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2012 Scion iQ. (Bill Petro/Richard Russell for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Scion iQ. (Bill Petro/Richard Russell for The Globe and Mail)

2012 Scion iQ

Scion iQ: a real mighty mite Add to ...

The fourth vehicle in the Scion lineup is bound to bring more attention to Toyota’s fledgling “youth” brand than the other three combined.

Billed as a premium subcompact, the diminutive Scion iQ behaves like a much larger vehicle in terms of both space utilization and driving dynamics. You can actually drive this funster without being constantly reminded of sacrifices.

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First things first – size. This is a very small car. The iQ stretches a mere three metres bumper to bumper and two between the mirrors. It is 35 centimetres longer than its most obvious competitor, the Smart fortwo, but 50 cm shorter than the Fiat 500.

Toyota says it is the world’s smallest four-door passenger car. That’s a stretch because it is really a three-passenger car with a bucket and set of belts behind the driver, suitable for a car seat and little else. Let’s call it a 3.5-passenger vehicle.

But those three occupants can all be over six feet in height and comfortable, especially the two in front. Be deleting the usual glove box, the front passenger seat can be moved forward of the driver’s seat, making room for someone in the back seat on that side, if the front passenger co-operates.

With the seat in a more rearward position, the iQ offers exceptional comfort and space up front. That, combined with lots of glass and a well-developed suspension, makes it feel like you are driving or riding in a much larger vehicle.

Until you turn around and realize you can almost touch the rear window. This proximity to the rearmost part of the iQ makes reversing a breeze, since the bumper is almost literally at the base of the window. It does make sitting back there feel much like it does in the rear of a compact pickup – with your head only a few centimetres from the glass. But there is a head restraint between your noggin and the glass so you are not constantly striking the latter.

The glove box is replaced by a sliding tray beneath the front passenger seat. Trips to Costco will require the rear seats to be folded. With them in place, there is only a slot behind the seat, suitable for a very narrow purse or computer bag. A hidden storage box below the cargo floor augments this. Cargo space is listed as 31 litres with seats in place and 473 with them folded. There is no room for a spare tire. You get four run-flat tires and a can of emergency goo to inflate and hopefully seal a flat.

The doors are wide and tall, making for a large opening and easy entry to the front seats. The passenger seat folds well forward for good access to the rear. Visibility is exceptional in all directions.

The driver faces an instrument pod shaped much like a motorcycle with speedometer and tachometer and a familiar sight for Scion owners, an LCD information monitor containing fuel level, mileage and other things like average speed and ambient temperature. A pivoting LED dome light is a neat touch.

The flat-bottomed steering wheel containing secondary audio controls tilts but does not telescope. There are a number of small spaces, and high-quality soft-touch plastics abound as does Toyota-quality assembly.

Sitting in the front seats, it is possible to forget you are in such a small car thanks to a number of clever touches. The air conditioner hides behind the centre stack. The differential is inverted and in front of the engine to reduce infringement on the passenger compartment. The steering rack is up high – providing 28 millimetres of additional people space all by itself. The fuel tank, no thicker than a pop can, sits below the front seats. The tank’s 32-litre capacity is enough for the thrifty iQ to go as much as 600 kilometres.

Toyota has also provided a full slate of active and passive safety systems and features to address the understandable concerns common to a car of this size – ABS with brake assist, electronic stability control, and electronic traction control. And, as one wag said, there are enough airbags to start a new political party – 11 of them, including the world’s first rear-window airbag.

Obviously, the iQ is designed as an urban car, a runabout for crowded spaces. It does this with aplomb, but surprisingly it fights well above its weight class on the open road as well. Squeezing into seemingly non-existent parking spaces and doing an about-face in ridiculously narrow confines are what has made this little vehicle so popular in Europe and Japan, where it was introduced in 2008.

It comes as a pleasant surprise to learn it can move along at 100-120 km/h on multi-lane roads as well. The first hint that things are better than expected comes with the fact you can reach highway speeds easily. With less than 1,000 kg to move, the 94-horsepower, 1.3-litre, four-cylinder manages to push it along with some semblance of acceleration.

The second surprise is the CVT automatic. Instead of the dreadful, ear-assaulting drone common to cars with this type of transmission as the engine is held at very high rpms while the car catches up, Toyota engineers have equipped their CVT with well-defined shift points. Bury the right pedal and hold it there and, at about 5,500 rpm, the transmission shifts – at least twice. You’ll run out of patience, road and points before you see a third shift because, while quite sprightly, this little thing uses a calendar rather than a stopwatch to time its acceleration.

The iQ loves city streets. A very narrow engine allows the front wheels to turn more than normal, resulting in the tightest turning circles in the industry. But the biggest and most pleasant surprise is the driving experience at highway speeds.

Hats off the chassis and suspension engineers for making it possible to forget this car weighs so little and rides on a very short wheelbase. It leans and understeers when thrown into turns but driven sensibly handles remarkably well considering the ride quality. There is also no sense of being tossed around when passing or being passed by larger vehicles.

When it goes on sale in November, the iQ will be the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicle on the market. At $16,760, it will be $1,000 to $2,000 less than the competition despite a standard equipment list that includes: air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, heated mirrors and a six-speaker audio system with USB, Aux and iPod inputs and a CD player with MP3 and WMA capability.

The Scion iQ brings new life and lots of value to the micro subcompact class.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Scion iQ

Type: Micro subcompact

Base price: $16,760

Engine: 1.3-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 94 hp/89 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 5.5 city, 4.7 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Fiat 500, Smart fortwo

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