While being a leader in any industry is usually determined by having an idea first, in the auto sector, it’s often the case that success is based more on getting a product right. Toyota has in many ways grown to be the global juggernaut it is today, thanks to exactly that: perfecting modest transportation for the masses. And it’s looking to do so again with the iQ, launched in America under the youthful Scion brand.
|1. Called a 3+1 seater, there’s actually room for three adults, plus a small space behind the driver’s seat for a child. 2. Powered by a 94-hp 1.3L 4-cylinder it’s the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid in America with a 36/37-mpg rating. 3. The Scion iQ has a turning circle of 12.9 feet, half that of the Smart fortwo. 4. The iQ gets 11 airbags, as well as stability control and a brake override system. 5. Priced at $15,265 the iQ is several thousand more than a Smart car and close in price to the Fiat 500. It’s also $2,000 more than a Yaris.|
A “micro subcompact” car, the iQ is preceded, by over a decade, by the Smart fortwo. Then there’s the modern Fiat 500, which may have beat the iQ to our shores (due in part to a delay in its launch as a result of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami), but the tiny Italian city car is arguably less as a form of mainstream transportation, and more an accessory for wealthy housewives.
The idea behind the iQ is to deliver urban transportation, but not a sort of stripped-down approach one might take with a vehicle for emerging markets. Rather, it is designed for modern urban centers, not to mention the tastes and expectations of consumers there.
A SMALL CAR, BUT NOT A CHEAP CAR, OR AN INEXPENSIVE ONE
The iQ was designed to break the size-equals-quality hierarchy that is currently a part of the Toyota brand says assistant chief engineer Junichi Hasegawa. Luxury automakers are finally having some success at conveying the idea that luxury doesn’t depend on size, but selling that concept in a non-premium segment is far mode difficult.
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As a tiny Japanese car you might expect the iQ to start at less than, say, a Yaris. It doesn’t. At $15,245 its over $2,000 more. In fact, you can almost step into a Corolla for the same money. That alone will make the iQ a tough sell for many. If the price is the same, but the size isn’t, then the value difference has to be made up in the rest of the car, from features to trim quality, uniqueness, exterior design and driving dynamics. Is it?
That’s what we’re in San Francisco to discover, being the first to pilot the iQ in a city that is sure to value its compact dimensions.
HIGH VALUE CONTENT, BUT LACKING IN PREMIUM FEEL
It certainly has more style than a Yaris, although much of that might just be attributable to its unusual dimensions. Painted white or black and without any of the optional 25 Scion accessories attached, it’s rather unassuming. Wrap it in Molten Lava (a unique shade of orange), toss on some optional 16-inch aluminum wheels, and even lower the suspension with TRD springs and it pops. If the Fiat 500 is quintessentially retro, the iQ represents the opposite side of the spectrum, giving a vision as to what the future of transportation will look like.
Inside, the iQ unequivocally comes up short. There are some strong efforts made to add value and originality with gloss black accenting, a thick leather-rimmed steering wheel and cool Scion branding on the doors. And for the most part the materials used are not low-grade. It’s hard to overlook, however, the Toyota parts-bin knobs, switches and stalks and the dated orange info screen on the dash. Then there are the seats. While coated in a uniquely-designed fabric, they look lifted from a Chevy Cavalier – complete with an utter lack of lateral support.
Scion boss Jack Hollis describes the iQ as “so much more car, than a Smart car.” And while true on all fronts, the Smart car is hardly a lofty target at which to aim. The Fiat 500 has replaced it in the minds of many, and when you compare the interiors of these two cars, the Toyota-brand product comes up short of the comparatively-priced Fiat’s near-premium cockpit.
This drawback overshadows the fact that the iQ does come with a highly contended cabin. Standard features include remote keyless entry, one-touch power up/down windows, steering wheel audio controls, 11 airbags, USB and iPod hookups, plus Bluetooth is standard.
The iQ is also sold in what the company calls a mono-spec form, meaning everything (apart from the 25 accessories and a few optional upgraded audio systems) is standard. That will help console your sense of value, as you can walk out of a dealer sticking far closer to that original asking price than you’d expect.
Still, for the price, it’s hard to image you have to pay extra for aluminum wheels (steelies with hubcaps come stock). A stereo system that looks like more than a Best Buy car audio isle afterthought would also be ideal.
FOUR SEATS, ROOM FOR THREE
Sitting inside the iQ, it’s impossible to take the marketing fluff at face value. Four seats? They must be kidding. And yet there’s actually enough space on the passenger side for two 6-foot adults, one in front of the other. The driver’s side doesn’t offer the same, but doesn’t promise to either. This unique 3+1 layout is the result of clever packaging, with the passenger seat slightly ahead of the driver’s. There is a down-side to this, however, and that’s in visibility for the driver. With the seat back just a few inches, the roof hangs over into the field of view (or at least it does for taller drivers), blocking-out street lights.
Cargo room is essentially non-existent in the rear with just 3.5 cu-ft behind the rear seats – though it seems like even less. Drop the split-folding 2nd row seatbacks though and you have a reasonable 16.7 cu-ft – about three cu-ft larger than the trunk room in a Camry.
BEST NON-HYBRID FUEL ECONOMY
Powering the iQ is a tiny 1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine that sounds like a quiet moped at idle and makes 94-hp and 89 lb-ft of torque. That’s not a lot of power, but with a curb weight of 2,127 lbs (over 300 less than a Fiat 500), it moves along just fine. It certainly feels faster than its Prius-like 11.8 second 0-60 time would suggest – due in part to its CVT transmission.
Generally abhorred by auto journalists (AutoGuide included), the CVT is one of the big reasons the iQ works. For starters, it makes for a smooth drive. More importantly, it means the tiny engine is never in the wrong gear or hunting to find the right one. As a result, there’s always a sufficient amount of power, even when you’re scooting up some very steep San Francisco streets. For ideal results, keep it in the “S” gear around town, which keeps the revs a little higher. And for downhill driving there’s a low B gear as well.
A major reason for buying a car like this is fuel economy, with the iQ getting a 37-mpg combined rating, making it the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid for sale in America. “We’re not interested in gamesmanship,” says Scion boss Jack Hollis. “There aren’t special low rolling resistance tires. It’s not a special edition. It’s 37-mpg legitimately.”
EXCELLENT AROUND TOWN, BETTER ON THE HIGHWAY THAN YOU’D EXPECT
Designed to excel in the urban scoot, the iQ does just that. It’s nimble, has good around-town power, is a cinch to park in the tightest of spaces and while it can’t technically turn on a dime, Scion says it can pull a full 360 on the width of two king size mattresses (12.9 feet to be exact). That’s half the space of the Smart car takes, despite the iQ being a foot longer.
While excellent urban runabouts, when heading out on the highway, small cars often show their flaws. With such a short wheelbase the iQ does pop and bounce around on bumps at highway speeds, but it doesn’t get buffeted around by winds or trucks due to a sturdy and sizeable width that is 2-inches more than the Fiat 500 and almost a half a foot thicker than the Smart.
Its width also translates into a more substantial feeling no matter what you’re using it for. Combined with a more involved driving position than the Fiat 500, from behind the wheel you don’t feel like the iQ is a tiny urban commuter.
On more serpentine roads it’s a reasonable amount of fun, though hardly exhilarating. (With 94-hp, getting into trouble take a lot of work). In almost all ways it’s better than we expected. The steering is decent in terms of feel and responsiveness, with the wheels out at each corner it doesn’t have much of anywhere to lean, and it requires some serious hustle to understeer.
The Smart car’s lack of success can be blamed on many factors, most of which are solved by the iQ. It offers far greater functionality, a solid offering of standard equipment and, perhaps most importantly for American buyers, doesn’t feel like a toy. And yet it’s still incredibly unique, while offering improved fuel economy – however minimal.
Unfortunately, along with being better than the Smart in every way, it’s also significantly more expensive and even stacks up against many Toyota offerings as a tough sell. Those who value its compact dimensions, however, likely won’t mind paying extra for what they perceive as an advantage.
For that group, just one sticking point remains: the car’s interior. Unique and individual it may be. Premium it is not. And that’s exactly where the Fiat 500 wins out. In the Scion’s defense, it does come with two years of free maintenance, plus, being a Toyota product, you can guarantee a high level of built in value in the form of reliability and durability.
Set to go on sale this October, Scion will roll-out the iQ in waves, starting in California and the Western States, spreading to the Gulf states in December, the North East in January and the Midwest by March.