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A behind-the-wheel look at Scion’s micro car, the iQ

Toyota is the world’s best-selling auto manufacturer, and part of the reason for that is the wide variety of products the company makes. The Camry is among the best-selling cars in the world, but the Tundra truck sells well, Lexus is a dominant force in luxury cars, and the Prius is the world’s best-selling hybrid. But dominance in a field comes from innovation and expansion, and Toyota knows that well. One example of that is Scion.

As a brand, Scion exists only in North America — the same cars are sold worldwide, but bear the Toyota logo. But Scion has found its market in the States and beyond. According to Scion, it has the youngest average age of owners of any manufacturer in North America. And the company has seized that honor by introducing cars that are unique and economical. The average young person looking for a new car is looking for something that makes sense to their lives. That means good gas mileage, an original look and something that is fun to drive. And that is where the Scion iQ comes in.

Rise of the planet of the micro cars

Once, not long ago, the American landscape was dominated by wild SUVs that roamed the concrete plains. They majestically rolled down the highways, casting a large shadow on the economy car, and could be found spending long periods of time grazing at local gas stations. And grazing, and grazing.

But those days are gone. The monumental Hummers, and equally obscene gas-guzzling beasts, are all fading into extinction to be replaced on the automotive evolutionary scale by smaller, and more efficient vehicles, better suited for life in increasingly crowded urban centers. While it might have been convenient to throw in a family of 19 into an H2 that could be seen from space, the pounding it gave your wallet at the gas pump — as well as the impracticality of parking anywhere in a city — caused problems for everyone.

Chalk it up to the recession, or possibly just the natural progression of our civilization, but smaller cars with better efficiency are the trend these days. Europeans and Japanese manufacturers have known this for quite some time, but we like things big in America, so the transition has been slower. Yet, here we are in 2011, and of the top 20 best-selling automobiles in America this year, not a single SUV is on the list (with the arguable exception of the Honda CRV, which is technically a compact station wagon). Trucks still have their place, but the majority of the automobiles being sold are smaller and more fuel efficient.

And of all the new cars being introduced, few have the attention of the public quite as much as the micro car (aka mini-subcompacts), best epitomized by Smart USA’s Smartcar. They haven’t begun to rival hybrid sales, and they don’t evoke the same fascination as electric- or hydrogen-powered cars, but they are new and interesting, and draw the attention of almost everyone who sees one.

Meet the iQ

Scion’s entry into the microcar field, the iQ, is not a new car, but it is new to North America. Debuting two years ago in Europe and Japan (and parts of Asia), the iQ has already won a handful of awards, including the prestigious Japanese Car of the Year for 2008. Designed in France, the Toyota iQ is considered the world’s smallest four-seat car. Known as the Toyota iQ in most parts of the world, it will make its North American debut as the Scion iQ, beginning on the west coast on October 1. On January 1, it will be released in the southwest and southern states, then hit the east coast on February 1. By March 1, the iQ will be available across all of America and Canada. The car would likely have been available in North America sooner, but the Japanese natural disasters have left their mark.

The name “iQ” stands for a variety of things depending on who you ask. “Innovation,” “individuality” and “intelligence” are all cited by Scion, while the Q stands for “quality.” But regardless of what the letters stand for, they are geared for a younger market. It is no coincidence that the I is lowercased, which quickly brings to mind the slew of i-related products, most notably (although not exclusively) from Apple. Scion is marketing this car for younger drivers with an urban slant who are looking for something new, fun to drive and reasonably priced—the iQ will debut for $15,265.

Under the hood

The car itself is just 10 feet long. Compared to the industry average of 14 feet, the iQ is noticeably smaller, but not quite as small as the Smart Fortwo’s 8-feet-10-inch frame. The added size does give the car a backseat, which can be folded down for storage, but more than that, it also increases the stability of the iQ. When in the car, it really does feel surprisingly spacious. The iQ isn’t big, and the backseat is still fairly cramped, but no more than most coupes. 

If you have ever driven a Smart car, then you know they are not made for highway travel.  The weight and size of the cars doesn’t make for the safest of rides, although it can be exhilarating when a semi flies past you and the wind nearly pushes your car straight off the road.  The larger size of the iQ helps prevent that a bit, but it is still designed as an urban vehicle.

The iQ touts a 37 mpg average fuel economy and a 8.5-gallon tank, which gives it the best gas mileage of any fully gas-powered car in production, and offers better efficiency than 75 percent of all hybrid cars on the road.  The 87.7-inch wheelbase combined with the size makes it one of the most maneuverable as well.

And while the old argument states that the smaller the car, the more likely it is to lead to serious injuries in the case of an accident, the iQ packs an astounding — and industry-leading — 11 airbags.

You won’t find too many references to top speed or 0-to-60 times, but the 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter, 4-cylinder dual-overhead cam engine is enough to make for a comfortable ride at moderate speeds.

The interior is also surprisingly spacious in the front seats, and while the back is a bit cramped as you would expect, four adults could fit.  Part of that is due to a handful of automotive innovations that essentially boil down to moving certain parts around.  For example, the air and heating system, which is typically found forward of the passenger seat in most automobiles, is located behind the center console. That gives the center an elongated look, but it also gives the passenger more leg room.

Taking it out for a spin

Scion flew us down to Los Angeles to test out the new iQ in action. We had seen the specs, and before we got in the cars, we heard the pros (and cons), but none of that would mean a thing if the car drove poorly.

In short, the iQ is a good car — for certain people. The iQ is specifically designed for urban driving, and this is where it excels. For people who constantly battle for parking in crowded metropolitans, the iQ is a brilliant design. It is maneuverable and small enough to fit into most spots, and some cities are even beginning to implement micro-subcompact-only parking spots.

The turning radius is flat out remarkable, and it feels like the car could almost pivot on a single wheel — not quite, but it feels like it. Scion is claiming that the iQ has the tightest turning radius of any car in the world. The company is still testing that before officially slapping the claim on the advertisements, but regardless of the official results, the turning radius is incredible.

The car isn’t fast, but it is fast enough for most urban environments, and people in cities like New York, LA and San Francisco, or anywhere with congested roads and scarce parking may quickly fall in love with the concept.

As for the look, it is what it is. Some will find it fun and sporty, others will dislike it immediately. Scion is used to that though, and the same is true of the Scion xB, which people either loved or loathed. The iQ is a bit more accessible than the xB though, and it isn’t a bad looking car. It also drew a fair amount of attention from curious onlookers as we drove down Pacific Coast Highway.

Where the iQ stumbles is at speeds. It manages to keep a fairly good pace, and although a 0-to-60 time of close to 10 seconds isn’t exactly Earth-shattering, it is sufficient. It just feels like it isn’t meant to be driven like that — and it isn’t. The engine strains to reach 80, while the electronic steering is a bit twitchy. It can be slightly nerve-racking to take curves at any real velocity, but it is still a massive improvement over the Smart Fortwo’s “Oh God, oh God, we are all going to die” highway experience.

Once you leave an urban setting where moderate speeds and maneuverability are king, the car feels like it is out of its element a bit. It is a serviceable highway car, but not one that you should consider if cross-country treks are your thing. But that isn’t what this car is made for — it is about fun and style.

Designing the car of the future

The Scion iQ is a car geared towards younger drivers who want a decent and affordable car. Once those criteria are met, the next requirement is style, and that is where the iQ hopes to make its mark. Scion has done a remarkable job of building communities out of its customers. Fans of the brand react to the unique styling, and embrace the differences between their rides and the average car on the road. Whether you love them or hate them, when you see a Scion driving down the road, it is recognizable as a Scion.

With the iQ, Scion is once again banking on the style to push the car. When a potential buy goes to the lot, they will be greeted with a single price of $15,265. Dealers may try to play with this, but Scion is pushing for a single, no-haggle pricing option. And once buyers are set on the Scion, they simply choose the color. There is only one model of the iQ, but there are customizable upgrades available, and Scion is counting on buyers to delve into these in order to personalize their cars: things like new wheels and running lights will be a common add-ons. 

Scion plans on limiting the number of models at each dealership, so it may be that you will sit down with your dealer and choose which options you want, then wait for the car to be delivered. The delays may annoy the instant-gratification crowd, but it could also lend to the feeling of individuality and personalization. That car is made specifically for you, which will give it an intangible sense of personal connection.

The design is definitely quirky, but it is also original and intriguing. You can’t help but be at least curious when you see an iQ drive by, and for someone looking for a new car that wants a touch of originality, the iQ could be a massive success.

Conclusion

Times have changed. The once-bountiful gearheads that roamed the country have been nearly hunted to extinction by the fearsome predator known as high gas prices, as well as the curse of the environmentally responsible mentality. The muscle cars are still around, but where once they were the car of choice, now they are more of a rarity. In their place, the newer generation of drivers have begun to think more sensibly about what they drive. Words like “fuel-efficiency” and “eco-friendly” have become important buzz words when purchasing an automobile, and Scion has been quick to realize that.

For $15K, there are plenty of cars that will operate equally well on the highways as the cities, and that could be a problem for the iQ. Cars like the Ford Fiesta, Suzuki SX4 as well as the hybrid Yaris all occupy the same pricing tier as the iQ. It is undeniably fun in the cities, with good handling and enough horsepower to get you where you need to go, but you will immediately be somewhat limited in its range. That isn’t to say that the iQ won’t manage on the highway—it will, but for the price it is a tradeoff.

Where the iQ really shines is the design. Sure, it hits an industry-best 37 mpg, and it is incredibly eco-friendly in construction simply because of its size and relatively small carbon footprint, but it will be the styling that wins drivers over. Or not.

The Scion iQ is a remarkable car that will quickly find a small-but-loyal cult following. When the car is released nationwide by 2012, it could become the hot new car of the year. It isn’t for everyone, but it has enough that those it appeals to will likely approach it, drive it and promote it with a passion.

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