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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.
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.
- Headroom even for tall adults
- Space-efficient interior
- Tiny package, 3+1 seats
- Quiet in use except under power
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- Marginal acceleration at best
- Fuel efficiency not as good as hybrids
- No manual gearbox option
- Steering only tilts, no telescoping