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car review

Interior of a Scion iQ.

The 2012 Scion iQ, a car the company dubs "the world's smallest four-seater," is the shape of many things to come from the auto industry.

The iQ does, indeed, have four seats, yet it can (almost) turn on a dime, boasting the world's tiniest turning radius (3.9 metres). Small, yes, but safe, too: the iQ has 11 standard air bags, including the world's first rear-window curtain airbag, and a host of other high-tech safety devices. Naturally, being smaller than a telephone booth, the iQ has best-in-class fuel efficiency, says Scion.

Larry Hutchinson, Scion's director for Canada, calls the car "convention busting" and in this case it's not mere hype. But you'll find plenty of convention busting new models at this year's Canadian International Auto Show in at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

So take a long look at that Scion and its ilk. As car companies scramble to deliver fuel-sipping vehicles that address consumer fears about $2/litre gas while also meeting ever-tougher government fuel economy regulations, the race to make small cars big – on the inside – is on.

The iQ is just one of many current or coming models designed for space – interior space. Walk the floor to Ford's all-new C-Max minivan, for instance. Ford calls it a "clever compact family vehicle" with a smallish footprint, sliding side doors and a hybrid power train. The C-Max has three rows of seats, but is barely longer than a compact Ford Focus.

Mazda, though, beat Ford to the punch. Mazda has already introduced a new version of its compact, gasoline-powered van called the Mazda5 and it has three rows of seats and the fuel economy of a grocery getter. Other car companies have been aggressively chasing big ideas in small cars for some time, now, too.

Toyota, for instance, just introduced the Prius V, a longer, wagon-like version of the regular Prius hatchback. The Prius V is only slightly longer than the normal Prius, but has the kind of added cargo space that will put a grin on the face of a hockey dad or a taxi driver, both of whom needs room to carry big bags of stuff. At this year's Toronto show you will also see the coming Prius C compact, an even smaller take on a gasoline-electric hybrid that will sell in the low-$20,000s.

The genius of the Prius C and so many other what you might call "big-on-the-inside" small cars is … well, it's a bunch of things. Toyota has managed to package two separate drive trains – gasoline and electric – in a subcompact city car or "B-car" the size of a Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta and Kia Rio to name three.

Every car company, from Toyota to Ford to Mini right across the board, is learning with the help of suppliers to master the art of making small big. One way they're doing so by trimming under-hood components, which in turn extends cabin space forward.

Examples? The iQ has a more compact air conditioning system and a smaller front-mounted differential. The engineers elevated the steering rack to add forward legroom, too.

To open space rearwards, the engineers created a flat fuel tank that runs along the iQ's floor pan, rather than position it in the rear in the traditional way. Clever, but this approach does not add any real cost to the $16,760 iQ, with its 1.3-litre four-cylinder (94 horsepower) that sips gas 5.1 litres/100 km (city highway combined) and delivers ultra-clean Tier 2 Bin 5 emissions.

The iQ is one of this new generation of small-is-big cars that come well equipped, too: power adjustable exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals; leather wrapped steering wheel, power door locks with keyless entry; power windows with auto up/down function; multi-information display; a six-speaker audio system with standard USB and auxiliary audio input jacks, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, plus a choice of audio head units for audiophiles.

Designers, engineers and suppliers are also working to create thinner seats using denser foam and to create rooflines with arches like the new Mini Coupe's. That shape of roof creates headroom for tall people. Walk around the auto show and you'll also see vehicle after vehicle powered by a variety of takes on smaller engines with power-boosting technologies such as Ford's EcoBoost. EcoBoost, says Ford, delivers six-cylinder power from a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with direct fuel injections.

Almost all the new vehicles you'll see have their wheels pushed to the edges, front and rear, thus creating more cabin space inside. There, you'll find smaller controls for all the electronic features now nearly standard on even the cheapest and smallest of cars.

Kia Motors design chief says Peter Schreyer says this idea that small is the new big requires designers, engineers, product planners and consumers to think differently – to break out of boxy, traditional thinking.

"Designers work hard to create something that is not just another sedan or another SUV (sport-utility vehicle)," he says. "But marketing people and journalists want to know what to compare it to." Throw out old thinking and old labels, says Schreyer, and free your thinking. You'll discover that your assumptions about small being "too small" end up being, "Oh, it's bigger than I thought."

This is how the car business will survive and thrive in a world where streets are growing evermore congested, pump prices are destined to be forever on the rise and government regulators in Canada demand that the fleet-wide fuel economy of every manufacturer's fleet average no more than 6.67 litres/100 km.

Thus, minicars like the iQ are the new subcompacts, compact is the new mid-size and mid-size is the new large in the mainstream marketplace – all with any real sacrifice in cabin space, feature and performance, both in terms of fuel economy and 0-100 km/hour times.

Here's a look at where designers, engineers and product planners are headed as they re-think and reinvent small-car interiors:

Seats: Small car seats can't be any less comfortable and inviting and even stylish than the thickly-padded seats of bigger cars. This means buyers can look for denser foams in slim-profile seats with frames made of sturdy but lightweight and thin materials such high-strength steel or perhaps even magnesium.

Controls: The time of the knob-free controls cluster is rapidly approaching. The day is coming when voice controls are primary way we manage navigation, sounds and hearing and air conditioning systems, as well as other in-car infotainment devices. GM's new CUE – for Cadillac User Experience – has a touch screen with just four buttons.

Sound: Audio suppliers are studying ways to take the speakers out of doors and, in the case of Johnson Controls, make the entire roof a speaker with the use of electronic advances.

Heating and air conditions: One way to free up a lot of cabin space is to eliminate all the ducting that carries warm and cool air into the cabin. Various companies are working on in-roof and in-floor systems to bring hot and cold air into the cabin, thus freeing up tremendous amounts of dashboard space.

Data storage: Another way to save dashboard space is to use so-called "cloud" data storing that eliminates the need for large data storage space in a vehicle.