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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.
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.