The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

2012 Scion iQ Review and Ride by Martha Hindes +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Scion iQ

SEE ALSO: Scion Specs, Comparisons and Reviews - Scion Buyers Guide
SEE ALSO: Compare Scion iQ, Fiat 500, smart Fourtwo, Chevrolet Sonic

Son of Toyota takes on the Teutonics in micro car wars

2012 Scion iQ Touting its Stellar Grade Point Average
By Martha Hindes
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

DETROIT--The weather couldn't have been worse. A bone chilling fall rain was blowing sideways at times, leaving deep pools to dodge in underpasses as I drove around. This was a chance to test the new Scion iQ, a mini auto designed to live in central cities. In appropriate fashion, the center of my home base, Detroit, is where I got to try it out.

Actually, the weather probably couldn't have been better for the task. If finding out how something performs in adversity is the best test of character, then the weather gave iQ a sterling chance a display its stripes. We'll let you know how it graded in a moment.

I'm not sure where the "iQ" name came from, I suspect it's a deliberate play on words to flaunt a continuing comparison with Smart Fortwo, the micro-sized, front-drive two seater. (Your IQ is a measure of just how much smarter you are than simply being called smart. Get it?)

Scion, the youthful division of Japanese auto maker Toyota, has put a giant bulls eye on the Smart Fortwo. That's at a time the tiny, cutsie German auto ironically appears to be losing some of its initial charm with American small car drivers, and more competitors like Mazda 2, Honda Fit and Fiat 500 are on the scene. So there surely was room for one more.

Scion calls the iQ a "premium micro subcompact," and likens the exterior design to "tehno organic," something designed to resemble "avant-garde Japanese fine art." That's a mouthful to wrap ones perception around.

The width of 66 inches and 79-inch wheelbase, and the narrowest of overhangs make the iQ look like a box -- albeit with softly rounded edges, richly colored curves and a sloping nose over the front engine bulge. The single wide door on each side looks appropriate for the width until you realize the pinched butt stops there. In a driving world top heavy with requisite gray autos, Scion has added a few, well appreciated bold colors.

"Where's the rest of your car, toots?"

My initial thought as I got behind the wheel was how much this felt like a compact sedan, not a vehicle with most of its rear end chopped off. I've driven the competitive smart and sensed its humorous, almost irreverent nature, like the "road runner" cartoon character bounding along and constantly kicking the skids out from under the hapless coyote. That feeling was natural considering the smart's narrow stance and bug-eyed dashboard gauges. It just dares you to be dour. There was none of that smarminess with the iQ. This had a solid, no-compromises ride that didn't feel hesitant or unstable even with layers of rain under the tires.

Watch TACH's exclusive Scion iQ promo video

Inside, the iQ had a more practical, comfortable and functional interior than one might expect in a bobbed auto, despite its "premium" designation. Sound dampening windshield, side mirror-mounted turn indicators and halogen headlamps with projector low beams aren't your bottom feeder accouterments. Neither is the interior's red stitching against black that gives a distinctive styling punch in the space available for it. Still, it provided sufficient middle class cup holder space to accommodate that American classic: giant sized slurpies. And if one can't resist spending big money on a small space, there's optional Pioneer premium audio and and navigation system for those who get lost on city streets.

The iQ didn't have an "almost too small to be on the road" feeling either. Instead, if I didn't look behind me, I'd figure I was driving a compact sedan with a good, solid stance and quick city handling, despite the drawback of some serious, rear blind spots. Out on the road, I found it handled with the feeling of sedan authority despite the weather. The main thing missing was a standard transmission that it clearly begged for. The shift knob even looks like it belongs as a manual. And it was just plain frustrating. Repeatedly my hand wanted to move to the shifter to push it up or down through shift gates as it scooted around. It's apparent the iQ 's stick shift found in non-U.S. markets was eliminated when brought here, since most young American drivers -- Scion's targeted buyers who are well equipped in WII technology -- wouldn't know how to drive for a city block without stripping the gears or burning out the clutch pedal.

Donut Time

On the drive, slick city streets and the turgid mass of traffic that unexpectedly converged in a couple of spots were cake for this micro car. So was inching into the smallest of parking spaces in seconds. Since Scion claims a 100 MPH top speed, I did a short express road jog to check out its loping nature. It was OK but nothing mind blowing, but would serve handsomely during morning or evening rush hour traffic. Scion owns bragging rights for the iQ's segment-smallest, 12.9-foot turning radius. So to check it out, I did tight little wheelies with abandon on a bare stretch of concrete with tires clinging to pavement like glue despite the rain.

The iQ comes with a 1.3-liter, 94 horsepower four tied to a continuously variable transmission that turns in improved performance but lesser fuel economy in "S" mode. There's a puzzling "B" on the gear shift that apparently acts as engine braking on long, downhill grades (think of a Pike's Peak descent or something equally terrifying). Mileage is 36 for city driving, 37 on highways where it's not necessarily intended to spend its time. The downsized fuel tank that holds a scant 8.5 gallons of regular sheds weight that helps with mileage.

Because of the Scion's rear seating that smart doesn't pretend to have, I commandeered a driver to give me the opportunity to ride in back. I found it tin can tight, even as I sat sideways over both rear seats for comfort, before discovering the space between front seats was designed for adult legs. It took some maneuvering to get in and out, with the driver standing outside in the rain and the front seat pushed forward. It seemed like a place one would ride for a few blocks if a friend offered a lift when there wasn't a cab around to hire. Don't expect to stay in the back for a long trip, especially with adults, unless one doesn't mind losing lower extremity sensation from not moving. Scion calls it 3 + 1 seating for three adults and one child. I'd call it a two-and-a-half seater for 20 minutes at most unless one is extremely petite. A pivoting dome light lets you find your feet if they go numb.

Cargo is an either/or in the iQ. Flop down the 50/50 split rear seats and there's actually room to carry suitcases or golf clubs for half a foursome.

Some nagging questions

While iQ hasn't gone unnoticed among auto enthusiasts, it has raised some rather obvious questions. Why, for example, would one pay some $16,000 to buy a city car designed to maneuver through congested city streets with mostly nonexistent street parking. One could more cheaply hire a ride and forget the reality that parking garage spaces are so precious in some cities they're sometimes auctioned off. After all, this isn't the vehicle you'll find outside a suburban school waiting to pick up a couple of pre-teens after class.

I can suggest answers to some of those questions from personal experience, like the time I bodily defended a vacant parking spot in mid-Manhattan until my family member could maneuver the vehicle there, to the unexpected ire of some native New York drivers. Two iQs presumably could have shared one such parking space in harmony. And enduring a cost premium for fuel in the middle of midtown gridlock could be treated as a tradeoff for actually owning a city vehicle when others must flag cabs or ride busses or subways.

And for those Scion owners who would rather fight than switch, if Scion got it right this time the iQ could be the one that simply hits the right nerve, or becomes the base for tuner imaginations. Scion's parent, Toyota, has a track record for thoroughly researching its ideas before hoping they will fly with fickle American buyers. We suspect the definitive answer to "why such a small car?" will come in sales numbers once the iQ has had an opportunity to tout its MENSA status in Scion showrooms.

Copyright Martha Hindes, 2011