The latest addition to Toyota's younger, funkier brand is the pint-sized 2012 Scion IQ microcar. Scion, which boasts the youngest customer base in the industry, is hoping the IQ will be snatched up by hip, trend-setting city-dwellers seeking easy maneuverability and admirable fuel economy.
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.
Powering the 2012 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 37 miles per gallon combined.
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 2012 Scion IQ's closest competitors appear to be the Smart ForTwo hatchback and the Fiat 500. Dimensions-wise, the 2012 Scion 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. Pricing for all accessories is not yet available, but springing for navigation, upgraded audio and suspension enhancements 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 larger vehicles such as the Mazda2, all-new Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit.
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 2012 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 even with the 200-watt upgraded stereo it's nothing to write home about. But, since Scion customers tend to be big on customization, we expect music aficionados will roll with aftermarket speakers anyway.
We drove a prototype of the 2012 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 2012 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 2012 Scion 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.