2012 Scion iQ: First Drive

July 20, 2011

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

Toyota iQ chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima

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Throughout the iQ's development, Nakajima sat in (and drove) development mules, to make sure that taller drivers would feel comfortable in this minicar.

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.

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