2012 Scion iQ: The 37-MPG Minicar We Wish We Liked Better

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Small cars are fun to drive--or at least they should be.

But there may be a law of diminishing returns in adapting the very smallest cars from Asia and Europe to the U.S. market.

We don't much like the driving experience in the Smart ForTwo, so we had high hopes for the 2012 Scion iQ minicar--the smallest car by far that Toyota sells in the States.

But a brief road test on the twisting roads of Bear Mountain State Park, north of New York City, didn't show the little iQ in the best light.

In fact, we didn't particularly enjoy it. It's not a car that feels like it wants to be driven fast, or hard.

It's most likely fine for flat city streets and, like the Smart, it's possible to park in spaces that will fit no other vehicle.

While we'll reserve judgment until we can spend several days with the Scion iQ, we were just as happy to get out of it.

The little iQ is certainly distinctive. With handsome optional 16-inch alloy wheels, it looks less toy-like than the Smart. The slab-sided styling and pert nose give it personality, as do the curved side windows behind the lengthy doors.

2012 Scion iQ, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

2012 Scion iQ, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

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Inside, the largely black cloth upholstery conveys "grim economy car," and the floating center stack somehow reminded us of the head of an Asian robot toy. 

Door pulls are sculpted into the hard-plastic door trim, and there's neither a console armrest nor much storage space, with only a single cupholder and the door bins offering space for phones, sunglasses, toll tickets, and change.

There's also no glovebox--that space is open for the front passenger's legs so that an actual human can (just) fit into the third seat behind. Sun glare through the rear window made the instruments impossible to read.

The 2012 Scion iQ comes with a 94-horsepower 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a tiny continuously variable transmission (CVT).

It's rated at a combined 37 mpg by the EPA, made up 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway.

That's the highest combined rating for any non-hybrid 2012 car, and marginally better than the similarly sized Smart ForTwo, which gets a combined EPA rating of 36 mpg (but requires premium fuel).

2012 Scion iQ - Driven, April 2012

2012 Scion iQ - Driven, April 2012

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And our drive may have set the car off in a bad light, since it began with a twisting series of uphill bends which the Scion struggled through with its engine howling as we tried to accelerate up to the speed limit.

We found ourselves over-correcting in turns, which made the car yaw, before we got used to the iQ's very, very short wheelbase.

On flat roads it was fine, and there's no doubt the iQ is ultra-maneuverable. Once we got used to the proportions--it's essentially as wide as a subcompact, just two-thirds the length--it was downright fun to park.

Our test car came with a sticker price of $16,205, which added a $100 rear speaker package, a $20 storage package, and $90 carpeted front mats to the $15,265 base price (plus a mandatory $730 delivery fee).

That's as much or more as mid-level subcompacts with four doors, four seats, and only slightly worse gas mileage.

The iQ comes with a 160-Watt stereo system and until August, the price includes a Playstation VIta gaming system.

2012 Scion iQ, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

2012 Scion iQ, Bear Mountain, NY, May 2012

Enlarge Photo

The 2012 Scion iQ is probably a nicer car in its European and Asian form, with fewer airbags, a smaller engine, and--most importantly--a manual transmission.

In that respect, it suffered somewhat from our ability to test the neat little Volkswagen Up minicar (which won't be sold in the States). The Up has a 1.0-liter three-cylinder and a five-speed manual that is perfectly mated to the tiny four-seater.

It's entirely possible that the European Toyota iQ (it's only sold as a Scion in the States) is a lighter, better balanced, more pleasant car to drive. Especially with a five-speed manual transmission.

In the end, we had to conclude that--as with the Smart ForTwo--unless you absolutely must have a car less than 10 feet long for parking reasons, there are better, more pleasant, and equally fuel-efficient cars on the market for about the same money.

But give us a Scion iQ with a manual transmission and we might change our minds ....


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Comments (14)
  1. Nice article. I am guessing that you like the Fiat 500 more than the iQ as well.

  2. 16 grand for that little car. I can't even get past the price to even consider one. And when those big, cool tires wear out after 30,000 thousand miles, it will probably run you at least $500 for a good replacement set. And those big wheels look goofy to me. Just look at the VW next to it. The VW looks more in proportion to me. No thanks.

  3. Yes, I think they should have kept the 1L 3-cylinder and the 6-speed manual (I think?) that they sell elsewhere. Mileage could be above 50mpg, easy. I like the front wheel drive better than the Smart ForTwo and it's rear wheel drive. The third person is a major plus.

    But the Yaris and the Fit are all over this car; except as you say, if you need the 10' length.


  4. The UK spec car is much nicer; leather chairs, all the trimmings. If that isn't enough, try the Aston Martin Cygnet.

    John: You didn't mention it's most significant difference to the Smart - the iQ is a four-seater - unless the rears fell out on the trip to the US?

  5. @Michael: "There's also no glovebox--that space is open for the front passenger's legs so that an actual human can (just) fit into the third seat behind."

    But it's NOT a four-seater, at least for actual humans with attached legs. There is no way to fit an adult in the seat behind the driver and still have the driver be able to...well, drive.

  6. More room in the back of there than a 911 convertible :-)

  7. BTW, I love the wide shot of the iQ with all the stones behind it.

  8. This is not a good article. Oh lets take the FJ Cruiser around town and see how it does...or the full size Azera in the deserts of NM.
    Drive the damn test cars in the environment it was designed for and will most likely be in w/ their drivers! Going up in the hills and complaining about the handling is going to happen in a ultra small city car.
    This car will do well cause:
    1) best non-hybrid mpg by far w/o asking much more $$ like the Cruze Eco or Fiesta sfe
    2) it is very easy to park n drive in small spaces
    3) it has just about every feature a buyer in this category could need/want
    4) its funky looking n only $16K
    5) its not made for oldies like the author or me n the youngsters love that fact

    -- However, 15" wheels would've been better

  9. Erik - Regardless of the car's ideal environment, they *have* to function outside of it too in order to be worth buying. Much as it's a nice utopian thought to imagine that cars like the iQ and Smart ForTwo are the perfect city cars, people won't buy them if they don't fulfill their wider needs too. The poor sales of the ForTwo is evidence of this.

    And just in case you were wondering, I'm a "youngster" (just) and lie pretty much in the middle of Toyota's target market for the iQ in Europe.

    That said, I've not yet driven the smaller-engined, manual car John mentions in his article - so we can reserve judgement on that car for now.

  10. Erik, with all due respect the "environment it was designed for" would be definition be on a variety of roads. Or did I miss the spot in the owner's manual where it states only drive it in cities, etc...

    Best mileage means marginally better despite far less size and utility. I'll pass. Horrendous design, pass. Easy to park? So, so are 500s, Mini Coopers and other small cars that are actually fun to drive. "Only $16k"? Uh, compare a Fiesta or other vehicle at $16k with this. Not even close. Even a Cruze at $19k would be a better chocie and I don't like the Cruze much.

    As for the only the youngsters get Scion, you might want to check the plumetting sales over the last few years. Even the young ran away long ago... Scion on like support.

  11. Well John while you hop from one car to another and everyone else speculates I now have two months of driving the UK IQ and I love it.Getting between 50 and 56mpg,its quiet,comfy,smooth well equipped and ideal for just the wife and I. We do not need or want the extra length of a four seater when I do we take the Prius.I especially like the extra width and the CVT auto. This one item is an acquired taste and a different technique is needed when accelerating, its best to back off slightly on the throttle and it will shift up with the car still accelerating.Passing does need planning but at all other times its uncannily smooth and high geared.I traded a Smart for the IQ and do not regret it for its proving a better package.

  12. I own an IQ and I love it. It's definitely not a four person vehicle two at best. I use it for commuting to work and running errands around the city. (I also own a large SUV) I will save 2k this year in fuel. It's surprising roomy and comfortable. When I test drove the car, the gentleman from the dealership was at least 400 lbs and over 6 feet tall, he had no trouble getting in or out of this vehicle. I will say the only issue i have is there is a blind spot, but once you know it you can figure it out.

  13. Right on, ARuiz:

    The car is amazing, as I just bought a new2 013 IQ, and some 500 miles ago I do have some first impressions.

    As for the blind spot, it has not been a problem, as the stylish side "porthole" coupled with the RV mirrors are more-than-enough visibility for me.

    The driver's door is 48 inches wide, while my neighbor's Mercedes C230 is 52 inches! And he's the guy who measured both!

  14. Yes, I have an opinion, as I just purchased a new 2013 Scion IQ and after 500 miles, here are my impressions:

    The vehicle is extraordinary, beautifully designed and engineered, with great fit-and-finish plus performance to match. Plus, and this is a big one, it's a Toyota, not a BMW, Mercedes or Fiat. The IQ runs on regular gas, unlike those "other" mini cars.

    The car handles like a dream, quick-and-responsive, not twitchy or squirrely, with a low CG, a wide stance, short wheelbase and sticky tires. The turning radius is amazing!

    Yes, it seats four but that's not why I bought it; in fact, I dropped the back seats on day one.

    Here's a question for you: Whadda you want/need from a car? A 7-speed "stick"+ a $10K price + free insurance?

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