellite radio, a seven-color interior lighting system and performance-oriented upgrades like lowering springs.
The iQ's front seats offer just basic support, but we like their style. The seat-bottom fabric has an interesting pattern, and the stylish seatbacks with their fixed headrests look like something out of Star Trek. The small, chunky steering wheel is nice to grip but doesn't telescope, an omission that tall drivers will lament. Glancing around the interior, we think Toyota has done a good job of giving the iQ the character of a real car. From the respectable materials quality to the sensible gauges and the vertically stacked climate control knobs, everything just seems familiar. It's only when you glance over your shoulder that you're confronted by the iQ's smallness; stem to stern, a Mini Cooper is about two feet longer.
Not surprisingly, this has consequences for rear passengers. The iQ is technically a four-seater, but you can more or less forget about putting anyone behind the driver-there's just no legroom. If the front passenger's in an agreeable mood, the seat can be slid forward enough to accommodate one rear occupant. Still, we think it's likely that most iQ owners will keep the rear seats folded flat, which makes this Scion perhaps the closest thing the U.S. has to those funny micro-trucks that schlep stuff around in Europe and Japan.
Why do we expect those seats will stay folded? Because otherwise, there's no cargo capacity. Scion claims 3.5 cubic feet of space behind the rear seatbacks, but in truth, you could barely fit a child's knapsack back there-the seatbacks are almost flush against the back wall of the car. Flip them into the floor, however, and you have a flat loading area with 16.7 cubic feet to play with. When you consider that 16.7 cubic feet is more space than most sedans offer in their trunks, that seems pretty solid for a microcar.
We wouldn't say the iQ is feature rich on the technology front, but it does come standard with the iPod/USB/Bluetooth connectivity trifecta, which isn't always a sure thing at this price point. An unexpected nicety is the iQ's optional navigation system, which includes a large, colorful display integrated smartly into the dashboard; the FIAT 500, for example, only offers a portable navigation system that mounts on an unsightly dash-top bracket. However, note that the navigation system adds about $2,000 to the bottom line, which isn't a trivial amount when you're talking about a $15,000-plus car.
Performance & Fuel Economy
Unlike the Smart Fortwo, the 2012 Scion iQ has a front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout. The engine is a 1.3-liter inline-4 rated at 94 horsepower and 89 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission for the U.S. market is a continuously variable automatic (CVT). It may be true that Americans don't like to drive manuals, but the CVT isn't a great substitute on the iQ. It's not very smooth and seems to be better at generating noise than meaningful acceleration. Despite the racket, though, the little inline-4 manages to yank the iQ around with acceptable authority for urban use. It's only when you're merging or passing on the highway that the shortage of power becomes obvious.
Fuel economy for city driving is an excellent 36 mpg, but highway efficiency is just 37 mpg-that's less than a number of larger, faster cars can manage. Still, at 37 mpg overall, the iQ is one of the most fuel-efficient cars you can buy.
The 2012 Scion iQ comes with standard stability control, ABS (front discs, rear drums) and a dizzying eleven airbags (front, front side, front seat cushion, front knee, full-length side curtain and rear window).
The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet crash-tested the iQ, but in government crash tests, the iQ scores four out of five stars overall, including four stars in frontal crash and rollover tests and three stars in the side crash test.
The biggest surprise from behind the wheel is undoubtedly the way the iQ takes a corner. Not only does it handle like a normal car, it handles better than some normal cars. The steering is quick and accurate, while the short wheelbase and firm suspension keep body motions to a minimum. It's a great setup for zooming around the city-unless you hit a pothole, as the iQ's ride compliance is minimal.
Other Cars to Consider
FIAT 500 - The 500 doesn't have the iQ's fuel economy, but it does have a more usable back seat and a healthy dollop of Italian style.
Hyundai Elantra - Here's an example of a larger car that can be had for iQ-level money. The Elantra is basically better at everything besides parking; it even has better highway fuel economy.
Kia Rio - We prefer the Rio to its Hyundai cousin, the Accent, because the Rio looks better and drives with more zeal. It's also a tempting alternative to the iQ, because it's packed with space and features while remaining within shouting distance of the Scion's compact dimensions.
The base iQ is already pushing it on price, so we couldn't justify spending more to get the navigation system or any other extras. The entry-level specification would be the one we'd choose.