2013 Scion iQ Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
January 9, 2013

The 2013 Scion iQ will appeal to space-challenged city dwellers; for everyone else, it's a lifestyle choice to buy a car that stands out from the crowd.

The 2013 Scion iQ isn't really meant for the U.S. In other markets--where it's called the Toyota iQ--it's a practical choice to offset eight-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, registration fees that penalize larger engines, parking spaces designed for compact cars, and other impediments to car use outside North America.

Scion is using the iQ as a niche vehicle to lure fashion-conscious city dwellers into their brand. From the start, it has packaged the iQ as a premium city car that offers better materials, better noise isolation, and a more sophisticated feel than you'll find in other budget small cars. Even in the U.S., the stubby little Scion iQ mostly bucks the econocar feel, let down only by a few grim black interior materials. Introduced as a 2012 model, it enters 2013 essentially unchanged.

At precisely 10 feet long, Toyota has magically created space for two people, a third seat for occasional use, and a child-sized "fourth seat"--though most people will use it as a backpack shelf. Scion calls this "3+1 seating," enabled by an asymmetrical dashboard that recedes toward the base of the windshield on the passenger side to make the right rear seat more spacious than the left rear.

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A 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine provides enough power to get around cities, delivered to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). But acceleration is leisurely, and on the highway, there's precious little power to spare. Still, the iQ's nimble handling extends beyond the urban grid and traffic circles. Even if it's slow, it drives solidly and securely and feels safe on the highway, even at 80 mph.

Fuel economy of 37 mpg combined is good, if not up to hybrid levels. In some ways, the Scion iQ is a rational choice for drivers who realistically assess how much car they really need. And its starting price around $16,000 is well below those of the Fiat 500 and MINI Cooper, which are nominally four-seat cars that almost never get used that way.

In the end, the tiny dimensions of the Scion iQ are its biggest selling point. For city dwellers in New York, San Francisco, and other crowded places--think Tokyo, Jakarta, and various Chinese megacities--the iQ makes great sense. It's very small and extremely space-efficient, and a worthy demonstration of Toyota's engineering abilities. In the U.S., it's challenged by less pricey gasoline, bigger roads, and the wide array of compact four-door cars with gas mileage and prices close enough to make them appear a much better value.

While it's not quick not ultra-cheap, and hardly a gas-mileage champ, the Scion iQ might still get you thinking a little differently about whether bigger is better.

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2013 Scion iQ

Styling

The 2013 Scion iQ looks assertive and sporty, with a stance and attitude that belies its tiny size.

The 2013 Scion iQ may be a tiny city car, but it has an aggressive personality and attitude that let it box above its weight. It somehow looks like a real car—much more so than the Smart Fortwo—due to its height and width, which match those of a subcompact, along with slab-sided proportions. From the side, it just appears to be a rear car with the entire rear amputated, though from front and rear three-quarter views, it's either a normal subcompact or a rather upright hatchback.

With its oversize wheels, the Scion iQ gains a measure of sportiness and an aggressive, road-hugging stance that serves it well on the street. Toyota's stylists entirely skipped anything retro--no MINI or Beetle here--and says their "J Factor" design language is based on Japanese fine art. We don't see it, but the U.S. isn't the prime market for the little iQ anyhow. The front end is blunt but softly curved, and the thickness of the roof pillar is offset by a playful reverse curve that wraps the rear window around from the back.

Inside the cabin, the iQ's interior is stylistically straightforward, with nice detailing and mostly better trims and finishes than those we've seen in recent U.S. Toyota products. It's let down only by the nylon seat fabric and the almost-all-black interior of some models. The one gimmick is a "manta ray" theme that not only appears at the door pulls but also decorates the top of the center stack.

To achieve what Scion terms "3+1 seating," the passenger side of the instrument panel is several inches further away than the driver's. To get a real person into the third seat, the front passenger's seat must slide forward noticeably--as the tracks are set up to allow--which can feel odd to the driver. On the other hand, we don't expect many iQ owners will ever have three people in one.

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2013 Scion iQ

Performance

The 2013 Scion iQ is fun to toss around in the curves or tight urban traffic, but it's not at all speedy.

The 2013 Scion iQ offers just a single powertrain combination: a 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine with a belt-and-pulley continuously variable transmission (CVT), tuned to give the engine enough revs when needed while avoiding both the 'rubber band' feel to throttle response and any surging feeling on moderate acceleration.

While the engine is one of the smallest and least powerful in the U.S., it's enough to move the 2,100-pound iQ minicar around town just fine. Especially on level city and suburban roads, the iQ feels mostly responsive and capable. On the highway, however, the iQ runs out of pep fairly quickly--in part because the CVT's top ratio isn't really that tall. At highway speeds of 70 to 80 mph, the tach showed the engine spinning up to 4000 rpm, which meant that when you needed more revs for passing, you'd already used up most of them.

Despite the frisky feel, a stopwatch shows that the Scion iQ is actually quite slow. The official 0-to-60-mph time is a drum-your-fingers-on-the-table 11.8 seconds, no better than economy cars of 30 years earlier.

But the handling goes some way toward making up for the slowness. With firm but well-tuned suspension, the wide iQ accommodates curvy roads and multi-lane highways with aplomb. The suspension loads and unloads predictably, giving the feel of a much larger and heavier car. The electric power steering is tuned to provide a more stable feel on the highway, while being quite communicative on those twisty roads.

All models have front discs and rear drums, and brake feel is confident enough for all city-driving needs. One huge plus for city dwellers: With a turning radius of just 12.9 feet--only 3 feet more than the length of the car itself--U-turns are possible under almost any circumstance.

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2013 Scion iQ

Comfort & Quality

The 2013 Scion iQ makes the most out of a tiny package, but the clever interior design is compromised by some grim materials.

The 2013 Scion iQ is quite simply the smallest four-seat car sold in the U.S., at just 10 feet long. That's slightly deceptive, though: Scion deems the iQ a 3+1-seat car—meaning there's room for three adults in the driver, front passenger, and rear right passenger positions, along a smaller, child-size space behind the driver that will likely only ever hold a backpack.

What makes this work is the Scion's asymmetric dashboard, in which the passenger side of the dash is recessed several inches toward the base of the windshield. That lets the passenger seat slide a long distance forward, as well as tilting up for better rear-seat access on that side. Even the front seats are all-new, with ultra-slim backs, though they feel every bit as supportive as those in the Yaris or Corolla.

And it works: They really do maximize rear-seat legroom. Our lanky 6'-6" test driver couldn't quite fit in the rear, but average-height passengers did--with cooperation from the front passenger. You won't find adults volunteering to sit back there, but it's usable in a pinch.

Every part of the Scion iQ has been designed to maximize interior space, from a shallow, under-floor fuel tank to reorganized climate-control blowers sited in the center stack.

Ride quality in the iQ isn't soft and supple, but it's not too harsh either. And the CVT eliminates the major sin of the Smart ForTwo: the excessive fore-and-aft movement with acceleration, shifting, and braking that make the Fortwo fatiguing in city driving. The little Scion also tracks solidly down the Interstate—meaning that even several hours on the highway for two adults isn't all that fatiguing.

But for buyers who use the Scion iQ essentially as a two-seater, the rear seatbacks can be folded flat to produce a low load floor and 16.7 cubic feet of cargo volume. That's enough for a full family's grocery run. With seatbacks up, there's a mere 3.5 cubic feet--not even enough for a laptop bag. Think two hardcover books, perhaps. If you fold the seatbacks forward, however, you'll have to remove the headrests altogether--though they stow neatly under the cushions.

Up front, there's plenty of storage space, including large cupholders. A leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel—with audio controls—is standard. There's a 12-Volt accessory power outlet, and one nice touch is automatic up/down switches on both side windows. Pivoting LED dome lights maximize utility in the small cabin, too, just like in an airplane. We were disappointed that the steering wheel didn't adjust telescopically, though, as well as up and down. Also, the orange LCD trip meter was hard to read in bright sun.

In terms of refinement, the iQ really does feel like a premium offering—even compared to larger but cheaper cars, like the Nissan Versa. There's not much road noise or wind noise on the highway, though the engine intrudes under hard acceleration. The iQ uses an acoustic windshield (like the one in the Toyota Camry Hybrid), and does a great job damping those econocar buzzing sounds and any general coarseness. There's an additional silencer under the dashboard, and the roof and pillars are filled with urethane sponge material.

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2013 Scion iQ

Safety

The 2013 Scion iQ comes with big-car safety features and plenty of airbags, and has good crash ratings, especially for its size.

The 2013 Scion iQ receives Good ratings, the highest level, from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, and roof strength tests. It has not been rated for the new small-impact front crash test. Its rear crash protection, however, is rated only Acceptable.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Scion iQ four stars out of five for an overall rating. It earned four stars for frontal crash and rollover testing, and three stars out of five on side impact.

The littlest Scion comes with a big total of 11 airbags as standard—including driver and front passenger knee bags, and a world-first rear-window bag—along with standard stability control and ABS. As the Smart Fortwo showed several years ago, you don't need size and mass to offer good occupant protection.

That said, however, buyers should be aware that the laws of physics still apply: Lighter vehicles are at a disadvantage against heavier vehicles in multiple-vehicle accidents.

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2013 Scion iQ

Features

The 2013 Scion iQ offers connectivity and convenience features for commuters, but it's priced to reflect that.

The 2013 Scion iQ is a few thousand dollars higher in base price than the Smart ForTwo, the car it's most often compared to. Scion is selling its littlest car as a premium offering, meaning it's not nearly as cheap or basic as an entry-level economy car and avoids truly low-end appointments or features.

Standard equipment includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; air conditioning; and Bluetooth connectivity. And both side windows have one-touch automatic up/down, a nice touch that we wish were included on every car we test.

It's the connectivity and audio features that Scion has really focused on, though. Buyers can order one of three different Pioneer audio systems. Even the base 160-Watt stereo includes USB connectivity, a CD player that handles multiple disc formats, two RCA inputs and an aux-in jack, and HD radio. The optional premium 200-Watt system adds six RCA inputs, Pandora internet radio compatibility (through a paired smartphone), album art, and iTunes tagging.

The top-of-the-line audio system adds a navigation system that's built into the audio head unit, including a 7-inch display, DVD player, and video input from iPods. It also handles images from an aftermarket backup camera system, should the owner add one.

As with other Scion models, the little iQ can be fitted out with any number of dealer-installed accessories. Those include upgraded 16-inch alloy wheels, TRD lowering springs, a TRD sway bar,  and a large number of trim and appearance upgrades.

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2013 Scion iQ

Fuel Economy

The 2013 Scion iQ is fuel efficient for a non-hybrid, but it's much better in the city than at highway speeds.

The 2013 Scion iQ's small size seems to inspire onlookers to guess at astounding levels of fuel economy: 60 mpg? 70 mpg? But cars like the iQ still have to push the same amount of frontal area through the wind at high speed, despite their lighter weight. So while they're more economical than most cars that are larger and more powerful, the gains are surprisingly small--and don't bring the Scion iQ up to the level of any Toyota Prius hybrid, for example.

With an EPA combined rating of 37 mpg, the littlest Scion marginally better than the aging Smart ForTwo, at 36 mpg. But with a city rating of 36 mpg, the highway rating--which most seem to peg at well above 40 mpg--is just 37 mpg. The ForTwo, by comparison, is rated at 41 mpg highway.

Part of the blame goes to the highest ratio of the CVT, which is actually lower than expected. That means that during brisk highway driving--70 or 75 mph, say--the engine is spinning up toward 4,000 rpm. Over several scenarios of hard stop-and-go and enthusiastic highway driving (pretty much worst-case-scenario) during a first-drive opportunity, we saw figures in the upper 20s.

Still, on an absolute scale, 37 mpg is better than almost any other non-hybrid gasoline car, and we rate the Scion iQ as a more pleasant way than the Smart ForTwo to achieve that mileage in a very small vehicle.

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