2012 Scion iQ: Is 37 MPG Good Enough?

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The all-new 2012 Scion iQ minicar, for which we've just posted full driving impressions over at The Car Connection, starts at around $16K and earns an EPA-rated 36 mpg city, 37 highway, and a combined figure of 37 mpg.

But with so many vehicles now on the market that can get 40 mpg on the highway or more—the Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Cruze, and Ford Fiesta are just a few—many American shoppers will simply look over those figures and then move on to another, larger model. Why not opt for a larger vehicle if you can, if it costs about the same and gets almost the same mileage?

It's a good, very American question, and while we only saw a few cursory thumbs-up for the iQ in a drive that took us through some of the more hurried sections of San Francisco, when we drove a 2011 Smart Fortwo just a few weeks ago we were repeatedly met with comments and amazement that this 6'-6" driver could fit so well and comfortably—then met with with equal surprise and disappointment when we told them the three-cylinder ForTwo's mileage (33 city, 41 highway, 36 combined).

If you get a car that small, it must get 60 or 70 mpg, they reasoned.

That's simply not the case. But while that 36-mpg city rating seems pretty impressive to us, we agree that the iQ loses its fuel-stingy luster at higher speeds.

From our test-drive observations, here are some remarks on why the iQ is thirstier on the highway than you might think:

A relatively short top gear. The iQ has a fuel-efficient continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that isn't nearly as much fun as a manual gearbox would be, but it helps maximize fuel economy, especially around town, by bringing down revs whenever you don't need the power. But iQ feels geared for lower Japanese motorway speeds, not a 75- or 80-mph California or Michigan expressway cruise. Even at around 70 mph in the iQ, we saw revs close to the 4,000-rpm mark. And just bringing down revs helps a lot; for instance, in the all-new, larger 2012 Versa, Nissan (in addition to some engine improvements) added a new planetary-gear assembly (engaged through a torque converter) to enable a taller top gear. Based on our drive last week, it works for higher gas mileage (38 mpg highway is claimed there, too), but with a taller top gear, CVT responsiveness could actually take a turn for the worse.

Just as much surface area to push. While the iQ is only 120.1 inches long (yep, just ten feet), it's taller (59.1 inches) than the Corolla about as wide (66.1 in.) as the Yaris. Compared to the likes of the Fortwo, it's a difference we can feel, with far more elbow room between driver and passenger, but you pay for it aerodynamically as you're pushing just as much surface area through the air as in a much bigger, heavier vehicle. And while the iQ's coefficient of drag is a respectable 0.31, its tall profile and lack of length actually conspire to introduce more drag-inducing turbulence in back at higher speeds.

Sticky rubber. The iQ doesn't opt for fuel-saving low-rolling-resistance tires; instead it's shod with good all-weather Goodyear Assurance tires that give the iQ a confident feel around town, as well as enough grip to make the most of the well-tuned chassis and the iQ's 2,100 curb weight out on curvy roads. If Scion decided to adopt a greener tire choice, they could probably recoup a mile or two per gallon.

For those who love the iQ package but can't quite reason past the mileage, there's a new electric version in the works. At a drive event for the gasoline iQ, officials could only verify that development and testing of the iQ EV is moving ahead as the company's first in-house EV—and we expect some to be available next year for test fleets but not general public consumption.

We have a feeling the Scion iQ going to be a tough sell for Americans, outside of a few select places like Manhattan or Boston, where space is scarce and having a vehicle that fits into a very compact spot would be advantageous. But as we conclude in our drive, with just a short stint behind the wheel you'll probably find that the iQ is a lot more charming than many other econocar choices.

See the full first drive report on the 2012 Scion iQ over at The Car Connection, and stay tuned for updates on the electric iQ.


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Comments (14)
  1. Well, I think 36 mpg city is easily the best non-hybrid rating. But 37 mpg highway is more than a little disappointing.

  2. 37 mpg is pathetic for such a small car, with such a high price. The Hyundai Elantra gets 40 mpg and is a mid size car! It is also a very nice looking vehicle with a better warranty and a far better price.

  3. The Hyundai Elantra averages 33 mpg and only achieves 29 mpg in the city. So the iQ offers better overall fuel economy.

    I'd still rather buy an Elantra, but lets at least keep our facts straight.

  4. The open wheel rims are a hefty aero drag, no doubt. What is the gearing like? Doesn't the non-US iQ get in the mid-50's?

    This is quite disappointing FE. I'd like to hear more about the EV version.

  5. The rear spoiler flips up, which adds a lot of drag -- it should taper down to form a Kamm back for better aero. Is that spoiler on all iQ models?

  6. @Ron, while I'll agree that the Elantra is a much better choice overall, you conveniently left out some other information, too; if you're going to criticize the iQ for losing to the Elantra on the Hwy. 40-37, how about at least noting the gap is much greater the other way, the city is 36-29 iQ. Also, how does the Elantra have a "much better price"? The 2012 has three models starting at $16.4k, $17.4k and $20.4k. How is that much better than a car that starts at $16k?
    Again, give Hyundai its due credit on the Elantra, absolutely, but selectively choosing only the points that support your position, doesn't really help.
    In the end, I'm disappointed, but at least consumers will have more options. Not many will choose this one, though.

  7. Usually when you buy a car like this your sacrificing size for high fuel economy. And this just doesn't cut it.

  8. @Neil, I just read it gets 54.7 MPG on the European cycle. I want to say that the European cycle shows 10-15% higher than the American one, but I'm no expert so can somebody correct me if I'm mistaken?

  9. One thing to remember in comparing these mileage figures is that the iQ is offered in Japan and Europe with a three-cylinder engine (the four we get is available, too). In the European driving cycle, the iQ is rated 53 mpg (U.S. gallons, not to be confused with the higher Imp figures) for the I-3 and 45 mpg with the 1.3-liter/CVT combination that the U.S. gets. And yes, @robok2, that falls in the usual 10-15 percent diff between U.S. and EEC ratings.

  10. Thanks, Bengt. I was aware of the imperial gallons part but not that the iQ has a 3-cylinder engine in Europe, although it's not surprising.
    It's frustrating when people ask "why doesn't Car X get 60 MPG like it does in Europe" when the test cycles and even gallon measurements are ndifferent. And don't even get me started on the Geo Metro cult and their "I got 53 MPG" back in 199x, back when cars didn't have the weight of many of today's safety systems.

  11. I wonder why they can't sell it with the 3 cylinder here in the US? It's plenty powerful, if I remember correctly.

    Maybe if Fiat brings the 2-cylinder Twin-Air 500 here, Toyota will follow suit?


  12. I definitely think that it needs to have 40+MPG to be an actual contender. Scion needs to look into increasing the MPG and maybe think about sportier shapes. I'd like to see a rival to the Hyundai Veloster!

  13. I own a 2008 smart fortwo. Real world mpg is 45--city and highway driving-- over the past 55,000 miles.

  14. I own a UK 3 cyl CVT IQ and regularly get 50 mpg (Imperial) without trying. This car must behave differently from the one tested because its very high geared pulling about 1200 rpm at fifty on the flat and around 2000rpm to 2200rpm at seventy.I have been amazed at its refinement and lack of engine noise even at indicated speeds of eighty or ninety. At these speeds its more stable and has a more planted on the road feel compared to a Smart and yes I have owned two of those so feel qualified to compare. The three cyl definitely sounds quieter and less stressed than the four cyl version,its also lighter.

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