2012 Scion iQ

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The car of the future – or the future of the car – is here a few years ahead of schedule. 

In the form of the 2012 Scion iQ.

It’s just 10 feet long (for some sense of scale, a Toyota Camry sedan is almost six feet longer, end to end) and seats two realistically – four contortedly. But, it averages better than 35 MPG – almost exactly what the federal government has decreed all cars shall average (35.5 MPG) by model year 2016, just three short years from now.

There are almost no new cars that can do that.

Soon, they’ll have to.

Or else.

The iQ’s showing them how.


Really small.

In fact, there’s only one new car that’s smaller – the (not so) Smart car, and that just barely. But the Smart is out of its depth as other than a close-quarters city car; it’s basically an enclosed motorcycle, only less useful – and much uglier. The iQ, meanwhile, is a real car. Or at least, a real-word usable car. It can venture on the highway – something the Smart has trouble with. And it has more-than-you’d-expect room for cargo as well as an at-least-theoretrical (vs. nonexistent in the Smart car) back-seat.

Base price for the iQ hardtop coupe is $15,265 – vs. $12,490 for the base model (not so) Smart car.

The only other size-similar and price-equivalent competition is the $15,500 (to start) Fiat 500 coupe. The Mini Cooper coupe is another possibility, size-wise – but its base price of $19,500 is considerably higher than all these models.


The iQ itself is not new – Toyota has been selling this model in Europe for a couple of years. (A dressed-up version sells as the Aston Martin Cygnet – believe it or not.)

But as the US comes to resemble Europe more and more – from crippling gas prices to crippling gas guzzler regulations – it seems the time is ripe for a Euro-style, American market micro car.


Almost mid-sized car room up front. Really. No, I’m serious.

Highway plausible.

Meets – exceeds – the 2016 35.5 average MPG mandate.

Comes standard with all the necessaries – including AC – and then some (including Bluetooth and leather trim).


Clown car countenance.

Clown car back seats.

A little iffy on the highway.

Automatic (CVT) only.


Lift the envelope-sized hood and you’ll discover one of the smallest four cylinder engines that’s not also a motorcycle engine. But though the iQ’s 1.3 liter engine is tiny, it’s not a weakling – for its size. It manages 94 hp – enough to get the iQ to 60 in about 11.5 seconds. This is easily 2-3 seconds quicker than the (not so) Smart car, which requires well over 14 seconds to get to 60.

It’s also slightly quicker than the standard-issue Fiat 500, which gets there in about 12.5 seconds.

The iQ’s performance would probably be much better – and the iQ a lot more enjoyable to drive – if Scion let you have this engine with a manual transmission. Unfortunately, the standard – and only – transmission is a continuously variable (CVT) automatic.

Gas mileage, though, is where the iQ really performs. This car registers 36 MPG in city driving – better than almost every new car’s highway mileage.

It also delivers 37 MPG on the highway – and so averages better than 35 MPG in combined driving. This is exceptional economy. Only a hybrid can beat it – and the least expensive hybrid – the Toyota Prius C – starts out about $5k more.

And of course, the Prius C won’t fit in your pocket.

The (not so) Smart car is a miser, too. With an EPA-rated 34 city, 38 highway, it also makes the 2016 CAFE cut. However, the (not so) Smart is not really highway-usable, except for brief hops (more on this below). And of course, it’s only a two-seater – so far less practical than the iQ, which at least has rear seats. Those seats may not be people-usable, but that’s another story.

The Fiat’s a stronger challenger. Its 30 MPG city is significantly lower than the iQ’s 36, but its highway rating of 38 MPG is slightly better than the iQ’s. Plus, of the three cars, it’s the one that’s more viable for people who need a car that’s more than just a city car.

More on this below, too.


The iQ is not underpowered.

Even 75-80 MPH is no problem – in terms of the engine’s ability to get you there – and hold it there. The top speed is around 100 MPH – so it’s certainly got guts enough for most purposes.

It also – literally – turns on a dime. And is incredibly easy to maneuver into – and out of – tight spaces. It makes the Mini seem oafish in this respect.

But, there are a few caveats.

First, there’s a fairly high level of drivetrain noise – not so much from the engine, but from the continuously variable (CVT) automatic. As you accelerate, it revs the little engine to the upper reaches of its powerband around 4,000-5,000 RPM – and holds it there – until you back off the gas pedal. This is the nature of CVTs, but when combined with probably not much insulation (adds weight and so was likely kept minimal) and a hardworking little engine/transaxle that’s just inches away from your lap, it does make for a pretty rackety ride.

Once you’ve reached steady-state cruise speed and back off the throttle, the racket does die down. But the iQ is definitely more noisy than the typical car.

A manual transmission would help here – and also make the car more fun to drive.

The second issue is a function of the iQ’s extremely short wheelbase (just 78.7 inches) relatively low curb weight (2,127 lbs.) and fairly tall/box profile. These lead to Interesting Times at speeds much above 70 in a straight line – and on anything less than a perfectly smooth, flat and very straight road.

It gets darty – shifting to the left and right – when driven at higher speeds. Wind buffeting can push the car around suddenly. A dip in the road, or swerving to avoid something – like the body of a dead deer in the road – can easily unsettle the car.

Driving the iQ on the highway requires full time and attention – and both hands firmly on the wheel.

But, it’s doable.

In the (not so) Smart car, it’s not. With even less engine (1.0 liters, 70 hp) and even less wheelbase (73.5 inches) and an even taller profile, it’s really not suitable for use on US highways for more than very short hops.  It can be done, of course, but the car struggles to maintain 70 – because its top speed, all out, is only about 90. And with five inches less wheelbase, it is a job just to keep the thing in a straight line at 60 – much less today’s routine highway speeds of 70-plus. Uneven roads and the slipstream of passing cars (let alone big rigs) easily destabilize the not-so-Smart car.

The Fiat 500 is superior to both the iQ and the Smart when it comes to highway driving. Though still a micro-car, its 90.6 inches of wheelbase seems limo-like compared with either the iQ or the Smart – and imparts highway/high speed stability those cars can’t match.

But the Fiat can’t match the Scion’s superb fuel efficiency, especially its 36 MPG city rating. This is 6 MPG better than the 500’s 30 MPG rating.

The 34 MPG city Smart can – well, almost. And it does beat the iQ (but not the 500) on the highway, with a solid 38 MPG posting. But again, it’s not really drivable on the highway – so the number’s largely irrelevant.


This is a really, really small car.

Not quite 10 feet (120.1 inches) bumper to bumper. To give you a sense of scale, a typical compact-sized sedan like the Toyota Corolla is 180 inches – or 15 feet long. Park the micro-Scion next to something like my father-in-law’s Lincoln Town Car and the iQ’s front bumper barely makes it to the Town Car’s B pillar, by the leading edge of the front door.

Even the Mini Cooper seems not so mini next to the iQ. It’s more than two feet longer, overall: 146.6 inches vs. the Scion’s 120.1 inches.

Ditto the Fiat 500 – which at 139.6 inches overall is more than a foot-and-half longer, end to end, than the pocket-sized iQ.

The only thing smaller – that’s still on four wheels – is the Smart car. At 106.1 inches overall, it is just under nine feet long.

But, there’s a surprise waiting inside. The iQ has as much – or more – front seat room than a number of mid-sized cars. Check these specs:

The iQ’s got almost 41 inches (40.9, to be precise) inches of legroom up front. The Toyota Camry has 41.6 inches of legroom. A new BMW 35 series sedan – an almost full-sized luxury-sport sedan, with a base price of $46k and which stretches 193.1 inches stem to stern (a bit more than 16 feet, so six feet longer than the iQ) has a mere 41.4 inches of legroom up front.

The iQ also has 37.7 inches of headroom, which leaves ample clearance for even very tall drivers. It’s an amazing feat of space-usage. Once you’re inside, you feel as though you’re in a much larger car.

To be fair, the same’s true of competitors like the Fiat 500 and Smart car, though – which have 40.7 and 41.6 inches (respectively) of front seat legroom. The Mini Cooper’s nice up front, too – with 41.4 inches of legroom.

Of course, the back seats are passenger-useless in all these cars – those that even have them, that is. However, if they do have back seats, as the iQ does, these can be folded down to expand the available real estate for cargo. So configured, the iQ has 16.7 cubic feet of space – damn good for a mini-me car. The mid-sized Toyota Camry’s only got a 15.7 cubic foot trunk, for some perspective on this.

And the Smart car – which has no back seats – has just 7.8 cubes of cargo space. So, it can’t carry much in the way of passengers – or cargo. The iQ can at least carry some stuff – even if it’s not set up to realistically carry more than two people.

The Fiat 500 beats them all, though. With its second row folded, there’s an incredible 30.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity available. This is an amazing six cubic feet more cargo capacity than the former small-big leader, the Mini Cooper – which only has 24 cubic feet of space with its second row down.

Of course, size isn’t everything.

The Fiat and the Mini are almost universally acclaimed as cute little things. And the iQ? It kind of grows on you, too – but for a different reason. Its unpretentiousness – its dedication to function over form – has an appeal that you appreciate more the more time you spend with it. For instance, the proportionately enormous doors – which are as big (or bigger) than the doors typically found on much larger cars. These add to the feeling of spaciousness – and also make excellent use of the available space.

Other sensible shoes touches include the three large rotary knobs on the center stack that control the AC, fan speed and outlet selection and the large, legible – and easy to use LCD touchsceen interface that sits on top.

Finish is also superior. For instance, the underside of the hood, rear liftgate and door jambs are clear-coated and shiny, not dull and ugly. (The $70,000 Jaguar XF I had last week did was not clear-coated in these areas; the finish under the hood and trunk lid was therefore dull – and cheap looking.)

The tall profile also means tall glass – and excellent all-around visibility. Note the wrap-around rear quarter glass that expands your field of vision when backing up or looking to either side.


Scion is not marketing this car as a cheapie – even though it is very affordably priced. There’s just one trim – and no factory options. The as-it-sits iQ comes standard with AC, power windows and locks, a very nice stereo (with Bluetooth), even a leather-wrapped sporty steering wheel. Such features – some of them, at least – are extra-cost in competitor models like the Smart, which doesn’t come standard with AC.

There are also many dealer-available add-ons, including performance suspension parts (stiffer springs and swaybars) as well as body/trim pieces to customize the car’s appearance.

To deal with safety concerns – legitimate buyer concerns about being accordionized by a Tahoe – the iQ comes with no less than 11 air bags, including front seat cushion air bags and an air bag around the rear seat headrests. Still, to quote Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, in a match-up between an iQ and a 6,000 lb. SUV… you will lose.

What I’d really like to see is a $13k (or thereabouts) version of this car. Give it wing vent windows, maybe – and make the AC optional. At $2k less than the Fiat 500 – and $6k less than a Mini – it’d kill.

Heck, I’d be tempted.


It’s more viable as a car than the (not so) Smart car – and more fuel-efficient (and better equipped for less money) than the price-comparable version of the Fiat 500.

It’s also a kind of car we’re going to be seeing a lot more of as 2016 – and the government’s 35.5 MPG fuel economy mandate – loom ever larger in the rearview.

So, get ready. The future car’s here.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. The ‘Smart Car’ is a bust. The EV model should give it some credible worth?

    The ‘IQ’ is a Grinner however.

    I spend a lot of time in Grants Pass, Oregon helping my very senior parents. A while back I went down to the local Toyo/Scion dealer to see if they had managed to corral a ‘FRS’, naught, but they did have a few ‘IQ’s’ and a very old rancher type fellow was loading one into his horse trailer. I gave him a hand and found out it was to be a college graduation present for his great grand daughter. Turns out the old Gent was 94′, still driving and riding the range, and personally owned a 944 Turbo ‘S’, and a 370Z, man I hope my deck is stacked like that.

    • Me too!

      And, yes, the iQ is serviceable. It’s still too heavy (like all new cars) and so not nearly as fuel efficient as it could be. But it’s still a viable little runabout. The up-front room is excellent and though the back seats are a sick joke, they do give the car vastly more potential cargo capacity than the Smart.

  2. Hi Eric –
    I have a few (polite) quibbles:
    1. In the article, you say, “The iQ also has 37.7 inches of headroom, which leaves ample clearance for even very tall drivers.” At 6’3″, my personal requirement for ample headroom is 40″ or so. I sat in an iQ last weekend, and my head made ample contact with the headliner…so much so that I couldn’t sit up straight. There’s just no way the IQ could accommodate my admittedly lanky frame.
    2. In your response to Alex’s comment regarding formerly-compact-but-now-midsized-trucks, you suggest that “(I)f you want 4WD, you have to buy the gas-pig (and much tougher to service) V-6.” I sat in a new Tacoma 4WD truck this past weekend, at the same dealer that sold the aforementioned iQ. The little Toyota stickered at $25K, and was equipped with a 5 speed manual transmission and a four cylinder engine. So, it would seem that the 4 banger/4WD combo is still available, at least with one brand.

    • Hi James,

      You must be really lanky!

      I’m about 6ft 3 and the iQ fit me comfortably…. how tall are you?

      And: Did you adjust the seat to its lowest setting? Just asking… . sometimes, people forget to do that.

      On the Tacoma: Yup, you’re right. You can get 4WD with the 4 cylinder. I just wish it were compact-sized!

      • Betcha there will be a new generation of compact pickups from several builders, within three model years or so. For the same reason they are marketing cars like the iQ….better CAFE numbers.

        Such a truck with a 6 foot bed, extended cab, and diesel engine would be a great combo of truck utility and good economy. They probably would sell really well.

      • Eric –
        I am indeed exactly 75″ tall. My fitted shirt sleeve length is 35/36; my inseam is similar. Concerning the interior dimensions of any vehicle, I do need a bit of space to fit comfortably.
        I did not adjust the iQ’s driver seat to its lowest setting (if additional adjustment was available as I sat in the car). I was unaware that a vehicle at this price point would have such a feature. I had plenty of legroom, to be sure.
        The first thing I’d probably do, as a new iQ owner, would be to remove the token rear seats so as to maximize my cargo carrying capacity (such as it is in this little car).

        • Hi James,


          If you’re looking for a small – but viable – car, you might take a look at the Kia Soul. That’s a car with plenty of headroom – and usable rear seats, too.

  3. I sat in one at the local auto show a month or so ago. What I noticed was a distinct lack of front crumple-zone (balanced by knee air-bags), and no cruise-control (which, you probably wouldn’t ever use in a car like this anyway). No sun-roof either – there just isn’t enough roof to allow for one to retract.

    The overall shape of it is that of a square – it’s a smidgen longer than it is wide. 🙂

    Chip H.

  4. Har, har, har… This car is so ugly it’s cute, like a slobbery bulldog.

    It seems like a useful city car and it will probably develop a minor cult following, like the old Honda CRX.

    What I’d really like to see are the small trucks of the early-mid 90s. Those small pickups were great for campers, travelers, fishermen/hunters – why the hell should I have to buy an expensive, powerful, 14 ft long, obese, F-150 with lousy mileage just to enjoy some carrying capacity. If Jeep ever builds the Gladiator, it should sell like pancakes.

    • Alex,

      Amen to that.

      I have two of the no-longer made compact-sized trucks. Luckily, they’re both in very good shape and one has low miles, so I’ll be ok for at least the next 5-8 years or so.

      The Ford Ranger – old model, now retired and gone – was the last compact-sized truck you could buy new in the US. All the former compacts – Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma – are now mid-sized. They’re bigger than I need – and if you want 4WD, you have to buy the gas-pig (and much tougher to service) V-6.

      I think the way to go is to buy an older compact truck for $7k or so and fix whatever needs fixing as opposed to spending probably at least $20k (and probably closer to $25k) to get into a 4WD/V-6 mid-sized new truck…

  5. Jeez Eric. I don’t know why you have such a problem with the performance and driving of a Smart. Are DOT Spec. Smarts that much different than European Spec. vehicles? Besides, you’re only allowed Walking Speeds in the US anyway; so what if the Smart can’t exceed these by much. Last Autumn, from Guadalajara to Manzanillo, according to my GPS, I was able to hold my Wife’s Smart on the Autopista at the governed 145Km/h going and about 140 returning. It took a bit to get there but running up to 120 (ca. 75MPH) was no problem. On B Roads, if I kept the car in a lower gear, I could pass the same as most other drivers. Granted, I couldn’t keep up with the faster cars but these guys were traveling at speeds which one doesn’t see in the States anyway.
    The Smart we purchased came with wider front and rear tires than is used in the US and I have increased the front and rear tracks by 20mm and installed Bilstein Coilovers. I can’t attest to the stock suspension but stability has never been an issue. The transmission sucks and I often wonder why Mercedes didn’t fit a motorcycle gearbox. It is the one reason I would never buy another Smart but, aside that, the car works fine for us. We like the ease of parking, the fuel economy (not that great but better than most cars available in the Americas) and the space it leaves in the garage for our bicycles.
    In Germany, there are a lot of Smarts and many of them are driven on the Autobahn. Since the driving courtesy and skills of the average German are vastly superior to, at least, 95% of North Americans, maybe if you were to drive a Smart here, you wouldn’t have the problems you mentioned. With Super+ at $7,70/Gallon U.S. and parking at such a premium, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel they were quite as dumb as you do now.
    The Toyota IQ has been offered in Gemany for a couple of years but I can’t recall ever seeing one on the street. Maybe buyers feel the cheaper Aygo makes more sense. If anyone does want an IQ though, he can have it with a 1 Liter Motor and 5 Speed or the 1,3 with a 6 Speed. Too bad your Rulers don’t allow you to make the same choices which the residents of freer Countries are allowed.

    • IIRC, the smart offered in Europe are more capable of highway speeds than the model offered in the US.

      For me the smart is too small. Perhaps if I lived in NYC or another metro area the smart would be more useful to me.

    • Hi Doug,

      I think part of the reason – as you’ve pointed out – is that the US-spec. Smart is the (really) low performance version; we don’t get the higher-performance versions available in the Euro market.

      I agree that as a city-urban car, a Smart can be a viable choice – no issues there. However, the way the US (most of it) is laid out, mixed-use driving is almost unavoidable. And that means dealing with highway traffic running 70-plus, which the US Smart car is just not set up to deal with. You can do it, of course. Just as I could ride my little KL250 on the highway. But in both cases, it’d be a hairy experience!

  6. Nice review.

    Seems like a good small commuter car or car that will primarily be used to carry 1-2 people.

    It is good to hear that it can travel at 70mph without difficulty.

    It would be worth a test drive, but a Ford Fiesta or Kia Soul might be a more useful car for similar price. (Although it may not be equally equipped)

    On a personal note, I really prefer a manual even if I lose 1-2 mpg on average.

  7. For such a short thing, its really not bad looking. For much of the driving that many people do, this is all the car they need. And driving it doesn’t seem like it would be all that obnoxious an experience. Looks like Scion/Toyota executed this mission pretty well.

    For someone though, who does about 50% freeway driving, and 50% in relatively wide open suburbs with abundant, large parking spaces, I don’t expect to see an iQ in my garage until gas hits about $7.00 per gallon.

    Final thought, if/when gas does get that expensive, driving one of these would be a lot more appealing than being forced into mass transit.

    • Yeah, I agree.

      I was ready to hate all over it – but ended up liking it. The one thing I’d like to see is a lower MSRP. At its current price point – though well-equipped – it’s still too close to something like the Fiat 500 (which to me is a neater ride). But if they sold the iQ for about $12k or so, it’d be extremely appealing – particularly if gas does go up to $7 per gallon.

    • The only thing is that I drive a larger car and with more hp and never get down to that 35.5 average. I always do better than that unless I am on a 75 mph interstate. I am sure if I did a lot of town driving this car would do better than mine but the driving that I do, I think I could beat this car with what I have. It is all about buying the right kind of car for your driving.Clover

    • I’ve driven the (not so) Smart Car Nd the Fiat 500. Amounts the block they were almost identically horrible in handling and uncomfortable feeling in the turn. I would never buy either but the Mini is fun, quick and agile and a lot of fun to drive as well as handling great at 70mph. If it didn’t require the Premium at $.25 more/gallon, in addition to the up front cost, it would be very appealing. I own a 2002 Mustang and LOVE it despite <20mpg but it does hurt at the pump.

      • Having driven all of them, my opinion is the Smart and iQ are not cars the average person should even consider unless they’re going to use them as city cars exclusively. It’s not that they can’t achieve highway speeds – they can. It’s that at speeds much above 50 they can be hard to control – for the average person. Americans – typically – are not used to driving cars that aren’t very easy to drive: very stable, very predictable. These two aren’t – at higher speeds. They get very darty and are easily unsettled by too much (or too fast) steering inputs – such as turning the wheel sharply to avoid a deer in the road. A skilled driver can handle one of them – but the fact is many, probably most, American drivers are not very skilled – thanks to decades of dumbing down and zero expectation of real skill behind the wheel.

        The 500 is much, much better – very much like the Mini, in fact. Though small, both of them are still within the “safe envelope” for most drivers.


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