Scion iQ — Parking lot wizard

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We pulled into an empty narrow two-lane dead-end city street in Palm Beach not long ago. We had decided to test Toyota's claim of an incredibly small 12.9-foot turning radius. A bit dizzy after our self-induced amusement-park-like ride spinning between the curbs, we were quick to affirm that the little iQ has the ability to negotiate the tightest of parking predicaments with some success.

The downside to this unique maneuverability is the urge to do sudden U-turns that are impossible in any other car. On the upside, passing gas stations can be a very profitable hobby in the iQ, which is rated at 36 mpg city and 37 highway. In fact, we wondered why the small car didn't do even better based on its diminutive curb weight of 2,127 pounds.

The iQ is touted by Toyota as the smallest four-passenger vehicle in North America, and in reality can actually carry three people without too many contortions. A passenger behind the driver by necessity must be under age 6, and small for their age.

The styling of the iQ is different, to say the least. It has a wraparound rear door glass that blends into the quarter-panels and very wide doors that allow fairly easy ingress and egress. And when you climb in you’ll find an interior that is anything but Spartan. It's rather upscale, and the feel behind the wheel is surprisingly more like a Corolla than a car measuring just 10 feet in length.

The steering wheel has a flat bottom so it doesn’t hang down low enough to impose on those with thicker thighs. The HVAC center stack is set farther forward, thus allowing a lengthening of the front seat separation from the rear seat. Little tricks like that pay off in user space and the iQ has a bunch of them.

For example, a full-sized adult behind the front-seat passenger is made possible because the driver and front-passenger seats are slightly offset allowing the front passenger to scoot closer to the dashboard.

The vehicle’s instrument panel has a circular speedometer that embraces a stylized rectangle tachometer.

The list of standard features is impressive in a vehicle with a starting price of $15,995 including destination charge. For example, there’s standard air conditioning, driver and front passenger one-touch auto up/down power windows, tilt leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel with audio controls, ECO driving indicator, Bluetooth connectivity, radiant orange instrument panel illumination and a host of other comfort and noise-reducing features.

Optional is a 200-watt maximum output Pioneer Premium audio system that’s enhanced with a 5.8-inch LCD touch-screen display, iTunes tagging, Pandora, internet radio connected through iPhone and six RCA outputs to add external amplifiers.

If this isn’t enough for you there’s a Scion Navigation audio system. It has all the attributes of the 200-watt system but adds a navigation system and DVD player that are accessible through an intuitive 7-inch touch-screen. It contains comprehensive U.S. and Canada map coverage plus guidance to millions of points of interest.

While the iQ has numerous qualities, traveling great distances on highways and interstates is not one of them. Extended highway travel comes at a price. The small 1.3-liter 94-horsepower 4-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission works hard to gain highway speed. Once there the driver must keep his foot into it to maintain the pace. Scion estimates 0-to-60 at 11.8 seconds, a glacial speed in our modern world.

Perhaps the biggest annoyance is wind buffeting, which requires constant course corrections. And when a couple of big rigs pass — and you will be passed by what seems like REALLY BIG rigs — having a firm grip on the steering wheel is recommended.

Also annoying is the elevated sound of the little engine working hard without gears to gain speed, and the slightly elevated road and wind noise. It means the radio needs to be cranked and conversations need to be short and loud.

Riding in a miniature car puts safety features front and center. And Scion has covered those bases. The iQ contains a wealth of safety including 11 airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake distribution, traction control, brake assist, vehicle stability control, smart stop technology and other features one would not expect to find in a vehicle in this segment.

We think the iQ makes an astounding "running around" car, a second or even third car. And if an emergency arises, the iQ can be confidently used for that suddenly necessary round trip. No need to worry about recharging. No need to worry about using an excessive amount of high-priced gas. And when the need for maintenance arises, there's a Toyota dealership nearby no matter what part of the country you live.

Base price, $15,995; as driven, $17,737
Engine: 1.3-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 94 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 89 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 78.7 inches
Length: 120.1 inches
Curb weight: 2,127 pounds
Turning radius: 12.9 feet
Luggage capacity: 3.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 16.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 8.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 37 highway, 36 city
0-60: 11.8 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Fiat 500

The good
• Outstanding maneuverability
• Excellent gas mileage
• Well-appointed interior

The bad
• Basically a two-person vehicle

The ugly
• Lack-luster performance