PALM BEACH, Fla. - Scion is the car line Toyota developed to draw young, entry-level customers into the corporate fold. It is aimed at Gen Y, millennials, juvenile delinquents emeritus, under-30 vegans, and any other young people who want wheels they find cool and affordable.
The latest addition to the Scion cast, unveiled here at a recent East Coast press introduction, is a three-door hatchback called the iQ. According to Owen Peacock, Scion's national marketing manager, the iQ is a "premium micro-subcompact." I'd call it a minicar, and I do mean mini. The iQ is only 10 feet long. (By comparison, a Toyota Camry is almost 16 feet.)
That abbreviated length is really the strength of this car, which Toyota introduced in Japan and Europe more than three years ago. It makes the iQ a natural for use in congested cities. A car this short is very maneuverable in tight urban spaces. With a turning radius of less than 13 feet, you can do a U-turn on a two-lane street, and then get into the parking space virtually no one else can.
Scion is hoping that urban utility will catch on in the U.S. market, where rising gasoline prices have prompted many car buyers to rethink their traditional aversion to small cars.
"It's easy to drive and park in the city," Peacock observed, adding: "Attitudes and values are changing. Years of excess have changed people."
At any rate, Toyota plans to run this car up the American flagpole and see if anyone salutes. It will be in Philadelphia-area showrooms around March.
Those who do salute with their checkbooks will be buying into some pretty offbeat business. The iQ is the smallest four-seater in the world, for openers. And it is also amazingly roomy for its size (an outcome encouraged by a chief designer over 6 feet).
By making the short car relatively wide (66 inches, only about five inches narrower than the midsize Camry), the designers got good shoulder room as well as more vehicle stability. A number of clever wrinkles inside created more legroom, particularly for the front and rear passengers on the right side. Legroom for the front passenger was enhanced by moving the air-conditioning and heating equipment to the middle of the dash, and eliminating the glove box, which was replaced with an under-seat bin.
These moves permitted the front passenger seat to be located a bit closer to the dash, thus affording more legroom behind it. This allowed a 6-2 car writer to adjust the front passenger seat for enough legroom, and then sit behind that seat. It was a tad tight, but it worked.
The iQ has 16.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the backseat down, virtually none with it up.
Besides its maneuverability and relative roominess, the iQ is fuel-efficient, although not remarkably so given its mere 2,127-pound curb weight. It has EPA mileage estimates of 36 city, 37 highway, and 37 combined. Yes, that combined rating is the best of any non-hybrid. But no, the 37 highway is not as good as the 38 you would get with the larger Ford Fiesta subcompact and the 42 posted by the compact Chevy Cruze Eco.
The iQ's base price of $15,265 is more than some larger cars (a Toyota Yaris starts at $14,840), but those base cars aren't nearly as well-equipped as the iQ. (All iQs are shipped from Japan in base form, but some 25 accessories can be added at the dealership.)
Overall, the iQ affords a reasonable driving experience. Fitted with a 94-horsepower, 1.3-liter engine and a continuously variable automatic transmission, the little front-driver gets from 0 to 60 in a leisurely 11.8 seconds. That engine is a bit growly and buzzy when you get on it at low speeds. But once the iQ reaches cruising velocities and can take advantage of its economy-minded gear ratios, it quiets down nicely.
You get some tire noise, and the extremely short wheelbase means you are going to feel the bumps, but the car doesn't beat you up. The iQ handles competently, and the steering is precise.
2012 Scion iQ
Base price: $15,265.
As tested: $15,995 (including shipping).
Standard equipment: Front-drive, 1.3-liter engine, continuously variable automatic transmission, and a premium small-car amenity portfolio including a whopping 11 air bags, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, turn-signal lights on the power mirrors, and Bluetooth.
Fuel economy: 36 m.p.g. city and 37 highway.
Styling: Baby bulldog cutey-osity.
Engine power: Not Ferrari-esque.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.
The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.