Back in 1997, I test drove a Toyota Prius Hybrid. The car didn't go on sale in the U.S. until 2001, surely one of the slowest launches ever. Now there are 1.8 million Priuses on the road worldwide, 814,000 of them in the U.S.
That slothlike launch could be topped by that of the subcompact Toyota iQ. Due to reach the U.S. in March as a Scion, Hiroki Nakajima's concept dates from 2007 with road tests as far back as January 2008 in Italy. It's been on sale in Europe for about 18 months. There's even a superfancy, $30,000 Aston Martin version in England — the Cygnet — and a supercharged model was just tested in Japan.
But the iQ is virtually unknown in the U.S., so I borrowed a 2009 in England a few weeks ago. I drove it 750 miles in city and highway conditions.
It may be short at 117.5 inches long — less than 10 feet — but it avoids the European microcar approach: cramming four people into 75 percent of the space they'd expect. The iQ allows as much space for two people as they might find in the front seats of a Toyota Corolla.
The 2011 Corolla is 66.9 inches wide, the iQ is 66.1. The Corolla is 58.5 inches high, the iQ 59.1. The iQ does have a rear seat but it's suitable for two children or one adult sitting sideways. When the rear seat is folded down, there's 10-12 cubic feet of storage, which can be covered with a stretch panel.
The obvious comparison would be the Smart Fortwo, which carries only two passengers and is 106 inches long, 51 inches wide and 55 inches high. It weighs 1,810 pounds, while the iQ weighs 1,930. However if you're thinking city maneuverability, the Smart turning circle is a whopping 28.6 feet while the iQ can turn in 12.8 feet.
The test car was powered by the 1.3-liter, 97-horsepower, variable-valve timing, 4-cylinder gasoline engine likely to come to the U.S. There's also a 1-liter, 68-hp, 3-cylinder in Europe and a 1.3-liter, 90-hp turbodiesel 4-cylinder. The test car had a very slick 6-speed manual transmission, though a continuously variable automatic is optional. It does 0-60 in 11 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 106 mph. Our car returned 49.8 mpg (five-quart "imperial" gallons) in city and highway driving, which is about 40 mpg U.S. The turbodiesel manages about 60 mpg U.S.
At first sight, the iQ has no hood or trunk. The offset differential and high-mounted steering rack give the car a snub nose; the transverse-mounted engine sits forward and is relatively accessible. The rear shape is defined by the wheels and hatch. The curved side windows do make it easy to see what's going on when you back up, and one of the nine air bags is a curtain that drops down in case of a rear accident.
Fun gadgets include power folding mirrors, electronically adjustable headlight height and an auto stop/start in the 6-speed model, which switches off the engine when you're stuck in traffic. You start it by depressing the clutch. The test car also had traction control and a dome light that can be swiveled and focused.
On the highway, the iQ is surprisingly quiet. Despite its short wheelbase, the iQ was unaffected by 35-mph cross-winds at highway speeds, even among semi-trucks.
Toyota spokesman Michael Dobrin says Scion is hoping to sell 20,000-25,000 iQs a year in 2011 and 2012, with the base price not yet established, but estimated at around $17,000. Despite Toyota announcing a hybrid Yaris for Europe, there are no hybrid plans for the iQ.
Edmunds Insideline.com editor Ed Hellwig doesn't think Americans will sacrifice so much space unless gas prices hit $4 again — and cities and states offer incentives such as half-price parking and use of car pool lanes without a passenger. "The U.S. doesn't have a lack of space or high gas prices and people always buy the biggest cars they can afford," he said.
Hellwig believes the iQ can succeed if it's priced right. "I'd think close to mid-teens, say $15,000, would have to be the opening price. The Scion xA is slightly bigger and the iQ can't cost more than that. You'd have a lot of trouble convincing buyers without compelling mileage."
Peter DeLorenzo, who runs the Auto Extremist Web magazine, thinks the economic landscape will have to change for the iQ to be accepted.
"I happen to have a great deal of respect for the iQ. The car oozes The Future in its design," he said. "it is exceptionally roomy, which skews nicely to American tastes, and it is not clown car-like in the least like Daimler's Smart.
"If Americans are truly going to embrace the concept of the urban microcar, then the diminutive Toyota will be the car to do it," DeLorenzo said. "But as long as gas stays around $3 a gallon, the notion that American consumers will flock to the microcar concept is pure fantasy."