2014 Scion iQ Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 12, 2014

The 2014 Scion iQ is perfect for city dwellers with really tough on-street parking; for everyone else, it's more of a statement about minimalism.

If your parking spot (and space in general) is very limited, the 2014 Scion iQ can make sense. As one of the smallest passenger cars for sale in the U.S. market, it's essentially an adaptation of a design that's better suited to crowded Asian and European urban areas.

It makes sense within those markets, but here it ends up feeling more like a novelty. If registration and taxes penalize larger, more powerful vehicles, and most parking spaces barely fit a compact hatchback, and gasoline costs $8 to $10 a gallon, the little iQ--sold everywhere else as a Toyota--is the perfect solution. But outside cities like New York and San Francisco, it's the answer to a question that no one really asks: What's the tiniest footprint we can possibly fit three almost-adult seats into?

Looking at it, most people assume the Scion iQ is a two-seater like the Smart ForTwo. Technically, it's not. There's a third seat behind the front passenger, who sits further forward than the driver and faces a recessed dashboard. But the third seat is for occasional use only; you wouldn't put anyone you know back there for more than a few minutes. There's a fourth seat too, which only fits a child, making the iQ what its maker calls a "3+1 seater." But for U.S. buyers, it's more of a fashion-conscious style statement, a premium city car that offers something different to the old stereotype of a grim, base-level economy hatchback.

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Launched in 2012 and largely unchanged in its third year, the Scion iQ is precisely 10 feet long. Its blocky, slab-sided styling is tougher-looking than the Smart's rounder lines, and the Scion looks especially good on the available, handsome, and large 17-inch alloy wheels, which give it a surprisingly aggressive stance. It's still stubby, but it's stubby-with-attitude. Inside, the cabin is less minimalist than the Smart, but it's somewhat let down by grim black interior materials.

The little urban iQ is powered by a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine putting out 94 horsepower--one of the least powerful engines offered in any non-hybrid car. It is paired not with a manual gearbox, but with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) for better fuel efficiency. The combination provides enough oomph to get you around in cities, but it's no rocket under any circumstance--and on hills or highways, there's almost no margin for acceleration. It handles well, and while you'd expect it to be good in urban cut-and-thrust driving, it rides far better--and more confidently--at higher speeds than does the Smart. Even 80-mph freeway speeds, once you manage to get up there, don't induce the same nervousness as the Smart two-seater.

Safety is often top of mind when looking at such small cars, and the iQ has not only the usual allotment of electronic safety and control systems, but no fewer than 11 different airbags--including one protecting the rear passenger's head from contact with the hatchback window glass, a world first. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Scion iQ four stars out of five for an overall rating, with four stars for frontal crash and rollover testing and a not-very-good three stars out of five for side impact.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives it a Good rating (its highest) for moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, and roof strength tests. But the IIHS has not rated the iQ using its new and tougher small-impact front crash test--and its rear crash protection is rated only Acceptable.

The small size and leisurely acceleration pay off in fuel economy, though. The Scion iQ is rated by the EPA at 37 mpg combined (36 mpg city, 37 mpg highway). That's 1 mpg better than the Smart, but it comes with a considerably better driving experience. The challenge is that many U.S. drivers see the car as so small that they assume it gets 60 or even 70 mpg. When they learn it doesn't even match the 50 mpg of a Prius C subcompact or Prius Liftback mid-size hybrid, their reaction often tends to boil down to: So then what's the point?

The answer to that question is hard to provide, unless you live in a place where on-street parking is at such a premium that you're willing to sacrifice interior space, performance, and a certain amount of public dignity to be able to park with greater ease. Most of us don't really need more car than the Scion iQ for 90 percent of our travels--but for the same price (starting around $16,000), you can get a larger car with almost the same gas mileage, and you can do far better on gas mileage for about $3,500 more.

Whether the Scion iQ is a style icon like the Fiat 500 and the MINI Cooper is in the eye of the beholder, but it sells only a fraction as many cars as either of those models. In fact, the data show that U.S. buyers just aren't that interested in really tiny two-seat cars. In its first full year on sale, 2012, Scion sold only 8,900 iQ cars--and Smart sold only 10,000 of its ForTwo lineup. Together, the two cars sold fewer all year than in one month of Toyota Prius sales.

For urban residents in crowded cities--New York, yes, and San Francisco, but also Tokyo, Jakarta, Rio, and other megacities outside North America--the Scion iQ is a rational answer to a set of tough constraints. For less crowded, larger Americans who live in more spread-out suburbs and drive more miles every day on much cheaper gasoline, other alternatives may make more sense. The Scion iQ is a splendid demonstration of Toyota's engineering abilities, and its minimalism will appeal to some buyers.

The 2014 Scion iQ, in fact, is almost a rolling Rorschach Test for drivers: It forces them to face the question of whether bigger is really better. For the majority of U.S. buyers, the answer is likely to be yes.

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2014 Scion iQ

Styling

The 2014 Scion iQ has more street presence than you'd expect, but can look like a subcompact with the rear amputated from some angles.

The 2014 Scion iQ is often mistaken for a Smart ForTwo, simply because the two models are the shortest cars on the market--and the Scion iQ looks like a two-seater. And even if Scion calls it a "3+1-seater," it's rarely going to be used to carry more than two people--or even one.

The iQ's aggressive lines give it more attitude and presence than the cuter, cuddlier Smart. If you don't look past the side door, it almost looks like a conventional car, with more visual weight given to the (still very short) hood. Its height and width are similar to a subcompact, and it's more slab-sided and substantial than the Smart--and then it simply ends. It's almost like a subcompact with the back half removed. From the front and front three-quarters, it's beefier than the Smart. The large wheels visually add to a road-hugging stance that amplifies the car's frontal proportions.

The little Scion's cabin has nice detailing on the trims and finishes and relatively sensible, straightforward design. The grim nylon seat fabric isn't up to the standard of the rest of the interior, though, and there's a lot of black in a visually small space. The one exception to the straightforward design themes is what Scion calls a "manta ray" theme of swoops and embossing, both on the top of the center stack and on the door pulls.

The "3+1-seat" interior is accomplished by a passenger instrument panel that's moved several inches closer to the base of the windshield than the driver's. That means the front passenger will sit considerably further forward than the driver, slightly odd until you get used to it, if the third seat on the car's right is occupied. The fourth seat behind the driver is for a very, very small living creature--or more likely backpacks, bundles, and packages.

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2014 Scion iQ

Performance

The 2014 Scion iQ is fun to drive in the city, but it's slow and you won't much enjoy it on the highway.

In the U.S., there's just a single combination of engine and transmission offered for the 2014 Scion iQ. It's a 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine paired to a belt-and-pulley continuously variable transmission (CVT). Scion has tuned the car to offer power when needed--by revving the engine--while attempting to minimize the "rubber band" pedal feel and sudden engine surging that make many drivers dislike CVTs.

At 2,100 pounds, the iQ minicar gets around town just fine with this combination. It's responsive, capable, and much more pleasant than the Smart ForTwo in urban and suburban traffic up to speeds of 40 or 45 mph. But beyond that, it starts to run short of breath. Steep hills, highway speeds, even sudden merges that require a burst of speed are all challenges for the little car's little engine.

Part of the problem is that the highest ratio of the CVT actually isn't all that high, which means that at freeway speeds (70 or 75 mph), the engine is howling along at almost 4000 rpm. When you need to pass, you want more revs--but you've already used most of them up, making passing on the highway a heavily preplanned exercise.

Somehow the Scion iQ pulls off the trick of feeling responsive while actually being quite slow: 11.8 seconds from 0 to 60 mph (with much of the time spent in that last 15 mph, we suspect). That's the performance of 1980s econoboxes. The good handling helps a lot; the iQ is as wide as a subcompact, and has large wheels, so it feels firmly planted to the road and drives like a somewhat larger, heavier car.

The brakes are good for all circumstances, despite being discs in front but only drums at the rear, and the electric power steering has been tuned to offer quick maneuverability at lower speeds while reducing wander on highways. And city dwellers will adore the 25.8-foot turning circle, among the smallest of any car on the market. U-turns are possible almost anywhere, with a turning radius only 3 feet longer than the car itself.

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2014 Scion iQ

Comfort & Quality

Grim materials in the 2014 Scion iQ let down its clever and spacious interior and a relatively decent ride.

Officially, the 2014 Scion iQ is by far the shortest car with four seats sold in the U.S. But that's pretty much a technicality, as one of those seats--the one behind the driver--isn't usable by an adult, and we doubt that the seat behind the passenger, which has a bit more legroom, will ever be used for something larger than a backpack or laundry bag.

Scion calls its iQ a a 3+1-seat car—and it works because the dashboard is heavily asymmetric, with the portion in front of the passenger pushed far toward the base of the windshield, opening up room for the passenger seat to slide forward and fit another adult behind in a car that's only 10 feet long. (It also tilts up for better access to that seat.) While our 6'6" editor couldn't quite fit into the rear, a portion of the adult demographic certainly will--if the front passenger cooperates by sliding forward.

The seats themselves have ultra-slim backs, and indeed, Scion has redesigned most of the car's components--including ones you don't see, like the air-conditioning compressor--to be tinier and lighter. There's a shallow, under-floor fuel tank, and entirely redesigned climate-control fans in the center stack.

The seats may be thin, but they're every bit as good as those in other Toyota products like the Yaris or Prius. Ride quality is hardly luxury-car smooth, but it's not harsh, and better than the competing Smart ForTwo. Its continuously-variable transmission also eliminates the pitching and lurching of the Smart's automatic manual gearbox, and overall, there's no competition between those two. The Scion is just nicer to occupy and drive. It also tracks well on highways, meaning it's not too fatiguing over long trips, though high engine speeds can make it noisy under those circumstances. Scion has used acoustic glass in the windshield to reduce noise, though, and insulation is fitted under the dash and in the roof pillars as well.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel has audio controls, and its bottom is flat to increase driver's leg room--though it doesn't telescope for adjustment. We were pleased to find automatic up/down switches on both door windows, a luxury-car touch that few other small cars offer. Pivoting dome lights like those on jetliners offer good cabin illumination, and there's a 12-Volt power outlet.

Folding the rear seats flat--which we suspect many or most owners will do--exposes a low load floor at 16.7 cubic feet of volume for cargo. You'll have to remove their headrests, but they stow tidily under the cushions. Put the seats back up, and there's a miniscule 3.5 cubic feet. That's not even enough to fit a laptop in a backpack.  Think more like a handful of hardcover books.

Given its size, the Scion iQ comes off as close to a premium offering--especially against larger but cheaper cars like the Nissan Versa. Only its dark nylon seat material lets down the image.

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2014 Scion iQ

Safety

The 2014 Scion iQ has good safety ratings, especially for a car its size--and it has 11 airbags.

The 2014 Scion iQ receives the rating rating of Good from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, and roof strength tests. Despite a unique rear-window curtain airbag, however, its rear crash protection is only deemed Acceptable. And it has not been rated on the IIHS's new small-impact front crash test.

As for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government safety agency awards an overall rating to  the iQ of four stars out of five. Frontal crash and rollover testing also earn four stars, but then for side impact, the iQ gets only three stars.

As with the Smart ForTwo several years ago, the iQ proves you can provide decent occupant crash protection in a very, very small car. The little Scion has no fewer than 11 airbags, however—including driver and front passenger knee bags, and that world-first rear-window bag to protect passengers' heads if hit from the (very truncated) rear.

Nonetheless, as bystanders often suggest, the laws of physics are inescapable. Hit by a vehicle twice as long and weighing three times as much, the Scion iQ and its occupants will likely be at a significant disadvantage.

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2014 Scion iQ

Features

The 2014 Scion iQ has no more than its share of features, but lots and lots of dealer personalization options.

The 2014 Scion iQ has few changes to its features and equipment from previous years. And while it's often compared to the two-seat Smart ForTwo, the iQ has a base price several thousand dollars higher--making it almost a premium style statement rather than just cheap, minimalist wheels. It's not nearly as basic as entry-level models of more conventional subcompacts, and it has few features that shriek "low cost".

Every Scion iQ comes standard with air conditioning; power locks, mirrors, and windows; and Bluetooth pairing for music streaming. One example of an upmarket touch: Both door windows have one-touch up and down, something rarely found on small cars even if the driver's window will descend with a single button push.

But audio and connectivity features--sometimes known as "infotainment"--are the main focus of the feature list. The Scion iQ has more available Pioneer audio systems (three) than it has doors (two). The base six-speaker Pioneer stereo, at 160 Watts, comes standard with HD radio, a CD player that handles all disc formats, USB port with iPod connectivity, an auxiliary input jack, and two RCA inputs. For 2014, Scion has made a 6.1-inch touchscreen display standard.

To get the navigation system, you'll have to step up to the top-of-the-line audio system. The $1,200 BeSpoke Premium system includes not only a navigation system but more than 30,000 stations from streaming audio from Internet radio, podcasts, audio books, and other online content via the Aha platform. Its 7-inch display will handle iPod video input, as well as DVDs--and it's set up to display images transmitted by an aftermarket backup camera, although that feature isn't offered from the factory. (Frankly, a look over the driver's shoulder probably does just as well.)

Like the rest of the Scion range, dealer customization is a huge part of specifying the car. Accessories are numerous, from 16-inch alloy wheels to performance parts like lower springs and a sway bar. Then there are dozens of appearance and trim upgrades, pretty much ensuring that any buyer can have a combination of features and accessories on a Scion iQ that no other U.S. owner has specified.

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2014 Scion iQ

Fuel Economy

The 2014 Scion iQ is among the most fuel-efficient gasoline car on the road--but it's no hybrid.

Pedestrians and other drivers alike look at the 2014 Scion iQ and simply assume that it gets 50, 60, even 75 mpg.

It doesn't. With the same amount of frontal area to push through the air, and a substantial safety structure packed into its tiny overall length, the Scion iQ is not even the most fuel-efficient gasoline car on U.S. roads--let alone equal to most of Toyota's growing range of hybrids. The Scion iQ is rated at 37 mpg combined by the EPA (36 mpg city, 37 mpg highway). 

And that number is significantly below the light five-door Mitsubishi Mirage that's new for 2014 and pegged at 40 mpg combined. (In a short road test, we saw 43 mpg in a pre-production Mirage.) The Scion and Mitsubishi probably won't compete--the Scion has a base price $2,000 higher, for one thing, and it's more of a style statement--but it does underscore that ultimate smallness doesn't translate to large fuel efficiency in today's market.

The Scion iQ does, marginally, do better than the aging Smart ForTwo, which has a combined rating of 36 mpg. And it's a better driving experience, though that's not a very high bar. But part of its efficiency rating is due to a surprisingly low CVT final ratio, which pegs the engine at almost 4000 rpm at U.S. highway speeds of 70 or 75 mph. This is clearly a city car, and designed for temperate use to boot. During several tests comprised of the worst-case scenario--both highway miles and aggressive urban stop-and-go--we saw gas-mileage readouts of less than 30 mpg.

So while 37 mpg is better than most other gasoline cars, you'll do better with a hybrid (and get more interior space as well)--or spend less money (and get more interior space) with the far less stylish Mitsubishi Mirage. It just underlines the iQ's position as a style statement rather than ultra-efficient transportation. On an absolute scale, and against the Smart ForTwo, it's a more efficient vehicle. Against certain other cars and many hybrids, not so much.

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