Smarter

2012 Scion iQ

"Not so 'Smart' after all?" The older gentleman in the grocery store parking lot asked as I wheeled my loaded cart to the back of the 2012 Scion iQ.

On the contrary, sir. After he finished chuckling and drove away, I successfully loaded $150 worth of groceries into the iQ's cargo area, including a pallet of 24 water bottles. And upon returning to my loft, I effortlessly backed the little Scion underneath the awning that covers the entrance to my building, keeping myself out of the rain while unloading my goods.

Seems pretty smart to me.

But that's not the only reason why I like the iQ. Once you get past the novelty of its you-can-park-me-anywhere size, you aren't left with a completely miserable little machine. The Scion's list of good virtues doesn't consist of a single, solitary bullet point, and during my week with the tiniest Toyota, I was determined to see if the iQ was more than just a smarter Smart. There's a smattering of excellent subcompact offerings available to Americans these days. To say we could all do without the ForTwo is a no-brainer. The iQ, however, certainly has potential.
Related Gallery2012 Scion iQ: Review
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2012 Scion iQ side view2012 Scion iQ front view2012 Scion iQ rear view

Let's back up for a moment and talk about the fact that the older gentleman mistook the iQ for its arch nemesis, the Smart ForTwo. He wasn't the only one who did that during my week with the Scion, one of my neighbors stating that she "hates the Smart car." It's understandable why people still aren't recognizing the iQ for what it is. Scion chose to roll out its microcar in a similar fashion to how the brand's first two offerings – the xA and xB – were launched in the early 2000s. Sales started on the west coast, moved to key markets on the east coast and are now slowly starting to proliferate throughout the rest of the country – I have yet to see another one on the roads around Detroit.

Scion is already outselling the Smart – 4,382 to 3,670 despite not being on sale in all markets for all months.

Even with this slow and steady introduction to the United States, the iQ is doing fairly well for itself. Through the first five months of this year, the Scion is already outselling the Smart – 4,382 to 3,670 despite not being on sale in all markets for all months.

Let's talk about the Scion's sheer smallness, however. At 120.1 inches long (that's just a tick over ten feet), the little scamp can fit horizontally into some larger parking spaces, though this technically isn't legal. Compared to the ForTwo, the iQ is 14 inches longer, 4.7 inches wider (66.1 total) and 1.6 inches shorter in height (59.1). Scion offers the iQ with standard 16-inch wheels that are comically large compared to its diminutive size, and the Hot Lava test car you see here was even fitted with TRD lowering springs, making those alloys seem like the largest possible rollers you could fit inside those tiny wheel wells.

2012 Scion iQ headlight2012 Scion iQ fog light2012 Scion iQ wheel2012 Scion iQ taillight

You can't help but smile when you see the tiny iQ on the road. It doesn't pander its overt cuteness like the ForTwo. Instead, it's decidedly aggressive – call it tiny-tough – with specific elements like the upright front fascia with large air intakes flanking either side, or the wheels that are pushed out as far as possible to all four corners (with hilariously oversized plastic wheel covers or the sharp dark alloys like you see here) driving this home in a big way. And the iQ's large exterior features matched with its small size actually drive home the fact that it's surprisingly big inside.

It's decidedly aggressive – call it tiny-tough.

Fold down the rear seats and there's 16.7 cubic feet of cargo space, including a small (but deep) tray between the rear bench and the liftgate – perfect for stowing the headrests. No, 16.7 cubic feet isn't a ton of space, but that's still 4.7 more cubes than you get in the Smart. And when you're talking about a car as tiny as the iQ, that's quite good.

Attention automakers: If you want a lesson in packaging excellence, spend a few days with the Scion iQ.

2012 Scion iQ rear seats2012 Scion iQ rear cargo area

Toyota's engineers have come up with a number of space-saving solutions here in the iQ. The glovebox has been removed in favor of larger storage pockets in the doors and there's a sliding storage space under the passenger seat, but what's most useful is the open floor space aft of the center console between the two front seats. It's perfect for small bags or things that you'd otherwise plop on the rear seats, and alleviates the need to tip the driver's chair forward to securely stow your stuff.

Your best bet is to consider this car a two-seater with a surprisingly capacious load area.

Furthermore, close attention was paid to things like the suspension design, steering setup and even fuel tank placement, all of which was efficiently packaged to achieve 73.8 cubic feet of total passenger volume – 28.4 more than the Smart. It's basically a Smart-and-a-half. Technically, Scion calls the iQ a four-seater (well, a three-plus-one), but we'll agree with what we said in our First Drive and say that your best bet is to consider this car a two-seater with a surprisingly capacious load area. Need to schlep people around in the rear seats? They'll be fine, but for their sake, only do it on short journeys.

Then again, even with just two passengers, long trips are not the iQ's forte. Sure, the front seats are genuinely comfortable (though seriously lacking any sort of side bolstering) and the interior is a pleasant place to be, but there's ample wind noise at speed, not to mention a constant buzzing from the compact engine.

2012 Scion iQ interior2012 Scion iQ front seats2012 Scion iQ gauges2012 Scion iQ shifter

Toyota has employed a 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine to power the iQ, putting out 95 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. Small numbers, no doubt, but in a total package that only weighs 2,127 pounds, it's perfectly adequate. It's not quick, this iQ – hitting 60 miles per hour will take close to 12 seconds (even the frumpy Prius V is a second and a half quicker) – and it certainly doesn't sound like it wants to be pushed, either. Hard throttle applications will hold the continuously variable transmission up past 4,500 RPM, a sound that you'll enjoy imitating with a loud, "waaahhhhhhhh." Still, around town, you'll never feel like you're struggling to keep up with traffic.

Toyota states that the iQ can hit 100 mph, though good luck getting there.

Toyota does state that the iQ can hit 100 mph, though good luck getting there. Realistically, the iQ is perfectly fine cruising at highway speeds – even 80 mph feels fine – whereas the Smart struggles to move past 70 mph. Still, highways are not the Scion's happy zone.

Careful with those revs, though. You might think that such a low-powered, lightweight package would be great on fuel economy, but the best it'll do is 37 miles per gallon on the highway (36 city). When the benchmark for substantially larger cars is 40-plus mpg, this is indeed disappointing.

2012 Scion iQ engine

The iQ is happiest bobbing around town, and really, it's quite entertaining. That's largely thanks to the excellent steering setup – specifically, the 12.9-foot turning radius. This car can nearly turn around in itself, and because of that, it's hilariously fun to toss it around corners or impress your friends with U-turns on narrow roads.

Compared to its closest rival, the ForTwo, the iQ is leaps and bounds better. It drives like a real car.

The front track is a generous 58.1 inches wide (57.5 out back), and combined with a short wheelbase of only 78.7 inches, the squared-off dimensions do a lot to increase cornering stability. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension setups are well-sorted and appropriately tuned to compensate for the short wheelbase, so the car isn't incessantly bouncing around over pavement irregularities.

Let it be known, this is not a driver's car – not one bit. But compared to its closest rival, the ForTwo, the iQ is leaps and bounds better. It drives like a real car. Really.

2012 Scion iQ rear 3/4 view

What trips us up, though, is the price compared to larger yet still frugal subcompacts.

So, the Scion iQ presents itself to be a surprisingly smart package (and yes, pun totally intended). The only thing that's troubling is the price – $15,995 to start. Sure, that's $1,000 more than a ForTwo Passion coupe, but it's totally worth it. What trips us up, though, is the price compared to larger yet still frugal subcompacts. For example, the orange iQ you see here: it's $18,427, including $730 for destination. For that price, you could have a host of four- or five-door compact cars that are more powerful, offer more interior space and even get better fuel economy, and the realist inside me would have a seriously hard time plunking that sort of coin on something other than a Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic or Honda Fit.

But the sheer entertainment value of the iQ and its clever packaging is exactly why it works and why I consider it a sort of guilty pleasure. It's pleasant to drive, comfortable, attractive and relatively efficient. It's more of a fashion accessory for city-dwellers than a truly great all-rounder, but in a segment benchmarked by the Smart, it's easily a class-leader. Even then, it fits well into the larger compact class. Thanks to its personality, I'd actually rather live with the iQ than the Scion xD, and it's far more rewarding to drive than a yawn-inducing Yaris.

The Scion iQ is far more than just a novelty. Being able to park a microcar in tight confines is one thing, but being able to use it on a daily basis is another. Thanks to its clever packaging and decent on-road feel, the iQ proves that microcars can certainly exist in this market. They just need to be... smarter.