from auto observerJack Hollis, vice president of Toyota Motor Sales USA’s Scion small-car division, isn’t deluding himself about the challenges Scion faces in launching the all-new iQ minicar in the United States. Despite the low buy-in price (the one-specification iQ comes delivered for $15,995) almost 19 percent of Scion’s target young customers are unemployed, twice the national average. Then there's the microcar market itself: there basically isn’t one. The optimistic end of Scion’s projected sales range is 2,000 units per month. Hollis remains unfazed.
“I think it (the microcar market) will expand quickly,” he said at a recent media preview in Detroit for the iQ, which goes on sale on the West Coast soon and goes nationwide by next March. “There is a much more urbanistic focus,” in the nation, he insists, mentioning the concerted revitalization efforts of downtown areas in many major cities, attempts to roll back the decades of suburbanization that helped lead to larger, more-opulent commuting vehicles. Scion’s 10-foot-long iQ is the antithesis of the soccer-mom SUV in every way.
A further cause for concern might even be the iQ’s price. Although $16,000 isn’t much for a new car, there are cheaper ones – cheaper ones that are larger, more powerful and get better fuel economy (at least on paper). Nissan North America Inc.’s 2012 Versa starts at $10,990 before delivery, the Yaris subcompact from the Toyota mothership itself is $1,000 cheaper. Smart’s fortwo hatchback, probably the iQ’s most direct competitor, starts at just $12,490, although it’s strictly a 2-seater (the iQ theoretically accommodates as many as four occupants). Hollis says many may see the Chrysler Group LLC’s Fiat 500 as a direct rival. The 500 goes out the door for $5 more. Ford Motor Co.’s popular Fiesta, Chevrolet’s impressive new Sonic, Hyundai Motor America’s Accent and Kia Motors America’s Rio subcompacts also boast lower starting prices than the iQ.
'Own Little Space'
The iQ may not have to battle head-to-head with the U.S. market’s growing throng of subcompact cars, because sales for the iQ won’t come strictly from the rational shopping metrics, Hollis said. He hones in on the car’s fuel economy – a projected 36 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway for a 36-mpg combined rating. He said Toyota engineers are confident the iQ will offer the market’s highest combined fuel-economy rating of any 4-seat car. Meanwhile, he dismisses the need for such a small car to explain why it doesn’t hit the magic 40-mpg highway fuel-economy numbers of automotive marketers’ dreams – a number that presumably tops many eco-car buyers’ shopping lists. Hollis expressed disdain for today’s 40-mpg figures because they typically come only from special efficiency-optimized trim versions – and rarely ever achieve the number anyway, he adds.
Instead, Scion will be able to promote the iQ’s 36-mpg combined fuel economy as a realistic number, Hollis said, and Scion buyers or intenders will appreciate the distinction. He said youthful customers often are able and well-equipped to cut through the hype. “I absolutely think this gives us a very authentic message to talk about realistic fuel economy,” he told AutoObserver. “It’s all about combined mpg – that’s what I think is critical.” Nor does Hollis think the iQ has to compete directly with many of the new breed of sophisticated subcompact – and smaller – cars. “I think they all sit in their own little space,” he said. For now, “I don’t really think there’s head-to-head competition.”
Littleness As Virtue
Fiat’s 500 is perceived as one of the most compact 4-seat packages in the market, but the iQ is nearly 10 inches shorter and its wheelbase gives up nearly a foot to the 500; the front and back wheels seem separated by an incomprehensibly minimal distance. The advantages in cities are obvious, where an iQ can park in almost the same space as a motorcycle, tucked into places unimaginable for even a subcompact car. But it’s not until you attempt a U-turn on a city street – and complete the maneuver entirely within your lane, never crossing the center line – that the potential of such nimbleness becomes apparent. The iQ offsets its truncated length with a quite normal-car-like 66.1 inches of width (Fiat 500: 64.1). Front-seat occupants in no way feel pinched. And Hollis takes pleasure in seating his 6-feet, 2-inches in the rear seat behind a 6-footer in the front passenger seat to show off the iQ’s nifty offset seat placement that situates the front passenger seat slightly forward of the driver’s seat to allow a single rear passenger a few precious extra inches of legroom.
A 1.3-liter 4-cylinder moves the 2,127-pound iQ with respectable intent for just 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque. The standard continuously variable automatic transmission is a keen match, helping the engine to stay whirring in a useful speed range; there’s even a “sport” mode to liven response, although it seemed unnecessary. There are surprisingly few dead spots in the iQ’s acceleration and holding 80-mile-per-hour freeway cruising is no issue – but the car’s lack of cruise control would add fatigue to a long interstate trip. It’s only around 90 mph that the engine seems frazzled and everything gets a little too frantic. Although the chassis is nothing you’d want to take autocrossing, it's stable and composed at freeway speeds, and the electrically assisted power steering is responsively tuned without being too sensitive.
There are plenty of thoughtful engineering and feature touches that help justify the iQ’s price and underscore Toyota’s engineering commitment. One is its eleventh air bag, an industry-first rear-window bag. Noting the proximity of the rear-seat headrests to the hatch’s closed glass, the motivation for this extra bit of passive safety equipment is clear. The car also has a uniquely shallow and flat fuel tank that holds the 8.5-gallon capacity low in the chassis where it’s most protected and eats up less interior space. Another nice touch: the dome light near the top of the windshield is gimbaled to turn in any direction.
The iQ is Scion’s first all-new nameplate since the tC coupe was launched in 2004, so high expectations might be present. But the company admits it doesn’t know what to expect, given the burdensome statistics about young-persons’ employment rates and that fact that microcar sales, to date, have been meager. Thus the broad projected sales range for iQ. But Scion does expect the iQ to draw in youthful customers. After all, Hollis (above) said, Scion’s buyers remain the youngest in the industry. They also are the most ethnically diverse of any non-luxury brand.