Scion's Supermini Outsmarts Smart
Despite a flurry of media attention at launch, sales of the Smart ForTwo have done a nosedive since its Stateside debut in 2008. Unsurprising, considering you could strap a lawnmower engine onto Yao Ming's left rollerskate and build a better car. But the ForTwo wasn't a failure of vision, it was a botched execution. Yet despite being underwhelming, overpriced and fitted with one of the worst gearboxes ever crafted by man, we're still seeing a slew of them puttering around San Francisco during the our first drive of the 2012 Scion iQ.
Coastal-types and urbanites are apparently hard-up for something spectacularly small, equally frugal and simple to park, so bringing the iQ to SF was a no-brainer for Scion. Its quirky shape and minimalist-at-all-costs design is the kind of thing Northern Californians should eat up with an oversized ramen renge. As well they should. The aptly named iQ outsmarts Smart at its own game, minimizing the compromises and creating something better than a pint-size commuter.
Sales of the Toyota-branded iQ have been going rather strong in Japan and Europe since its debut in 2008, and with Scion's aging line-up, it made sense to inject the 120.1-inch hatch into Toyota's "youth" division.
Weighing in at a scant 2,127 pounds, it's not only the lightest offering in the Toyota/Scion stable, it takes the trophy for the world's smallest "four-seater." In truth, however, that designation is a bit of a misnomer. Toyota originally called the iQ a 3+1 in Europe, meaning it could fit three people with ease and a fourth in a pinch. In reality, it's more of a 2+1.5. Two full-sized adults have ample room up front, and while Scion insists the seating layout is asymmetrical – with the front passenger seat moved slightly forward to provide room for someone in the rear – in actuality, it's more of a design ploy than a useful feature. As soon as someone moves the seatback into a comfortable position, any and all rear legroom disappears.
That said, Toyota tasked its tallest engineer (over six feet), Hiroki Nakajima, with development of the iQ, and he squeezed in with Jack Hollis, Scion's Vice President, and two other six-foot ToMoCo employees for a 30-minute drive around the city. So yes, it can be done. But unless you regularly shuttle midget amputees, it's best to consider this a two-seater with 16.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the 50/50 rear seats folded down (a tiny 3.5 cubes with the seats in place).
But that's not to say that the iQ isn't a packaging marvel. With its wheels pushed to the outer edges of its bodywork and a low profile (five-inches tall), center-mounted 8.5-gallon fuel tank spanning the space underneath the driver and right-rear passenger, the maximization of interior volume and compact engineering beneath its sheetmetal makes Tetris look like a game of stick and ball.
A compact air-conditioning unit mounted directly behind the dashboard's center stack eschews the complexities of a larger system, while a high-mount rack-and-pinion electric power assist steering setup means interior intrusion is nonexistent. MacPherson struts up front partner with a specially-developed torsion beam rear end to maximize rear-seat hip room and cargo space, aided by slim-back front seats that can be pulled forward with a small tug of the walk-through lever on either side of the seats. It's all trick stuff – until you get under the comically small hood.
A new (for the U.S.) 1.3-liter 1NR-FE four-cylinder engine cranks out 94 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 89 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. A continuously variable gearbox with settings for Sport and "B" – engine braking – shuffles that miserly grunt to the front wheels through a compact differential that's front-mounted ahead of the engine and transmission, once again maximizing interior space.
Even with a relatively high 11.5:1 compression ratio, Scion says you can run the iQ on 87-octane fuel all day long and get 36 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway and 37 mpg combined. Naturally, maximum acceleration isn't the iQ's forte, with a 0-60 mph time of 11.8 seconds and a top speed of 100 mph – something we independently verified. Going downhill. On the freeway. With a tailwind.
The fact we were able to reach that speed without pulling bits of the cloth seating out of our sphincter is a testament to the iQ's surprising all-around competency. Compared to the Smart and even the Fiat 500, the iQ's freeway manners are completely unmatched, remaining calm and even comfortable at 80+ mph – surprising considering its short (78.7-inch) wheelbase and modest engine. But the CVT's proclivity for pegging the engine over 6k RPM when laying into the throttle – mustering more noise than motivation – makes carpet-mashing a rackety, droning affair. Yes, the iQ would be far more fun with a manual (something that's not up for consideration in the States) and the 10.1-inch vented front discs and 7.1-inch rear drums began to fade within minutes of blasting down a particularly twisty backroad, but to slight the iQ for driving engagement is to completely miss the point.
Let's start with the turning circle. The ForTwo does it in 28.7 feet. The iQ? 25.8 feet. Visibility out of the oddly-S-shaped rear quarter windows is excellent for quick lane changes and even quicker parking maneuvers. And see where the rear windshield ends? That's where the iQ ends, making backing, parallel parking and any kind of close-confines maneuvering easier than anything with four wheels. And yes, despite our griping about rear-seating space, both the driver and front passenger have ample leg, shoulder and headroom.
The interior is a genuinely enjoyable place to spend a bit of time, with relatively high-quality, soft-touch plastics up front that predictably devolve into lower-class kit further down. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope and comes complete with a redundant audio controls and a "flat bottom" (barely) that frees up some knee space. The seats, thin and lacking any serious bolstering, kept us comfortable during a pair of hour-plus stints behind the wheel, although said wheel's ability to communicate anything aside from deep ruts and Smart-swallowing bumps could be charitably described as lacking. But again, this isn't a driver's car.
It is, however, a Scion. And that means customization and interior trinkets abound. Seven exterior colors – including the Hot Lava hue of our tester – are available at launch, and to paraphrase Mr. Ford, you can have any interior color as long as it's black (and gray). Two cover choices mask the 16x5-inch steel wheels (with 175/60R16 all season rubber) or you can upgrade the rolling stock to 16-inch alloys (no summer rubber option), along with TRD lowering springs and a rear sway bar. Take our advice and skip those two; the ride is rough enough as-is, although there's a fair amount of body roll and tire squealing as soon as the iQ is pushed.
Scion has cribbed a book from the Nissan Juke playbook (or perhaps that's the other way 'round, as the funny-faced softroader came later), fitting a motorcycle-like gauge pod to keep tabs on speed and revs, with the standard "Scion Drive Monitor" mounted to the right of the IP to track fuel level, mileage, average speed, outside temp, trip, odometer and CVT setting. An "Eco Drive" light and bar of indicators lets you know how you're treading on the throttle, and we rarely saw the green light illuminate unless coasting on the freeway or down Market Street.
The stereo options come in three flavors, all with only four speakers: a standard 160-watt unit with two RCA inputs, HD radio and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming; the Pioneer Premium head unit with 200 watts of juice, incredibly slick iPhone Pandora integration and a 5.8-inch TFT touchscreen; and the Navigation package which bumps the screen to seven inches, comes equipped with iPod video, video input (for a back-up camera) and an aging GPS UI. But no Pandora. If you're packing navigation software on your phone, opt for the Premium pack, pick up a phone mount for the dash and know you've made the better deal. On a related side note: Scion was quick to point out that the iQs we were testing were pre-production units, so attempt to ignore the steering column-mounted phone mic expertly adhered with electrical tape.
You'll find a USB port and an eighth-inch line-in next to the door lock and traction control buttons fitted to the left of the shifter gate – placement we can get behind – as well as a pivoting, multi-directional LED dome light that needs to make it into more vehicles. It's just smart and simplistically cool, and probably cheaper to produce than most standard interior lights. And before you ask, no, there isn't a full-sized spare (you're stuck with a can of inflatable goo and an air-compressor) nor is there a traditional glove box. You've got to stuff your various and sundries into a drawer underneath the passenger seat, although there's a nice pocket of space for a purse or murse aft of the center console.
On the safety front, the iQ comes with a predictable cadre of acronyms, including ABS, EBD, SST, TRAC and VSC, along with 11 standard airbags, including a world's first rear window airbag that shields the (already) unlucky rear-seat occupants from behind.
As reported previously, pricing for the base iQ is set at $15,995 (including $730 destination) and will roll out to showrooms beginning on the West Coast this October, followed by the East Coast in January and eventually the southern states and the Midwest.
As a strictly cost/benefit equation, that price of entry might be hard to swallow considering the amount of space and better fuel economy offered by similarly priced compacts; namely the Mazda2, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent. But none of these are as urban-friendly or funky-chic as the Scion. At the heart of it, the iQ is a four-wheeled fashion accessory with a surprising amount of functionality that was engineered for city dwellers with a penchant for attention. Just like the Smart. But where the ForTwo falls woefully short, the iQ steps up in every conceivable metric. It drives better, it looks better and it's better suited to both bouncing around town and taking a day-trip on the freeway. And Scion is gambling that 'better' is all this segment needs to survive.
New Car Test Drive
Urban commuter is small outside, roomy inside.
The Scion iQ is a pint-sized microcar perfect for city dwellers seeking easy maneuverability and admirable fuel economy. Unlike other tiny subcompacts, the iQ seats four (or at least three people comfortably).
Although one would expect cars in this segment to be hopelessly cheap-looking, the Scion iQ does a decent job striking a balance between quality and economy. Bold exterior styling, consistent with the Scion brand, helps to fend off any would-be bullies. But let's be clear, you're not going to look macho driving down the road in a Scion iQ. But at least it won't look like you're piloting a rollerskate, either.
The iQ was all-new for 2012, so changes for 2013 are minor. The standard Pioneer audio system now has six speakers instead of four. A new BeSpoke premium audio system with 5.8-inch LCD display is also available.
Powering the Scion iQ is a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes a modest 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. A Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) kills some of the fun but, on the upside, helps to achieve an estimated 36/37 mpg city/highway, which beats both the Smart Fortwo and the Fiat 500 with the automatic transmission.
Sure, the car is tiny, but it doesn't feel that way inside. Several features enable the iQ to stay small without forcing occupants to feel like sardines. It's proportionately wider than other cars, allowing not only more space, but a greater sense of confidence on the road. In the cabin, that means an offset passenger seat along with thinner seat backs to give rear passengers more space. Under the hood, it's smaller, more compact components such as the front-mounted differential and air conditioning unit, as well as a high-mount steering rack with electronic power-steering. Underneath, a flat gas tank beneath the floor reduces rear overhang.
The 2013 Scion iQ's closest competitors appear to be the Smart ForTwo hatchback and the Fiat 500. Dimensions-wise, the iQ sits in between the two (20 inches shorter than the Fiat, but 14 inches longer than the Smart). The iQ could even be considered an alternative to the Mini Cooper. And while the iQ's base price seems fair at around $16k compared to the latter, that's not a lot of car for the money. Springing for upgraded audio, suspension enhancements and other options can skyrocket the iQ's sticker price to nearly $20k. So unless you live in a congested area and are specifically looking for a diminutive footprint to ease urban parking woes, you might get more bang for your buck with slightly larger vehicles such as the Mazda2, Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio or Honda Fit.
Scion iQ is powered by a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that makes 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. It's paired with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and gets an EPA-estimated 36/37 mpg City/Highway.
The 2013 Scion iQ ($15,495) comes in one trim level. Standard features include air conditioning, cloth upholstery, power door locks, windows and outside mirrors, a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel with audio controls, 50/50 split folding rear seats, trip computer, Bluetooth handsfree phone system and a six-speaker, Pioneer audio system with HD radio, single MP3/WMA CD player, USB and auxiliary audio ports. Steel 16-inch wheels are standard with a choice between two plastic wheel cover designs.
Options include Blizzard Pearl paint ($395), a rear spoiler ($285) 16-inch alloy wheels ($749), wheel locks, fog lights, body side moldings, mudguards, a rear spoiler and paint protection film. Performance options include Toyota Racing Development (TRD) lowering springs ($399), sway bar set ($345) and shift knob ($80). Interior accessories include floor mats, cargo mat, cargo net and a seven-color interior light kit.
An upgraded BeSpoke premium audio system is also available ($845), with a 5.8-inch LCD color touch-screen display and a variety of apps, like Pandora live audio streaming, Twitter, Yelp and traffic information. It's important to note that at the time of this writing, BeSpoke is currently only compatible with iPhone 4 and 4S, not iPhone 5.
Safety features standard on the 2013 Scion iQ include 11 airbags (driver- and front-passenger airbags; driver- and front-passenger seat-mounted side airbags; side curtain airbags; driver- and front-passenger knee airbags; driver- and front-passenger seat-cushion airbags; and a rear-window airbag), antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, traction control, electronic stability control, and brake-override.
Aggressive-looking for its size, the iQ's styling elicits more respect on the road than a Smart ForTwo hatchback, but lacks the panache of the retro-inspired Fiat 500 or Mini Cooper. The Scion brand skews heavily male, so it's no surprise the iQ's creators favored strong lines and geometric angles over bubbly cuteness.
To make the iQ seem less diminutive, Scion designers took a chance by straying from typical vehicle proportions. Although only 10 feet long, the iQ is unusually wide for a car in its segment.
One of the biggest challenges in creating the smallest vehicles is designing a cabin spacious enough to accommodate taller drivers without inducing claustrophobia attacks on passengers. But the Scion iQ achieves this with relative ease. The cabin feels surprisingly airy, and Scion tells us the space between the front seats is larger than that of Toyota's Yaris or Corolla models. The front passenger seat is offset with a track that sits farther forward to give the passenger behind better legroom. Scion also ditched a proper glove compartment for a plastic box underneath the passenger seat that slides in and out, albeit flimsily.
Thinner seatbacks eek out a little extra legroom, but they're comfortable enough that you won't miss the extra padding. Rear seats split and fold down 50/50 and offer enough space for a couple of large suitcases.
Total cargo room is rated at 16.7 cubic feet with the rear seats flat.
The instrument cluster, like other Scions, is simple and attractive, with a pleasing and easy-to-read blue lighting scheme. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is substantial and feels good in hand. We liked the wheel-mounted audio controls, but wish there were also a button to access to the Bluetooth hands-free phone feature.
Climate controls consist of three large, vertically placed knobs on the center stack that are easy to see and reach. Audio controls vary depending on what system you choose. On base and premium versions, controls are adequate and are easy to use once you get the hang of what everything does. On systems equipped with the optional navigation, buttons are integrated into the touchscreen display.
Sound quality from the Pioneer audio system is fair, but, since Scion customers tend to be big on customization, we expect music aficionados will roll with aftermarket speakers anyway. An upgraded BeSpoke premium audio system is also available, with a 5.8-inch LCD color touch-screen display and a variety of apps, like Pandora live audio streaming, Twitter, Yelp and traffic information. It's important to note that at the time of this writing, BeSpoke is currently only compatible with iPhone 4 and 4S, not iPhone 5.
We drove a Scion iQ equipped with navigation, the premium audio system, and TRD suspension elements. The comparatively wider track kept the iQ feeling stable, even at freeway speeds. Acceleration is steady and smooth with the1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine, and had just enough oomph to make it up steep hills laden with two svelte adults. We expect a full load would give the 94-hp car a strenuous workout.
Sharp steering and a tiny turning circle of only 13 feet make for some snappy maneuvers in parking lots and through city streets. We nearly lost our lunch circling a roundabout in our iQ in what turned out to be just a few too many times.
Our biggest complaint about the Scion iQ is the continuously variable transmission (CVT). While good for fuel economy and not as gutless as some incarnations, it robbed the iQ of its potential pep. We'd love to see a manual option in the U.S. in hopes the iQ could emulate any of the famous go-kart handling found in the Mini Cooper. Still, the CVT in the iQ is miles ahead of the angst-inducing sequential gearbox found on the Smart ForTwo, which with every shift simulates the movement of whiplash in uber-slow-motion.
The TRD springs and sway bar on our Scion iQ made the car feel a little more sporty and hunkered down compared to the base model. MacPherson struts up front and a compact torsion beam suspension kept the ride relatively smooth and controlled, but it was rough riding over railroad tracks.
Ventilated disc brakes in front and drums in rear stopped the car without any drama.
If you're looking for a tiny city car that won't get you beat up or laughed at, the Scion iQ is one of the better choices out there. Still, it's wise to consider larger choices for the money as long as size doesn't matter.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from San Francisco.
Scion iQ ($15,495).
Toyota City, Japan.
Options As Tested
BeSpoke premium audio system ($845), TRD lowering springs ($399), TRD sway bar ($345), TRD shift knob ($80).
Scion iQ ($15,495).
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