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It's too late to cancel a trip to San Diego when the 2012 Scion iQ lands in our hands. This is a city car, remember? Even Scion officials define it narrowly as a car for "new urbanites" (old urbanites are already lost to mass transit, apparently), and we're about to put on 300 highway miles.
But the Scion iQ is better than it needs to be. It's at ease on most freeways, quiet when we're cruising at 70 mph and comfortable for two adults. It's a far more enjoyable car than its most obvious rival, the Smart Fortwo.
Of course, the Smart is low-hanging fruit in the economy-car class. There's a bigger battle to be waged against larger subcompacts like the Fiat 500 and Ford Fiesta, which cost the same as the iQ and return similar mpg.
Inches and Pennies
Parked on a street, the 2012 Scion iQ looks like a pair of doors on wheels. You mentally draw on a standard-size hood and trunk to make sense of what you're seeing. People come up to it, smiling, expecting it to coo like a baby.
Still, at 120 inches from snub nose to flat fanny, Scion's microcar is 2 feet longer than a Smart. It's also 5 inches wider (66.1), rides on a 5-inch longer wheelbase (78.7) and has front and rear tracks that are 7.5 inches and 3 inches wider in front and back, respectively. For comparison, a Fiat 500 is 139.6 inches long and 64.1 inches wide with a 90.6-inch wheelbase, while a five-door Fiesta is comparatively huge: 160.1 inches long, 67.8 inches wide, 98.0-inch wheelbase.
The Scion's packaging is totally different from the rear-wheel-drive Smart, which has its engine in the back. In the front-drive iQ, the engine is up front, but it's mounted behind the differential — an arrangement unlike any other current Scion/Toyota model. This helps open up room for rear seats (not available in the Smart), although they're about as functional as a kiddie-size third row in a compact SUV. That sounds damning, but if you're honest, the backseats in the Fiat and Fiesta aren't that much more useful.
The obvious fly in this tiny tube of ointment is the iQ's price tag, which is nearly $16,000 before you start accessorizing. That's Fiat/Fiesta territory, and with our test car's full load of extras, the final bill is $20,800. Ditching the navigation system and satellite radio (which provides traffic data) lops off $2,600, but we can't help but notice that our long-term Mazda 2 is still almost $2 grand cheaper.
The Thrill of Convenience
As we're trying to make these numbers add up, we're already making progress toward our destination. The 2012 Scion iQ is one of those cars that doesn't require you to think much about the process of driving. It just gets you there.
When you're driving the iQ, almost everybody parks badly, almost everyone edges out of their lane and into yours, and yet none of it seems to matter. The iQ fits in any space, even the ones that have half an SUV in them, and it can always slither around accordion buses so we can make a right on red.
What's more, Scion's microcar has one of Toyota's better applications of electric-assist power steering. This steering is quick and precise, and the effort level increases appropriately as you add speed. There's also enough of a dead spot on-center that we're not making constant course corrections on the drive to San Diego. We wish the Corolla's EPS was this low-maintenance.
CVT Is Your Only Choice
A standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) adds greatly to the convenience of driving the Scion iQ. If you think like an old guy, you'll criticize Scion for not offering a manual gearbox. But if you actually paid attention during the 1980s, you know that people didn't buy manual-shift subcompacts because they were fun — they bought them because they were cheap and because automatics of that day were terrible.
That said, the CVT driving the iQ's front wheels is hardly the best of the breed. Under part-throttle inputs, it behaves like a bad four-speed automatic, simulating slow gearchanges and even a touch of shift shock.
Despite that annoyance, it's pretty effortless to get around in the city. The Scion's 1.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine provides sufficient grunt to move 2,145 pounds of car, even though it's rated for just 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque.
Flooring the throttle elicits more typical and effective CVT behavior, as the revs climb steplessly and power builds. Unfortunately, the 1.3-liter engine turns out to be a loud, raucous little mill. "It sounds like one of those decorative Halloween ghosts with a motion sensor," says our photographer.
You'll Get There Eventually
On the freeway, this Scion keeps up with traffic without straining your nerves much. The test track numbers seem to confirm what we figured, as it gets up to 60 mph in 10.4 seconds (10.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) and finds the quarter-mile mark in 17.8 seconds at 78.6 mph.
That's not quick, but it's not far behind our long-term 500 (10.4 seconds, 17.5 seconds at 76.6 mph). The Fiesta (10.0, 17.2) and Mazda 2 (9.9, 17.4) are a half-second up on the Scion.
Throw in a few modest highway grades, though, and the iQ's performance feels a lot less adequate. No wonder why Scion officials laughed when we asked if cruise control would ever be an option. We've also been advised that there's no TRD supercharger or turbo kit in the works.
So It Gets 40 MPG, Right?
Maybe the biggest surprise about the featherweight 2012 Scion iQ is that it doesn't get 40 mpg.
Mind you, its 36 mpg city rating is currently the best of any non-hybrid car. But its 37 mpg highway figure falls short of the Fiesta (38-40 mpg, depending on the version) and the 2012 Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio siblings (40 mpg).
After 726 miles in the iQ, our average is 32.6 mpg. Our best reading is 35.4 mpg on a 137.6-mile tank; our worst is 31.3 mpg over 202.5 miles, most of them logged during the San Diego trip when we were running late.
The Ride Is OK for a Short Car
It's tough to make small cars ride really well, especially when they have ultra-short wheelbases and space-saver suspension components like this Scion. Still, the iQ fares better than the Smart in this regard.
Mind you, the iQ squats hard when you wood the throttle, and it's punishing over the potholes in downtown Los Angeles. Also, its 175/60R16 Goodyear Assurance tires will follow every groove in mangled pavement. Over most other roads, though, it's composed and surprisingly comfortable.
You can't really carve up a back road in the iQ either, mainly because those types of roads usually have hills. The iQ doesn't really do hills. Not much for the slalom either, a test we conduct on flat ground. Keep up the momentum and the iQ manages 64.4 mph through the cones. It will even rotate off-throttle on the skid pad (0.80g) when you disable the stability control. Yep, Mother Toyota trusts you enough to allow true "ESC off."
Even the brakes are effective, with a reassuring firmness to the pedal and good fade resistance. The car's best stopping distance from 60 mph was 131 feet.
It's a Good Two-Seater
If you think of the 2012 Scion iQ as a two-seater, it's actually a pretty useful little car.
Its wide stance opens up plenty of shoulder room and hiproom and there's enough seat-track travel to accommodate 6-footers. A minimalist center console enhances the feeling of openness, but creates a storage problem in a car with no glovebox (there's an extra airbag where the glovebox would ordinarily be).
Convenience features in the cabin are hit-or-miss. Among the hits are one-touch up-down windows and Bluetooth streaming audio capability. Misses include the poor audio control design (can we get a volume knob?) and lack of steering wheel telescope or seat height adjustment. Also, in a car with such a huge glass area, the iQ's wimpy, single-blade sun visors are unforgivable.
No Discount for Buying Less Car
If anything, the 2012 Scion iQ is a look into the future, where we'll all have to care a little more about mpg and how much space there's available for a two-car garage.
The trouble for Scion is that America isn't yet like Europe (where this car has been on sale for years as the Toyota iQ and lately the Aston Martin Cygnet). Unless you're living in the heart of a major city, there's little incentive, financial or otherwise, to buy a car so narrowly focused on space efficiency.
If you like the iQ's design or you're really bad at parking, well, by all means, buy one. The rest of us, though, will find more value in similarly priced cars with more surface area.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Scion iQ in WA is: