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

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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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