Sometime soon, you'll be told that the 2012 Scion iQ is a play-it-loud kind of car, irreverent and unexpected, filled to the brim with flashing lights and good times as if 2006 had come again. You know, as if the iPod had been reinvented.
Well, we have our own thoughts about that. It's probably too soon to tell anyway.
But after driving the new Scion iQ around San Francisco, we can tell you for sure that we can hear the sound of the future in this car, and it's getting closer.
Sized for the Future
About 2 seconds after we keyed the ignition and the 2012 Scion iQ came to life, we plunged right into the morning traffic of San Francisco, running flank-to-flank with the electric streetcars, cable cars, buses and cabs choking the streets south of Market. We felt not a twinge of fear, since we looked into the face of drivers and pedestrians at a familiar height and the view of the cityscape through the windshield seemed no more imposing than usual.
This seems like not a very big deal until you realize what a small car this is, measuring 120.1 inches overall, 66.1 inches wide and 59.1 inches tall. From behind the wheel, you'd think the front-wheel-drive iQ has the fairly familiar dimensions of any compact car. But when you park and climb out, it's pretty clear that the iQ is more like a motorized telephone booth than you realize, provided you remember telephone booths.
The futurists tell Toyota that there's a significant demographic shift toward the cities these days in the search for jobs and cheap rents, so there's a growing niche for cars that are not only cheap to buy and run but also extremely usable. So usability is the theme here, something far larger than simply issues of price or fuel economy. It's about size, convenience and utility.
What the 2012 Scion iQ is trying to do is give you big usability by shrinking away the excess size. It's an interesting idea, kind of like the tight-fitting T-shirt of automobiles.
Thinking Inside the Box
Chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima is the tallest chief engineer at Toyota, so he finds a certain humor in being responsible for the company's smallest car. But maybe it has paid off, because the Toyota guys have performed a number of engineering miracles in order to package all the stuff of the modern automobile within such a compact space.
The front differential is in front of the engine, not behind. The electric-assist power steering is mounted high, while the 8.5-gallon gas tank is under the rear floor. The front passenger seat is located slightly forward of the driver seat, and you can actually fit one human in the passenger seat and one behind in the rear seat. You also can fit another passenger behind the driver, but only if his age does not exceed his hat size (which is why this car is described as 3+1).
Surprisingly enough, you don't feel like you're in a clown car when you're behind the wheel. There's no bumping of elbows or rubbing of shoulders or complaints of violated air space, not the least because you'll find the 53.9 inches of front hiproom (we won't mention the 33.8 inches in the rear) and 73.8 cubic feet of EPA passenger volume. The iQ is no bigger on the inside than the outside, of course, but the full-length seat travel and full-size doors make it easy to climb in and out, while the rear hatch opens to reveal 3.5 cubic feet with the rear 50/50-split folding seatbacks in place and a very useful 16.7 cubic feet when the seatbacks go down.
It's only when you think of safety do you realize that this is a very small egg in a land of big ostrich-size eggs, which is to say that Toyota had to work pretty hard to keep passengers from being scrambled in any egg-to-egg confrontations. As a result, there are no fewer than 11 airbags inside the iQ. Let's count them: dual-stage front airbags, side airbags (big ones), seat cushion airbags (minimizing forward movement), knee airbags, curtain-type side airbags, and even airbags encircling the twin rear-seat headrests.
Self-Propelled! Fully Motorized!
One nice thing about bathing a car in the shrink ray is the way the weight shrinks as well, so the iQ is not only pocket size, it also tips the scales at just 2,127 pounds. This means the IQ's 1.3-liter inline-4 is certainly up to the task of pulling this front-wheel-drive car around, since it commands 94 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 89 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, plus variable valve timing expands the power band.
But if you're hoping that the 2012 Scion iQ will feel anything other than self-propelled, you're headed for disappointment. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) processes the power for the front wheels, and you can see that this is theoretically a fine idea, since it minimizes weight (so we're told), maximizes fuel economy (an excellent EPA-rated 36 city/37 highway/37 combined mpg), and enhances that whole set-it-and-forget-it usability thing.
Unfortunately the iQ's performance is sleep-inducing, not so much because Scion anticipates acceleration to 60 mph in 11.8 seconds but instead because the powertrain responds with such an insipid sound when you lay into the throttle. It's pretty much the same sound you get when you walk into the bathroom and flick on the ventilator fan.
The Scion iQ does get down the road effectively, pacing traffic easily enough at 80 mph with good straight-line stability, though of course its slab-sided bodywork and boxy dimensions make it moderately sensitive to crosswinds. We had some fun on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge as we found our way to Muir Woods, and we can report that the iQ is narrow enough to share such winding roads with the big cars on the other side of the double-yellow line as well as the bicyclists on this side.
Really it's like going down the road in two-thirds of a Corolla, as the front MacPherson struts and rear torsion beam have been dialed in with the standard Toyota standards for suspension action, insulating the cabin from bumps and thumps. The 175/60R16 tires ride pretty well, and the brake setup is sufficient, even with rear drums. Because the package is so short and narrow, you can feel the platform tilt across the bumps, but the movements aren't distracting. Still, the only thrill available is the amazingly compact turning circle of 12.9 feet, which is about the size of two king-size mattresses, Scion says.
Usable, Not Minimal
These are desperate times for Japanese car manufacturers, as the yen keeps increasing in value against the dollar. That's why it's not easy to price a new Japanese car against its competition and maintain any reasonable profit. Maybe that's why the 2012 Scion iQ will come in only one specification when it goes on sale in October on the West Coast and then is progressively introduced to the South and the Gulf states in January, the Northeast in February and the Midwest in March.
Of course, since this car is about usability, it has antilock brakes, traction control and stability control as standard equipment (government mandates for same notwithstanding). That's why there's a tilt steering wheel, Bluetooth hands-free audio, a standard 160-watt Pioneer audio head unit with CD/MP3/WMA capability, and audio controls on the steering wheel. And in the Scion way, there are plenty of accessories in the pipeline, including trick wheels (like those seen here), performance tires, a body kit, a premium audio setup and a navigation system.
It's an interesting idea, this whole usability thing. The 2012 Scion iQ really does suit an urban environment, where its size makes it a great fit for everything from parking spaces to errands through city traffic. It's a car that makes everything easy, even if it's not exactly fun. Maybe that's what makes it the car of the future.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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