Review: 2012 Scion iQ

“Eighteen thousand dollars?!  That sounds like a lot of money for this car.  Look at how small it is!  The number in my head is more like twelve thousand.  Who is going to buy this car, anyway?”

–a coworker who was intrigued enough by the iQ to ask about it and who wanted to look it over.

This, by the way, is exactly why Scion will not sell many iQs.  Americans buy cars by the pound or by the foot.  If it’s smaller, it had better be cheaper.  The iQ is certainly smaller, but it’s not really cheaper than a “regular” car such as the Fit or Versa, or even its intramural rival, the Toyota Yaris.

I have been more than a little obsessed about the Scion iQ ever since Toyota confirmed several years ago that it would be coming to the US as a Scion.  Actually, I was following the Toyota iQ, sold in Japan and Europe, long before the U.S. sale announcement.  So, why in the world would I want so badly to review the Scion iQ?  I’m just impressed that it’s a dramatic improvement over its obvious inspiration, the smart fortwo.  The iQ is larger, has [theoretically] double the seating capacity, is more powerful, and costs about the same as the smart (actually it’s cheaper, when you consider the large quantity of additional equipment included in the iQ, say our friends at TrueDelta.com).

Under the iQ’s diminutive hood (which is about 12 inches deep from front to back) is a 1.3 liter four cylinder that produces 94 horsepower and delivers power to its front wheels via a CVT.  (The smart fortwo lives with a 1.0 liter three cylinder that produces just 70 horsepower).  While more power is always appreciated here at Autosavant, 94 horsepower is actually adequate when the iQ is in its natural habitat between traffic lights in a city.  It has enough power to surprise drivers of larger cars who are not paying attention, and the car’s small size and quick steering make it easy to shoot into holes in traffic.  Merging onto an expressway is a different consideration in the iQ.  My advice: plan ahead.  Zero to sixty takes between 11 and 12 seconds, which is on the slow side compared to even entry-level cars today.

Then there’s the matter of the sound.  The iQ’s tiny engine, coupled with a CVT, makes an outsize racket when pegging the throttle to the floor (which is necessary for highway merging).  Don’t get me wrong, I’d take a CVT over the smart’s awful automated manual, but this combination is one of the less-pleasant sounding ones I’ve heard.  The only upside is that rather than droning at the redline during full-throttle acceleration, the CVT executes “shifts” that dip revs to 5000 RPM, then build to the 6000 RPM redline until you have reached your desired velocity.  This may cost a fraction of a second in acceleration times, but the dividend is that it breaks up the droning sound a bit.  Sorry, three-pedal fans: no plans to ever offer an iQ manual in the U.S.

Maneuverability at low speeds (particularly in parking situations) is outstanding in the iQ.  With what I believe is the tightest turning circle of any car sold in the U.S. at 25.8 feet, if you see a space, you can get the car into it without breaking a sweat.  Proportionate to its length, the car is wide, but in absolute terms, it’s still very narrow.  I had a feeling that perhaps you could back the car out of one parking space with the wheel turned all the way, and right into the adjoining space without a three-point turn, but in extensive testing, that was disproven.

On the highway, however, despite the iQ’s engineers best efforts to maximize wheelbase (the wheels are pushed out to the corners about as far as possible), there’s only so much stability and ride comfort that a 78.7 inch wheelbase can offer.  As a result, the iQ feels like it leaps over each imperfection and expansion joint it encounters.  While the highway ride is “active,” I never felt unsafe, and it can easily keep up with traffic at expressway speeds.

Savant’s Corner
As noted above, this car is a miracle of packaging.  The compact air conditioning unit is mounted directly behind the center stack, there’s no conventional glove box (there is a flimsy plastic drawer under the front passenger seat to hold the owner’s manual and up to 1 kg of total contents).  The car’s tiny 8.5 gallon fuel tank is just 5 inches tall and spans a large portion of the car’s underside.  I thought it would be fun to compare its front-seat dimensions to Toyota’s midsize Camry.  Despite being 69 inches (!) shorter than a Camry, front-seat dimensions are surprisingly close (the Camry’s headroom is 1.1 inches greater, hip room is 06 inches greater, legroom is 0.7 inches greater, and shoulder room is 49 inches greater).  So normal-sized (even large-sized) people can sit in the front.  When you get to the back seat, it’s a different story.

Because there is no glove box in the iQ, the asymmetrical dash allows the front passenger to slide further forward than someone with identically-long legs could in the driver’s seat.  Though this is an odd sensation for the driver (the opposite of a McLaren F1, where the center-position driver seat is slightly forward of the passenger seats on either side), though it does work to make a little bit of leg clearance in the right-rear seat.  At 6’4″, I actually was able to cram myself into the right-rear seat when the right-front seat was adjusted to where my knees did not touch the dash.  There are two seatbelts in the back of the iQ, but unless the driver is short or is OK with being extremely uncomfortable, don’t expect to put an adult behind him or her.  That being said, I think I could have fit my kids in the back seat in their booster seats had I been willing to sacrifice some driver’s seat comfort, but I never actually tried it.  We had a road trip scheduled and my wife was (probably wisely) unwilling to suffer the iQ for that kind of time.

Plus, with the rear seat in use (or at least open), there is almost zero cargo space.  “Almost zero” in this case means 3.5 cubic feet, but the reality is that stowing the rear seat’s headrests back there occupied nearly all of the space, except vertically past the window and to the ceiling.  The cargo area is about six inches deep from the opening to the seatbacks.  If you remove the headrests  and fold the split rear seatbacks, cargo capacity balloons to 16.7 cubic feet.

Aside from the ease of parking and simple maneuverability, the other reason you’d consider a car like the iQ over a larger car is fuel economy.  The EPA rates the iQ at 36 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway (37 mpg combined).  Though this is very good (particularly the city number), the small gas tank yields a poor driving range.  Generally, when cars are delivered to me for review, they have been topped off just minutes beforehand.  This tester showed a full fuel tank too.  But after just 175 miles (and a half hour of idling in my driveway the night I got the car), and an indicated 31.5 mpg, the low fuel light was flashing.  At that point, three gallons of regular unleaded put the gauge to just under a half tank again.  Mathematically, 8.5 gallons at 31.5 mpg should give 267 miles of range, not 175, so perhaps the gauge was being a little pessimistic.  Of note, there isn’t really a fuel gauge, just a series of LEDs that are all illuminated with a full tank, and gradually turn off as fuel is consumed.  It seemed as if the gauge stayed near full for a while, then was at a quarter tank the next time I looked – at any rate, the miniature fuel gauge is somewhat hard to read.

Every Scion I’ve ever tested has had a Pioneer head unit, and this one is no exception.  The Pioneer premium audio system has a color LCD touch-screen, HD Radio, iTunes tagging, Bluetooth compatibility, Pandora Internet radio, and personal music player (i.e., iPhone/iPod/etc.) compatibility.  Possibly (hopefully?) because this tester was a pre-production unit, the microphone for handsfree Bluetooth phone use was glued to the steering wheel (and resulted in me getting complaints from everyone I spoke with hands-free about not being able to hear me.)  Device pairing was easy and Pandora worked well when connected to my iPhone; with only four speakers and (apparently) a tiny, hidden subwoofer, sound quality was nothing to write home about, but when every cubic inch of space is precious, I don’t expect half of the interior to be occupied by sound system hardware.

As the opening sentence indicated, folks may have different concepts of the value proposition that the iQ offers.  For those who buy their cars “by the pound,” it’s not a good deal.  For those who want easy maneuverability in a shape that you won’t see very often, it might be more worth its asking price.  Think of it as a fashion accessory.  Pricing for the iQ starts at $15,265.  To that, add the $730 destination charge (it’s built in Japan, by the way), rear spoiler ($285), fog lights ($340), cargo net ($65), carpet front floor mats ($90), carpet rear floor mats ($55), carpeted cargo mat ($70), leather-wrapped shift knob ($99), rear speaker package ($100), storage package ($20), Pioneer premium audio system ($479), and attractive 16 inch split-spoke alloy wheels ($749) for a total of $18,347.

If you’re one of the small number of people in the market for an ultra small city car, I can see almost no compelling reason to purchase a smart fortwo over a Scion iQ, unless perpendicular parking in a parallel space is important to you.  However, if you’re in the market for an inexpensive, efficient new car with a little bit of elbow (and cargo) room, you may want to consider any number of more conventional, similarly-priced alternatives.  For me, though it was entertaining as a novelty to drive an iQ for a week, it confirmed my belief that my lifestyle as a suburb-dwelling married father of two is completely incompatible with the iQ.

Scion provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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2 Comments

  1. “I had a feeling that perhaps you could back the car out of one parking space with the wheel turned all the way, and right into the adjoining space without a three-point turn, but in extensive testing, that was disproven.”

    -This would have been truly entertaining to see on Autosavant’s YouTube channel. I seriously hope you got a video of this extensive testing. 🙂

  2. I was running out of daylight on the last day with the car – and it didn’t occur to me to take a tripod along to record these tests. By “extensive,” I mean that I did one backup and one forward. 🙂

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