I never expected to be hustling the new 2012 Scion iQ city car so quickly along the tightly wound, undulating two-laners in Marin's Muir Woods area, near San Francisco.
And I'd been quite surprised that Toyota, known for its conservative cars and conservative routes, wanted us to head up from the city streets to this relatively challenging stretch of road in the first place.
But as we transitioned neatly between switchbacks, the CVT letting the engine hum into its higher range in 'S' mode and feeling a poise entirely unexpected in such a minicar, I gleaned some hints as to, really, why the iQ is so different compared to other Toyotas (and Scions). In the passenger seat next to me was the iQ's project manager, Junichi Hasegawa, who revealed that earlier in the week he'd been out personally scouting routes, and chose this one to showcase its dynamics.
And then it slipped. Hasegawa is a former (and quite recent) WRC rally driver (who...shhh...had driven a Subaru WRX competitively). Make no mistake, the iQ is understandably tenacious.
The iQ is an unusual—and exciting—product to come from Toyota. But take a look at two men behind the iQ, and it makes a lot more sense. Hasegawa seems to have a real passion for the iQ's dynamics, which go far beyond the comfort zone of city blocks, roundabouts, and stoplights, while chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima, at about 6'-2", is the tallest chief engineer at the company.
Toyota iQ chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima
Seeing Nakajima—or this 6'-6" editor—standing beside the iQ is a bit of a novelty. At just ten feet long—and only four inches longer than the Smart Fortwo—it's tempting to think of the iQ as a toy. But it doesn't drive like one, and it sure doesn't feel like one inside.
For those seeking a minicar that actually does what it's supposed to, that's a relief. I'm no stranger to minicompacts. I owned a Ford Festiva for years, and I once drove a Fiat Cinquecento from London to Paris and back for the weekend. Droning engines, head-toss, and highway nervousness can quickly be buzzkills for any advantage in parking ability or maneuverability.
Much more of a 'real car' than the Fortwo
For one, the iQ somehow looks like a real car—much more so than the Fortwo—and much of that has to do with its styling and proportions. Toyota turned to a 'J-Factor' design theme, based on Japanese fine art, and completely skipped anything retro. On the outside, there's nothing overly gimmicky about the iQ; with nicely sculpted sheetbetal, a blunt yet curvaceous front end, and the playful curve in back, where the rear window wraps around—and of course those oversize wheels—the iQ feels unexpectedly assertive and sporty.
Inside, the iQ has a few gimmicks—most notably the 'manta ray' theme that decorates the top of its center stack and appears at the door pulls. But if you look beyond those elements, the iQ's interior is remarkably straightforward stylistically, with nice detailing and better trims and finishes, overall, than what we've come to expect in recent U.S. Toyota products.
But it's the instrument panel that you're likely to focus in on, as there's something odd about it. The passenger side of the dash goes several inches forward of where it does on the driver's side. Scion calls the iQ's seating '3+1'—and it's the smallest four-seater in the U.S. market—meaning there's room for three adults in the driver, front passenger, and rear right passenger positions. Behind the driver's seat there's a little less space, and it's reserved for the smallest kids (or, potentially, a child seat); but the entire passenger seat tilts forward for easier access on that side. Toyota even designed all-new slim-back front seats for the iQ; they actually feel more supportive and better proportioned than those in the Yaris or Corolla, yet they help maximize every bit of potential rear kneeroom.
Mostly, it works. This very lanky driver couldn't quite fit comfortably in the rear right position, but we saw an average-height female do just fine with another passenger scooting the front seat a bit forward. Overall, you're not going to find people volunteering to sit in your back seat with the iQ, but the space is there in an absolute pinch.
The instrument binnacle is just ahead of the driver and the steering wheel (center instruments were poorly received and aren't coming back in future Toyotas and Scions, say officials), and we found it easy to read, with a smaller, sweeping tach arc just underneath. However we found the orange LCD trip meter much harder to read in bright sunlight. The only gripe that might keep some from getting absolutely comfortable in the iQ is that there's no telescopic steering adjustment. Leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel—with audio controls—is standard, though.
Packaging shows a high IQ
There's a lot more to process in the iQ's packaging. Toyota has managed to put the differential ahead of (not under or behind) the engine, allowing the front wheels to be pushed even farther ahead to the corners and cutting. Other creative packaging includes mounting the fuel tank below the (driver's side) floorpan; the shallow (five inches deep) tank layout allows better shielding for accidents, as well as a lower center of mass. And inside, the blower motor for the climate control system has been located inside the center stack, not at the front of the passenger-side footwell, as it often is in other small-car models. That allows the passenger-side footwell to be a little roomier, assisting that '3+1' layout.
You'll probably be keeping those rear seatbacks flipped forward, where they settle flat, to a low cargo floor and 16.7 cubic feet of cargo space—easily enough for a sizable grocery run. With the rear seats up, there's just 3.5 cubic feet of cargo space—basically space enough to wedge a few hardcover books into the space. Seriously, it's not even enough for a laptop bag (although there is a small cargo tray underneath). And we were a bit surprised to see that Toyota used removable headrests in the iQ's rear seat; most automakers have no opted instead for flip forward headrests as the removable ones tend to be lost. However, in the iQ, they stack unobtrusively under the cushions.
Otherwise, the iQ feels up to U.S. standards in most respects; there are plenty of large cupholders, an extra auxiliary 12-volt outlet for accessories, and both side windows are auto up/down. And Scion has borrowed an element from air travel—pivoting LED dome lights that will likely never need bulb replacement and can of course be aimed away from the driver.
The iQ's 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine is one of the smallest, weakest engines for the North American market, yet it can move this little 2,100-pound, front-wheel-drive minicar just fine. With dual variable valve timing, it feels quite flexible and isn't peaky in the way that the Smart's three-cylinder engine is. And while no manual gearbox is in the works, yet, it works quite well with the belt-and-pulley continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The CVT gives the engine enough revs when needed and avoids two common annoyances—the 'rubber band' feel to throttle response, and a surging feeling during moderate acceleration. Sixty mph happens in 11.8 seconds, but as with other minis, it feels faster.
Feels responsive and at ease
Part of the reason why the CVT in the iQ feels so responsive, we observed, is that its top ratio isn't really that tall. At highway speeds of around 70 mph, the tach was showing the engine spinning closer to four grand than three, which simply means that when you need more revs for passing, it's already much of the way there. That means the CVT is hunting around a lot less; however also means that highway fuel economy isn't as good as it could be. The iQ's EPA city rating is an excellent 36 mpg, but its highway rating is a hybrid-like 1 mpg higher, at 37 mpg. Over several scenarios of hard stop-and-go and enthusiastic highway driving (pretty much worst-case-scenario), we saw figures in the upper 20s.
Whether on a curvy road or out on the highway, the iQ's width and excellent suspension tuning really makes a difference. It's about the same width as a Yaris or Corolla, and the rather firmly tuned suspension loads and unloads in a very stable, progressive way. Its electric power steering, too, dials down to allow a heftier, 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.
Turning radius is an incredible 12.9 feet. When we made a wrong turn on a narrow two-lane road, we were able to pull off a painless U-turn, barely needing the shoulder.
Compared to the Smart Fortwo, however, what's more important is what the iQ doesn't have. In addition to the great steering and unfussy transmission, it doesn't have the excessive fore-and-aft movement with acceleration and braking that make the Fortwo so fatiguing in city driving; and it not only handles better in general but feels more stable, confident, and relaxed out on the highway. We'd be perfectly happy cruising at 70 mph for a few hours.
Somehow, the legs for highway cruising
The other surprise is that, in terms of refinement, the iQ really does feel like a premium offering. There's not all that much road noise or wind noise on the highway, though you do hear the engine somewhat. Factor in elements like an acoustic windshield (comparable to that in the Toyota Camry Hybrid), and the iQ does a great job damping some of those traditional econocar buzzing sounds and general coarseness. Underneath the dash there's an additional silencer, the floor panel is crowned to curb vibrations, and the roof and pillars are filled with urethane sponge material.
Since the iQ is an all-new model, we don't have much to say about the iQ's safety. But it does have an astonishing eleven standard airbags—including a world-first rear-window bag—as well as standard stability control and ABS. And while U.S. ratings aren't yet out, we do find the iQ's five-star Euro NCAP ratings—including a better score in adult occupant protection than the Volkswagen Polo—to be very promising.
Entertainment is provided by three all-new Pioneer-sourced audio systems. Both—like all new Scions—come with Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming plus HD Radio, and the base system even includes USB and aux-in connectivity, a multi-format CD player, two RCA inputs, and 160 watts. A premium system that's optional brings Pandora internet radio compatibility (when a smartphone is paired), iTunes tagging, six RCA inputs, album art, and 200 watts. And at the top is a nav system, integrated into the audio head unit and upgrading to a seven-inch screen, DVD player, and iPod video input. An aftermarket-accessory backup camera is fully compatible.
Of course, few Americans will actually choose the iQ mainly because of its dimensions. Fuel economy and price are big factors, and we bet Scion will be placing its bets on rising fuel peices—as well as a full roster of aftermarket accessories, which are already in the works. Above the iQ—both in size and price—is the Fiat 500 and also the Mini Cooper. The iQ also prices higher than the Scion xD, as well as the Toyota Yaris, and it's only a few hundred dollars short of the larger xB.
But pricing and fuel economy won't be the main reason Americans choose the iQ anyway. For those few urban-dwellers who don't think along the lines of bigger is always better, yet want a vehicle that isn't thought of as just basic transportation, Toyota has put together a car with more character and distinctiveness than nearly anything else in its American lineup.
If you're thinking about any of the other tight-budget small cars, take the iQ for a drive and it might just charm you in a way that the others never could.