Driven: 2012 Scion iQ

By Tom Martin

July 20, 2011

—San Francisco, California
 
“Less Is More”
     —Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
 
Less Is A Bore”
     —Robert Venturi
 
With the iQ, Scion is launching one of the few really different cars that we’ll see for 2012. Having spent time driving it on the streets of San Francisco and the highways and winding roads of Marin County, we can report that the iQ is very nearly brilliant in its concept and execution. We can also forecast that 99 percent of you will see the iQ as a curiosity or a bore, not as a real alternative to the 499 other models on the market. The remaining 1 percent, on the other hand, will find the iQ close to ideal, though it takes some mental effort to fully appreciate Scion’s philosophy.
 
Starting with the goal of a very small car, the first thing Scion had to do during development was to make sure that the iQ was usable. Because the iQ is obviously so small, one of the first questions consumers are likely to ask is “Will I fit?” Our year-long experience with the Smart Fortwo has taught us that many people mistakenly assume that a very small car will be shrunken in all dimensions. In reality, the Smart and the iQ are much smaller vehicles—smaller engines, clever packaging—wrapped around a standard driver/passenger area.
 
To orient the conversation about size with some facts, in industry speak the Scion is a micro sub-compact. At first glance, you might think of it as similar to the Smart Fortwo. While the stylistic resemblance between the two cars is obvious from photographs, what may not be apparent is that the iQ is substantially larger, with the Smart measuring 106 inches in length and the iQ tallying 120 inches. Not that the iQ is big, which you can see by looking at the Fiat 500 (140 inches long) or the Mini Cooper (147 inches long).
 
A second big difference between the iQ and the Smart is that the iQ, at least on paper has seating for four, while the Smart is strictly a two-seat affair. Some clever engineering means that the iQ really can seat three adults comfortably. Scion engineers have placed the passenger slightly forward of the driver, opening up just enough room in the rear seat behind the passenger to allow adult use. The boxy shape adds plenty of headroom for those in the six-foot tall region. Because the driver is a few inches farther to the rear, the left side rear seat is more compromised, at least with average drivers. A child could fit there, but realistically a lot of owners will simply fold the left rear seat down and use that area as the “trunk.” A similar situation exists in the Mini, the Cooper working better as a three-passenger/four-in-a-pinch kind of vehicle.
 
While we’re on the subject of space, the Scion's engineers also made the passenger cabin a few inches wider than the Smart’s cabin. Those of you who have driven the Smart will know that upon entry, the Smart is surprisingly spacious, with excellent headroom, easy ingress and egress and good visibility. In fact, it outperforms many larger cars on those factors. But as soon as a passenger enters the Smart, you can’t help but feel that your space has been slightly invaded. The Smart, at 61.4 inches wide, simply puts you a little too close to your passenger if you aren’t on intimate terms. To address this, Scion has made the iQ 66.1 inches wide, and the extra 4.5 inches counts for a lot. The iQ is actually wider than a Toyota Corolla or Yaris, and those vehicles, while not palatial, don’t feel cramped. The iQ doesn’t either.
 
The final issue with space is carrying capacity. To be clear, in order to shoehorn a back seat into the iQ, the car essentially has no trunk space apart from what you can borrow from the seating area. The space behind the rear seat has about 3.5 cubic feet of capacity, but after looking at it, we had a hard time imagining what object, other than a Sunday paper or a book, would fit there. Scion’s idea is that at least the fourth seat will be folded down. This gives you about 8.5 cubic feet of capacity to work with, and would be fine for groceries, boxes, or backpacks. With both rear seats folded, we’re up to 16.7 cubic feet. You might not get that 60-inch LED TV in there, but for a lot of basic shopping it is more than adequate.
 
All of this rational talk about capacity leads us to the seminal issue with the iQ. This is the issue which will separate buyers into those who understand and are attracted to the iQ from those who are confused by it or even loathe it. The issue is this: while the Scion engineers have done a remarkable packaging job here, the iQ doesn’t try to win or even compete on giving you “more” than you get with a Fiat 500, or a Mini, or a Honda Fit. All of those cars have more space, more power, and more features. No, the iQ competes by giving you less than those cars do at about the same price. The iQ is shorter, smaller and simpler than cars that might seem to compete with it. The idea of the iQ is to give you enough, but no more.
 
This isn’t some weird experiment put on by the automotive division of a self-flagellating monastic order. The idea of “enough” is to create a bevy of benefits that are pretty easy to understand. It helps to remember the context that this is a city car, meant for urban and tighter suburban environments. In that world, tailoring size and features to this standard can yield outstanding maneuverability, excellent ease of parking, and driving dynamics that match the cut and thrust of urban motoring.
 
In practice, we found that you get some of these things because the iQ is short, and it is easier to understand where the corners are and easier to be confident that you can move left or right or forward or backwards without bending any metal. You get some of these benefits because the wheelbase of the car is short, and the suspension is firm, so the iQ is very happy to turn. And, you get some of these benefits because the iQ visibility is good, courtesy of an upright seating position and plenty of glass area.
 
Those of you who have driven the Mini or the Fiat 500 or the Honda Fit in urban areas will know that some of this description would seem to apply to those cars as well. But the iQ, like the Smart before it, shows that these factors can be amped up a notch. After a day in the iQ, you can start to see the Mini’s visibility as compromised. You can think of the Fit as a large car. You can find yourself asking for better turn-in than the Fiat delivers. “More” starts to look like “too much.”
 
Once you comprehend that "Less is More" philosophy, it is easier to understand the pricing of the Scion. The car comes in basically one package at just under $16,000 including delivery. That's about $750 less than a comparable Fit, $2000 less than the base Fiat 500 Pop with automatic, and almost $6000 less than a Mini Cooper with an automatic. So, less (which is actually more if you follow) is also less money.  The Scion has a no-haggle price, so the difference may shrink a bit in reality, and if you want a manual the difference shrinks further, with the Fiat and Mini falling by about $1250.
 
On the highway, the iQ handles more than adequately. Top speed is around 100 miles per hour, so you’ll have no trouble in that department. More importantly, the iQ feels stable and tracks well. Frankly, the short wheelbase that we liked in town didn’t seem to be a disadvantage at 70 or 80 mph.
 
When you get the iQ on to twisty roads, you are rewarded with very little body roll and adequately quick steering. The car responds well, with a slight bias toward understeer. We did most of our rural road driving in an iQ equipped with the optional (as a dealer-installed accessory) TRD suspension that supplies stiffer springs, lower ride height, larger roll bar. We liked the TRD handling feel slightly better, and the firm—but not crashy—ride quality is only marginally compromised to our sports-car-minded way of thinking, but the base suspension works pretty well too, and is a little smoother on bumps and potholes.
 
Styling is the other aspect of the iQ that is at play here. With the iQ, we’re not just talking about aesthetic oeuvre or design details. Really, the more important thing here is that the iQ reads as a tiny city car. That positioning says volumes about the owner’s lifestyle and attitudes. In this sense, we think the iQ won’t find itself competing with the Fiat 500 and the Mini. The Fiat and the Mini are design statements; they are retro-cool. The iQ is much more of a conceptual statement about how you live, about politics, and about the state of the world. Toyota (parent company of Scion) is a master of this, as demonstrated with its dominating approach to the hybrid and luxury markets.
 
The iQ’s design details support this urban-efficient-progressive statement. The iQ is full of attractive details inside and out, but they aren’t retro-stylish, they’re modern. If you like the city car concept, you need to visit a Scion dealer once the roll-out waves hit your area, because this is as fully realized a design as the Mini or the Fiat, just with a different aim.
 
In keeping with Scion's philosophy, the car will also launch with about 25 accessories, many of them styling "enhancements". The car itself is a one-spec item, with paint and head units as the only choices. For U.S. buyers, who tend to purchase off the lot, this actually makes it much easier to get the car you want.
 
Regular readers of this publication will notice that we haven’t talked at all about the powertrain of the iQ. That’s because the new 1.3-liter engine coupled to a CVT (Continously Variable Transmission) is the weak spot of the iQ. Interestingly, it isn’t so much that the iQ is down on power. Sure, 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque seem pretty limiting, but you have to remember that the iQ only weighs 2127 pounds. That gives the iQ 22.6 pounds to lug with each horsepower, which is similar to the Mini’s 21 pounds per horsepower or the Fiat's 24 pounds per horsepower. The iQ moves along acceptably for a small car, and the very steep hills of San Francisco were addressed without too much difficulty. 0-60 is claimed at 11.8 seconds, to put this in perspective. “Slow but usable” might be a good summary.
 
Still, the problem with the iQ’s drivetrain isn’t raw power. The problem is responsiveness. The iQ has the CVT-standard tendency to rev up to middle rpms, and then sort of sit there while it gathers speed. For drivers accustomed to conventional transmissions, this simply isn’t pleasurable. The sounds aren’t great and the driver has to modulate the throttle more than the usual amount to get the changes in pace he or she wants.
 
This isn’t the end of the world, and some drivers won’t notice it a bit. But traditional WR readers will find this a weak spot in an otherwise impressive package. We think their frustration will be amplified when they find out that the European iQ (Toyota-branded) is available with a manual gearbox, though hope may be rekindled if Scion management considers bringing that in as an option (which the look on their faces suggested wasn’t a new idea).
 
You will also notice that we haven’t discussed fuel mileage. Actually, the iQ gets rather good mileage at 36 city/37 highway. But we don’t think that’s the draw here. If you really want high mileage, you go with a hybrid or an EV. If you look at the competitive set we’ve been discussing, the 37-mpg combined rating of the iQ is better, but not enough in our view to often be decisive. You decide on an iQ because this is the car you want and it has good mileage to boot.
 
Safety is the other area that has this aspect of “good enough for the target market, but not enough to change religions”. Most consumers, when looking at a tiny car like the iQ, wonder about what happens when a Suburban or an F-150 collides with the car. To address this, Scion has put 11 airbags in the iQ, the most of any US car. Scion has also done extensive crash design and testing, and executives hinted that the iQ will carry at least a four-star rating. So, Scion has done its safety homework. But, like the iQ’s mileage rating, we think this is sufficient for people who already have a preference for this kind of vehicle, but realize that it won’t convert those who worry a lot about crashing or those who say things like “You can’t change physics.”
 
So, as we said at the outset, this is a car for less than one percent of the population. Of course, many cars are cars for less than one percent of the population. Most of the cars we enjoy are those less-than-one-percent vehicles, and in that spirit we welcome the iQ to the club. The car could be improved for our tastes with the addition of a single critical option, but the idea and the platform are an excellent start.
 
2012 Scion iQ
Engine: Inline-4, 1.3 liters, 16v
Output: 94 hp/89 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 11.8 sec
Weight: 2127 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 36/37 mpg
Price: $15,295 (est)
On Sale: October, 2011