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December 20, 2011 > Auto Review: Scion iQ: Smarter than a smart

Auto Review: Scion iQ: Smarter than a smart

By Steve Schaefer

At a quick glance, you'd say that the new Scion iQ is Toyota's version of the smart car. It's a tiny little thing, with very little in front of its windshield and a vertical hatch in back. But it's smarter than a smart.

Before reviewing the numbers, all I can say is that when you're driving the iQ (nice take on "smart" name, right), it doesn't feel small inside. That's because it's not little where it counts. The seating is high, legroom is plentiful, the windshield stretches far forward, and truly, when you're driving a larger car you don't see the hood or trunk anyway. The iQ's hood can be very short, thanks to a compact front-mounted differential, high-mount steering rack with electronic power-steering, and a compact air-conditioning unit.

The iQ may be small - 10 feet long - but it is 14 inches longer than a smart, on a five-inch longer wheelbase. It also is almost five inches wider and weighs about 300 pounds more. It's powered by a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine under its diminutive hood that puts out 94 horsepower through a continuously variable automatic transmission.

The smart makes do with a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine in the rear that produces 70 horsepower through an odd "automated manual" transmission.

The iQ actually offers rear seating, something you won't see on a smart. Because the dash is scooped out on the passenger side, you can push the front passenger seat up and fit an average-sized adult in back behind it... really! Behind the driver, there is zero legroom, unless the driver is very short of stature and moves the seat way forward. Normally, I left the rear seats folded down for a handy cargo-carrying space.

How does it compare to the dinky MINI Cooper? Well, the iQ is 26 inches shorter, although its nearly identical width explains part of why the iQ doesn't feel cramped. However, the MINI's wheelbase is 18 inches longer - which is why that legendary box can carry so much. The MINI is about 400 pounds heavier too. So you can see that the iQ is pretty small. But, it doesn't feel that way.

The iQ is very nicely finished, even in the pre-production model I had the privilege of testing for a week. Handsomely detailed surfaces and thoughtful touches make it seem like much more than an econobox. An elegant, silvery console runs up from the floor to bloom like a flower atop the center of the dash. It contains a full-service touch screen. The delicately configured door armrests continue the herbological flow of the dash with surprisingly exquisite detailing. A single eyeball-socket light sits in the ceiling, serving as courtesy and reading light for driver or passenger.

A robust-sounding Pioneer system filled the car with sound - another illusion. You can control it from the dash or with tiny, but functional steering wheel buttons. Staying with the audio description, the iQ's horn emits a comically baby beep. That reminds me of a song (Beep Beep - actually written about Nash Metropolitans).

Fuel economy: The iQ is rated at 36 City, 37 Highway. The smart gets 33/41. The MINI is 29/37. One day, I noticed that the fuel gauge needle was approaching "Empty," so I stopped to fill the tank. It took only 5.1 gallons. Turns out the tank is small, only 10 gallons. That's something you'll want to remember.

Toyota says the iQ is safe despite its tiny proportions. There are no fewer than 11 standard airbags, including the world's first rear window airbag. All iQs come standard with the Star Safety System, which includes antilock brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist, Traction Control, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Smart Stop Technology brake-override. A tire-pressure monitoring system is also standard equipment.

Pricing: While the smart claims to have a $12,000 car to sell you, the iQ starts at about $16,000. The MINI is more like $20,000 plus.

The iQ was just delightful, with its surprising road presence, and, as previously stated, perceived roominess. The only problem is that it's too short to carry an upright bass, which is the only possible reason I have for not ordering one immediately.

I dubbed the iQ the Nash Metropolitan for today. It takes care of the front passengers while supplying modest rear accommodations if absolutely necessary (no belts in the 1950s Nash!) It has reasonable power and performance for its time with an engine up front. It's cute - one of the smallest cars on the road. Figuring for 50 years of inflation, it probably costs about the same amount of money too.

The iQ will arrive imminently on the West Coast, and elsewhere over the following several months. Go see it for yourself - and listen to that nice solid door slam.

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