Pros: Tiny footprint; surprisingly entertaining handling; impressive combined fuel economy

Cons: Costs as much as some real cars; performance-sapping CVT

What's New: Following its debut last year, the 2013 iQ is essentially unchanged aside from Scion's newly optional BeSpoke audio system. An electric iQ technically debuts this year, but only in very limited numbers for campus and urban car-sharing fleets.

Introduction

Compared to the Aston Martin Cygnet, the 2013 Scion iQ is an incredible bargain.

Relative to economy cars available on our shores, however, Scion's micro-car doesn't fare quite as well.

Allow us to explain. Aston Martin, the iconic British sports car manufacturer, needed a fuel-efficient car to comply with European regulations, so it borrowed the iQ from Toyota/Scion, slapped on some fancy winged badges and more or less doubled the price.

Good trivia, right? But it can't change the fact that the iQ model's stateside starting price of about $15,000 brings numerous larger economy cars into play. These cars feature more space and better driving dynamics and they also feel a bit more secure when you're surrounded by SUVs. In fact, the only category the iQ would win outright is city fuel economy, where it boasts an impressive 36 miles per gallon.

Now, if your urban lifestyle absolutely demands a tiny set of wheels, please forget most of what we just said because the iQ is the best micro-car we've driven. Don't even think about a Smart ForTwo; the Scion is superior in every way.

But do you really need something this tiny, or could you live with a larger economy car that's still pretty small? It might be fun to say that your car is a budget-priced Aston Martin, but we suspect there will be better options elsewhere for the typical small car shopper.

Comfort & Utility

The 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 4-speaker audio system with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

Scions are all about accessorizing, so the iQ has a long list of add-ons, notably 16-in alloy wheels, premium Pioneer audio with a 5.8-in touchscreen and BeSpoke mobile app integration (see the Technology section below), satellite radio, a 7-color interior lighting system and performance-oriented upgrades like lowering springs.

In our interior evaluation, we found that the iQ model's front seats offer just the basics in terms of support, but we like their style -- the seat bottom fabric has an interesting pattern and the stylish seat backs 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 cabin, 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 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 model'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 4-seater, but you can more or less forget about putting anyone behind the driver -- there's just no legroom. If the front passenger is in an agreeable mood, she can slide her seat 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 America's got 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 not any cargo capacity. Scion claims 3.5 cu ft of space behind the rear seat backs, but in truth you could barely fit a child's knapsack back there -- the seat backs are almost flush against the back wall of the car. Flip them into the floor, however, and you've got a flat loading area with 16.7 cu ft to play with. When you consider that 16.7 cu ft is more than most sedans offer in their trunks, that seems pretty solid for a micro-car.

Technology

We wouldn't say the iQ is an all-star 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.

Another unexpected nicety is the iQ model's optional Pioneer audio system with BeSpoke mobile app integration. Featured apps include Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. Plus, the 5.8-in touchscreen is almost worth the price of admission by itself, as it definitely takes the iQ model's interior to another level. Note, however, that BeSpoke was not compatible with the iPhone 5 at the time this article was written, although a fix was under investigation.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2013 Scion iQ is powered by 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 in the iQ model's case, as 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 iQ's modest power becomes obvious.

Fuel economy for city driving is an excellent 36 mpg, but highway efficiency is just 37 mpg -- that's less than many larger, faster cars can manage. Still, at 37 mpg overall, the iQ is one of the most fuel-efficient cars you can buy.

Safety

The 2013 iQ comes with standard stability control, anti-lock brakes (front discs, rear drums) and a dizzying eleven airbags (front, front side, front seat cushion, front knee, full-length side curtain and rear window).

In government crash tests, the iQ received four stars out of five overall, including four stars for frontal impacts and three stars for side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) was more impressed, giving the iQ its top score of Good in every crash test category except rear impacts, where the iQ received the second best Acceptable rating.

Driving Impressions

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, that is, as the iQ model's ride compliance is minimal. On the highway, the iQ is less compelling, as that firm ride plus ample road noise combine to make high-speed runs rather unpleasant.

Other Cars to Consider

FIAT 500: The 500 doesn't have the iQ model'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 gets 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, as it's packed with space and features while remaining within shouting distance of the Scion's compact dimensions.

AutoTrader Recommends

The base iQ is already pushing it on price, so we couldn't justify spending more to get the BeSpoke audio system or any other extras. The entry-level specification would be the one we'd choose.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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