2012 Scion iQ: First Drive

With a starting price of $15,265, the 2012 Scion iQ "micro" car will join the likes of other miniscule people movers the Fiat 500, Smart ForTwo and more expensive Mini Cooper when it begins a gradual U.S. rollout in California this December. Scion expects it to hit the East Coast and Midwest last, by March 2012. Ahead of a more detailed review to come, below are some first impressions from my drives of two test models in Detroit.

I like the iQ's dimensions — or perhaps I should say proportions — on practical grounds. When sitting in the iQ's front seat, it feels like a small car, but not a dinky one, unless you turn around and see the rear window so close to your head that it recalls a roadster. At 120.1 inches long, it's longer than the ForTwo but shorter than the 500 and Cooper hatchback. However, it makes no sacrifice in width, measuring 66.1 inches, putting it on par with the Cooper and a few inches wider than the other two.

Sadly, once you start driving, the iQ begins to feel more like a small, inexpensive car.

My immediate impression was that it bucks mercilessly on uneven pavement, and this type of pavement is all too common on the type of city streets for which a small car like this would otherwise be well suited. A short wheelbase is a disadvantage, and at 78.7 inches, the iQ's is dramatically shorter (geometrically speaking) than the Fiat's 90.6 and the Mini's 97.1 inches. (The ForTwo's wheelbase measures 73.5 inches, contributing to its ride quality, which is one of the numerous undesirable traits I laid out in my 2009 review.)

Of the models mentioned, the Fiat has the most comfortable ride. The Mini's is firmer but controlled. The iQ simply feels unrefined. For what it's worth, the Scion brand and the iQ itself are aimed at young drivers — the ones perhaps the least critical of things like ride quality. They're more likely to be interested in the car's stereo, which has various standard inputs as well as Bluetooth hands-free cellular connectivity and streaming audio. An optional stereo supports Pandora internet radio.

The iQ's short wheelbase pays off in quick steering and a tight 25.8-foot turning circle, beating the ForTwo's 28.8 feet. The car's relative width aids stability, but I was surprised by the degree of body roll when making rapid transitions.

As you might expect, the iQ's wee 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine provides modest acceleration, moseying to 60 mph in almost 12 seconds. The sole transmission is a continuously variable automatic. It presents some of the droning engine noise we've come to expect from CVTs, but it also surprised me when accelerating onto an interstate with what felt like the shifting behavior of a conventional step-gear automatic — backing off the rpm slightly and then climbing again — at roughly 20 and 45 mph. I don't know if this helps or hurts mileage, but there's something reassuring about it.

Acceleration isn't the forte of tiny cars like these. Though the Cooper has an edge even in its base version, said base version now starts at $19,500.

Thanks to some clever packaging tricks, the iQ's interior is pretty roomy. The main trick is on the curb side, where the front passenger can sit farther forward than the driver. There are no pedals, obviously, and the glove compartment has been eliminated. (Instead there's a drawer under the passenger seat — a rather shallow, flimsy one.)

As a result, an adult fits in the backseat behind the passenger. As for behind the driver, that's not much of a seat. Perhaps you could cram a kid in there, but the other one is definitely a more usable "occasional" seat than some larger cars provide.

The cargo area pays a price, though. When the rear seats' folding backrests are raised, there's practically no space behind them: The specifications say 3.5 cubic feet, but even this amount seems minimally usable. The Cooper has 5.7 cubic feet, and the 500 and ForTwo have 9.5 and 7.8 cubic feet, respectively. However, once the rear seats are folded, the iQ has 16.7 cubic feet, the Mini 24, the Fiat 30.1 and the Smart 12.0 cubic feet.

Folding the seats isn't a pleasure, because you must first remove the rear head restraints in restricted confines. My guess is owners will leave at least the driver's side rear seat folded most of the time — and or at least keep the head restraints off, because they obstruct the rear view.

Otherwise, the view to the rear is good, and the front isn't bad in some regards, but I found myself ducking to see street signs and traffic signals. The roof extends forward pretty far — a problem I've cited in Chevrolet's Volt and Camaro. The driver's seat doesn't have a height adjustment, so all I could do was move the seat forward some. Between this and the lack of a telescoping function for the steering wheel, the iQ is definitely biased toward smaller drivers — even if the legroom is otherwise adequate.

The interior quality is underwhelming overall, though the gloss-black surfaces in my test cars were a nice touch. Some drivers are sure to bemoan the lack of a center armrest, which isn't listed as an option, either.

So what does the iQ offer? Its main selling point is mileage. At 37 mpg, its EPA-estimated highway rating isn't the eye-popping 40 mpg and above now seen in some larger cars. The city rating, 36 mpg, is what stands out. The Smart gets 33 mpg (on premium gas), the Mini 28 and the Fiat 27 mpg (all figures are for automatic transmissions).

Where the iQ and these other cars start to stumble is when you compare them with similarly priced subcompact cars (a larger class) like the 2012 Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic and Nissan Versa. Even in hatchback form, these cars all start below $15,000 and provide more room and greater refinement. Automatic versions of all of them fall short of the iQ's city mileage, but their highway mileage is close or superior, as high as 40 mpg in the Accent.

The iQ is meant to be an urban car, and in the city is where its mileage and small size really pay off. But it's hard to justify the iQ's higher price for something smaller, even if compactness is an advantage in the city. Just a couple of years ago, subcompact cars weren't as good or as efficient as they are now. As small cars go, the 2012 Scion iQ isn't too little, but it might be too late.

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