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2012 Scion iQ Road Test Review

2012 Scion iQ Road Test Review

by Martha Hindes

2012 Compact Car Buyer's Guide - Top 10 Picks

Chevy Sonic


Fiat 500 C

Mini Cooper

Nissan Versa

Honda Civic Si

Hyundai Accent

What's a micro car to do? There are comments like “Hey, look, it's a lunchbox!” And -- if turbocharged and fitted with wings -- “it could fly.” Such nuggets, quite evidently, come from the diehard autophile crowd who heap derision and scorn quite regularly in their tweets about most new wheels as they flit from model to model soaking up reviews. And so it's probably fitting that the newest, just launched Scion iQ for 2012 has had its share. They miss a couple of points, however. One is that in countries outside the U.S. where it's been sold for a while, the iQ (differently named and even done in ultra luxury mode) is nicely appreciated. The other point is the attention getter that gas prices here at home are threatening to break the sound barrier, and soon.

We had our chance to find out if the 2012 Scion iQ is all show and no go or if it has the makings of the sure success of Scion siblings among Americans. Its debut for us was on a blustery, northern day with sheets of rain pelting down as we plowed through midtown traffic, the iQ's native territory. Funny, it didn't feel like a super small car while being driven. We looked to the left and to the right, and here were the shoulders of a midsize car on each side. We turned the wheel, and it handled nicely and firmly as we headed around the corner and back into the traffic stream. Its four wheels felt firmly glued to pavement despite the layers of rain that threatened to send something less stable into a hydroplaning slide. Until we glanced toward the rear, this could have been any compact automobile. It wasn't evident while driving that its tush had been severely trimmed.

The iQ for the uninitiated deserves some explanation. It is a front-drive, minimalist two-door hatchback from parent company Toyota that was added to the Japanese company's youthful, junior-culture Scion marquee. Like its compatriot xB box on wheels, it has started out looking unfamiliar and even strange enough to make one question Scion's intent or a buyer's purpose in owning one. It has a larger; almost sedan-like front feel and nearly no rear at all, as if someone had backed it into the moving propeller blades of a single-engine Cessna.

And the next obvious question is why? We already mentioned gas prices that in some areas are moving precariously close to the unthinkable level of $5.00 a gallon. Fuel experts tell us they could ratchet much higher (think in $1 increments). There are cities (New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. come to mind) where negotiating traffic snarls can be a regular contact sport if you're unlucky, and the less sheet metal one drags around in the process makes it a smaller target. In such places where cabs and subways often rule, “parking spot” has to be a standing joke. And in a no apologies challenge, the iQ has taken a stand designed to outdo the two-seater Smart car with an even quirkier look than the iQ and about a half dozen years head start in trying to win over somewhat cautious U.S. buyers.

The 2012 Scion iQ, however, can hold more than two as "the world's smallest four-seater" says Scion, a big bonus from the start it seems. Despite it's short, 10-foot overall length (really!), there's a full-fledged rear seat designed to hold one adult (with additional foot well space between the two front seats) and a child or infant secured in a proper carrier. Scion calls it 3-1/2 seating. The interior is accessed through two oversized side doors. But, unless one is rather sylph-like, getting in back can take a little maneuvering.

Controls condensed on the instrument panel offer the kinds of amenities one would expect on a larger, pricier auto: Standard air conditioning, high def radio, Bluetooth connectivity and appropriate audio connectors including USB, keyless entry and foldable side mirrors with turn signal indicators. Safety features include smart stop brake override for emergencies.

Front seating is a reasonably comfortable ride although we didn't do any long distance trips during our testing. The rear seat is more questionable. The iQ is designed mostly as a city car and normally wouldn't seem ideal for long haul travel or a regular 40-mile daily commute. With rear seats engaged, trunk space is non-existent. But flop them down and out of the way and there's sufficient room for some luggage, several overstuffed grocery bags or a couple of well-loaded golf bags thanks to the vehicle's wide width.

Most unique is the overall outside appearance of the iQ. The nose slopes down and the body widens toward the corners where it seems defiantly planted on all fours. The rear narrows as it nears the top where it ends in an overhead spoiler. It looks rather like someone took a really big paddle and gave it a hefty swat in the behind. Ouch. We don't blame it for hunkering down.

The iQ has been called underpowered. When considering its purpose, we object. It's a greener, fuel stingy micro-car, not a pavement burner. The 1.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine that delivers 94 horsepower is designed to keep one cruising in urban congestion, not tempting one's lead foot on a track. It handles well for its size, with a turning radius so small one could quickly claim a parking spot on the opposite side of a street while a larger vehicle would need to hunt for a turn around driveway. With an automatic transmission, it earns 36/37 miles per gallon, not tops for a fuel saver, but getting up there.
During our testing we were looking for, aching for, a manual transmission. It just seemed totally out of character that this auto that could scoot around a narrow European traffic circle with impunity in a downshifted gear is relegated to a CVT automatic transmission to serve U.S. capabilities. (People here need to teach their kids to drive the original way.)

Scion calls the iQ a "premium micro-subcompact," giving a hint at the "gotcha" part. Base pricing is $15,265, and options can send it north from there. That has received some knuckle rapping on its own.

But going back to those deriding comments we started with, we'll add another perspective. If the iQ was totally bland, totally boring, totally plebeian, would it raise anyone's ire or pique their criticism -- or get any publicity, for that matter? We think not. Folks don't seem to waste their creative thoughts on slamming cardboard. They choose a target that has a good chance of being noticed, of becoming part of the automotive landscape whether they like it or not.

The iQ will either show up in droves, or it won't as customers vote with their wallets. And we doubt any woman who owns one would ever be ignored. It's actually a lot of fun to drive and could be more so if...  Or as one home-grown enthusiast put it: "Get rid of the back seat, add manual transmission, you've got a customer."

Visit the Scion website, click here.