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Editors' note: CNET tested a preproduction version of the 2012 Scion iQ. Some details of the car's operation and electronics may change for production.
At a press event for the 2012 Scion iQ, Scion Vice President Jack Hollis compared the car to the Fiat 500. Both are small cars, microsubcompact being one term, priced well under $20,000. Both use small engines to achieve fuel economy in the mid-30s.
But where Fiat went retro, Scion goes sci-fi. The 2012 iQ's wheels and headlights seem too big for its body. The wraparound rear window belongs on a concept car. The windshield overwhelms the front, and the car is very stubby. It looks like a toy, like you should be able to drive it from an app on your phone.
Despite its small size, the iQ packs some surprising utility. At a glance, you would assume this 10-foot-long car is, like a Smart, a two-seater. But it actually has a rear seat. Scion calls it 3+1 seating, as the left rear seat, behind the driver, only gets leg space if the driver is very short.
People can fit in the driver, passenger, and right rear passenger seat with relative ease, but the left rear is better left for cargo or a child seat. The car also has a rear hatch, but there is no cargo room unless you put at least one of the rear seats down. To give a feeling of more interior space, Toyota built in more passenger width than in a Corolla.
The huge advantage of this very short car is in parking. Drive in any major city, and you will be amazed at the number of curb spaces in which the iQ fits. The turning radius is also phenomenal. On a typical San Francisco two-way street, the iQ could easily pull a U-turn.
Scion's strategy of using customized aftermarket head units for its cars stalled in the last few years. This strategy should have let Scion update its cabin electronics every couple of years, keeping on the cutting edge of automotive technology. But instead the head units got old and did not see replacement, until now.
The iQ is the first Scion model to sport the new line of cabin electronics, with head units from Pioneer that are a vast improvement over the previous generation of technology. The car CNET tested came with the midlevel head unit, which should prove a popular choice, as it offers a full-size screen on which to view a connected iPod library, along with Pandora integration.
The Pandora interface worked very well, with easy access to the station list. Touch-screen controls let you give a song the thumbs-down or thumbs-up. The system only works with Pandora on an iPhone, which has to be plugged into the car's USB port. Of course, the iPhone's own music library also becomes available through the car interface. Other audio sources include Bluetooth streaming, HD Radio, and satellite radio.
This head unit also builds in a full-featured Bluetooth phone system, with its own screen for accessing the dial pad and a paired phone's contact list. But Scion does not allow you to access the contact list or even a music library when the car is in motion. And there is no voice command for the phone system, either, something commonly found in other cars.
The six-speaker audio system is not particularly good, producing muddled sound worse than even a set of iPod headphones. Anyone who enjoys music will want to immediately replace the speakers and amp, and add a subwoofer.
The iQ can also be had with its base stereo, which lacks Pandora integration and the large screen, or a navigation system, similar to what Scion currently offers. The navigation system does not include Pandora integration, further making the midlevel head unit attractive.
Given such a small car, you would expect a small engine. The iQ doesn't disappoint with its 1.3-liter four-cylinder under the hood, a tiny little mill using variable valve timing to eke out 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the only option, the iQ gets a surprising amount of push. In city driving, it never felt anemic when stepping off the line, and had the oomph to dodge and dart through traffic.
The engine makes an ugly grinding noise as it moves the little iQ along, something owners may either tire of or get used to. While this engine offers enough torque for most city driving, it loses steam quickly when pushed up to higher speeds or climbing hills. And the driving quality suffers, especially under acceleration, from the power delivery of the CVT, which doesn't always feel in sync with the engine.
The ride quality is surprisingly decent, given the short wheelbase. The iQ gets jounced around by bumps, but there is a good amount of damping at the wheels. That short wheelbase also contributes to handling, by giving the iQ quick turn-in. But this is not a car to drive on the autocross circuit. It feels tippy under stress and the wheels seem ready to lose grip.
Scion addresses the safety concerns one might have about such a small metal cage by fitting the iQ with 11 airbags, standard. It even comes with a rear-window airbag, effectively encasing the occupants in a beach ball in the event of a crash. To help avoid accidents, the iQ comes standard with traction and stability control on its front-disc and rear-drum brakes.
EPA fuel economy for the iQ comes in at 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway, with an average rating of 37 mpg. That average is actually the highest of any nonhybrid car. Although that number sounds excellent, our iQ settled in at around 26 mpg in city driving.
That low number is due to the intense urban traffic of San Francisco, where covering a few miles can take half an hour, with stoplights at every block. With a good portion of our driving spent in this environment, average fuel economy came in at only 28.1 mpg.
The 2012 Scion iQ's best attribute is its design. With a total length of just over 10 feet, Scion packed in room for three passengers with cargo space left over. The car has a unique look that serves as an antidote to the retro design of the Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper.
Cabin electronics are an excellent improvement on what Scion has been offering for years. The midlevel Pioneer head unit neatly combines a good Bluetooth phone system and many audio sources. The sound quality from the six-speaker system could use improvement.
The engine itself is not particularly advanced, but it deserves credit for moving the iQ adequately with so little displacement. The CVT serves as an advanced bit of technology in the car, although it is rough around the edges.
|Model||2012 Scion iQ|
|Power train||1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||36 mpg city/37 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.1 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora integration, Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||200-watt 6-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$15,995|