As has been the case since its introduction, the U.S.-market version of the 2015 Scion iQ offers only one combination of engine and transmission. It's a 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine paired to a belt-and-pulley continuously variable transmission (CVT). Scion has tuned its minicar 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.
The 2,100-pound iQ gets around town with ease. 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 car's small engine.
Part of the problem is that the highest ratio of the CVT actually isn't all that high, so at freeway speeds, the engine is howling along at almost 4000 rpm. This limits the car's ability to accelerate much from those velocities, since you'll need more engine speed when not much more is available. You learn pretty quickly to premeditate any high-speed passing maneuvers as a result.
Still, the CVT beats the automated manual found in the Smart, which is neither smooth nor particularly good at anticipating your needs. We might prefer a manual transmission, which is offered in other markets, but it's likely kept out of our market for fuel-economy considerations, and so that the low-volume car can be offered in just one powertrain configuration.
Somehow, even with the CVT, the Scion iQ pulls off the trick of feeling responsive while actually being quite slow: 11.8 seconds from 0 to 60 mph. That's performance reminiscent 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.
City dwellers will adore the 25.8-foot turning circle, among the tightest of any car on the market. U-turns are possible almost anywhere, with a turning radius only 3 feet longer than the car itself. The brakes are good in 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 of course it's easy to park, since you're simultaneously at the front and the back.