2015 Scion iQ Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 23, 2015

The 2015 Scion iQ is made for city dwellers who have trouble finding parking; others will see it as a fashion accessory or a vehicular oddity.

The tiny, clever 2015 Scion iQ is now in its fifth year, largely unchanged from the model that debuted in 2011. It has never met its maker's sales expectations, and will be withdrawn from the aging Scion lineup as it is refreshed for 2016 with a pair of all-new models. 

Many people assume that the Scion iQ is a two-seat car--it's not, at least technically--due to ts very short length and the resulting extreme parking capability. But you'll have to prize those over most other elements of driving to make the iQ your first choice among small cars. And like the Smart ForTwo it competes against most directly, it's largely a novelty in all but a few areas of the U.S. Unlike buyers in global cities from Tokyo to Paris, it's more of a style statement in the U.S.: a premium city car that offers something different than a base-level econobox at the same price.

That has turned out to be a very small niche. The Scion iQ is neither the most fuel-efficient nor the least expensive car on the market, so ease of parking is really its sole reason for being. That's great for San Francisco or Boston or New York City, and of course jampacked urban areas like Tokyo or Rome. But very few parts of the U.S. resemble those crowded Asian or European cities--where space is at a premium, fuel is much more expensive, and cars are taxed by size. That means the iQ simply makes less sense in North America outside those few enclaves.

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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.

The iQ's blocky, slab-sided styling is tougher-looking than the Smart ForTwo's rounder lines, and the Scion looks especially good on the available 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's, but it's somewhat let down by grim black interior materials.

Inside the stubby Scion, there's a third seat behind the front passenger--who sits farther forward than the driver and faces a recessed dashboard. That minimal third seat is for occasional use only; you wouldn't put anyone you like 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."

The 10-foot-long 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, acceleration is tepid at best. The iQ 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.

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 a five-seat Prius mid-size hybrid, their reaction often tends to boil down to: So what's the point, then?

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.

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, and no fewer than 11 different airbags--including one protecting the rear passenger's head from contact with the hatchback glass, a world first. 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. 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.

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 iQ continues into 2015 unchanged from the previous year.

7

2015 Scion iQ

Styling

The 2015 Scion iQ looks more like half a subcompact than the tiny vehicle that it is, but it's still unusual.

Although the Scion iQ has a pretty unique look, it is often mistaken for the Smart ForTwo, which preceded it in the marketplace by several years and first brought the idea of small city cars to Americans. The two models are the shortest cars on the market, and both seem to end just past the door.

The iQ's aggressive lines give it more attitude and presence than the 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.  The large wheels add to a road-hugging stance that amplifies the car's strong front proportions, giving it a beefy look even if it isn't that large.

The little Scion's cabin has nice detailing on the trims and finishes and relatively sensible, straightforward design. The one design highlight 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 grim nylon seat fabric isn't up to the standard of the rest of the interior, though, and there's a lot of black for such a small space.

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 farther forward than the driver if the rear seat on the car's right is occupied, which feels slightly odd at first. The fourth seat behind the driver is for a very, very small living creature--or more likely backpacks, bundles, and packages. Scion says it's intended for children, but we think parents would have a tough time getting offspring in and out of that rear spot.

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2015 Scion iQ

Performance

The 2015 Scion iQ is best under 30 mph, which suits it for city use--but it's far less fun on the highway.

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.

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2015 Scion iQ

Comfort & Quality

The 2014 Scion iQ has a decent ride, and a spacious, clever interior, but the cheap materials inside spoil the effect

The 2015 Scion iQ holds the distinction of being 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 will ever be used for something larger than a backpack or laundry bag. So it's somewhat of a dubious distinction.

Scion calls the iQ a 3+1-seat car. 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. (The right front seat also tilts up for better access to the rear.) 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.

Much of the iQ has been miniaturized in order to make the packaging work and to make the car light enough for its small engine. The seats have very thin backrests, the air-conditioning compressor and other climate-control hardware have been hidden within the center console, and the fuel tank is sandwiched below the floor.

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

And although the seats are thin, they're every bit as good as those in other small Toyota products, like the Yaris and Prius. Ride quality is hardly luxury-car smooth, but it's not harsh, especially considering how short the wheelbase is. The iQ's continuously-variable transmission also eliminates the pitching and lurching of the Smart's automated manual gearbox. It also tracks well on highways, meaning it's not too fatiguing over long trips, though high-speed cruising brings a lot of noise from a little engine that's trying to keep up. 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 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 commercial passenger jets offer good cabin illumination, and there's a 12-Volt power outlet. Only its dark nylon seat material lets down the iQ's upscale image.

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2015 Scion iQ

Safety

The 2015 Scion iQ has 11 airbags despite only two usable seats, and it gets adequate safety ratings

Given its rather diminutive dimensions, the Scion iQ scores pretty well in nationally recognized crash testing.

As with the Smart ForTwo, 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—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.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awards an overall rating of four stars out of five to the iQ . Frontal crash and rollover testing also earn four stars, but the iQ gets only three stars in the NHTSA's side-impact tests.

The iQ receives a 'good' rating 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 head restraints and seats are only deemed 'acceptable.' The iQ has not been rated on the IIHS's new small-impact front crash test.

Nonetheless, as bystanders often suggest, the laws of physics are inescapable. As long as the majority of vehicles on the road are larger and heavier, the iQ may be at a safety disadvantage.

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2015 Scion iQ

Features

The 2015 Scion iQ is only adequate on features and options, though dealers will sell you lots and lots of extras

All equipment levels for the 2015 Scion iQ are identical to those in the previous model year. Because the iQ is a low-volume vehicle, there aren't a lot of choices to be made to equip it from the factory. Most of the customization options that are available come in at the dealer level, which has the benefit of allowing more additions at a later date.

To keep things simple, only one trim level is offered. Every 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.

Audio and connectivity features--sometimes known as "infotainment"--are the main focus of the feature list. The base six-speaker Pioneer stereo, at 160 Watts, comes standard with HD radio, a CD player that handles all disc formats, a USB port with iPod connectivity, an auxiliary input jack, and two RCA inputs. A 6.1-inch touchscreen display is also 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 navigation as well as access to streaming content from the Aha platform, which has 30,000 stations of streaming audio from Internet radio, podcasts, audio books, and other online content. Its seven-inch display handles 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. It's nice to know that the option is there, but given the stubbiness of the iQ's rear, a glance over your shoulder is really all that's needed when backing up.

As with the rest of the Scion range, dealer customization is a big part of specifying the car. Accessories are numerous, from alloy wheels to TRD performance parts like lowering 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 that no other owner has specified. Scion also regularly offers special-edition packages, which can include different paint (two-tone, for instance) and unique groupings of equipment. Because of this, it's best to check with the dealer to see all of your options.

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2015 Scion iQ

Fuel Economy

The 2015 Scion iQ has good fuel-efficiency ratings--but not as good as the top-selling hybrids, which have four real seats

You might look at the tiny roller skate that is the Scion iQ and assume it gets mega fuel economy. In short, it doesn't.

The iQ's wide stance and boxy shape mean it contends with frontal area (which creates drag) that's similar to that of most small cars, almost all of which are longer. And because of its small size, the iQ carries a stouter and therefore heavier structure relative to its overall size. Both of these conspire to return only decent fuel economy. The iQ is rated by the EPA at 37 mpg combined (36 mpg city, 37 mpg highway). Those numbers are well below what Toyota's range of thrifty hybrids return, with three of four Prius models at 50 mpg combined. 

The ratings are also below the light five-door Mitsubishi Mirage's, which is 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 necessarily translate to big fuel efficiency in today's market.

The iQ does do marginally better than the aging Smart ForTwo, which has a combined rating of 36 mpg. And it offers 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. 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, if saving fuel on the relative cheap is your aim you'll do better with a hybrid (and get more interior space as well). Or you can spend even less and end up with something efficient like the unstylish Mitsubishi Mirage. Its fuel-economy figures help to underline the iQ's position as a style statement rather than ultra-efficient transportation.

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June 23, 2015
For 2015 Scion iQ

Very pleased with my Scion IQ

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The highway mileage is 49 mpg, whereas the city mpg is 29. The Scion IQ feels like a big car, has an attractive interior and has always delivered reliablity in the last three years I've leased mine. The motor... + More »
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