Scion, the idiosyncratic offshoot of Toyota, is planning on making a go of doing something that the Smart car tried to do and failed: convince Americans to buy a really small automobile. Scion has studied where Smart stumbled and they believe that they've perfected the basic formula required to create something uniquely suited to driving in a city.
“The people we sell to, don't want to see themselves coming and going,” said Justin Cornett, Regional Vehicle Supply and Allocation Manager, Toyota Motor Sales, up from Portland, in Seattle to show two 2012 Scion iQ coupes. “They want the Scion name and what goes with it. We find that when they trade their Scion in, it's usually for another Scion. If their needs change – they start a family – they get a Toyota.”
It's that sense of owner loyalty, along with more amenities and room, that has Cornett figuring Scion has gotten the formula right, where Smart left certain things undone.
The Scion iQ is about 10 feet long, about a foot longer than the Smart car. It stands about 4.9 feet tall. Scion says it's the world's smallest four-seat automobile. It accomplishes that because the driver and front passenger seats are slightly offset. Cornett makes a point to enlist two associates who are a bit taller than six feet as demonstrators. One gets in the back and the other gets in the passenger seat. Opening the rear hatch window, it's evident that the one in back indeed still has a bit of headroom.
Unlike the Smart, which uses a Mitisubishi-sourced three cylinder engine positioned in the rear, the iQ has a front engine with front-wheel drive. That feat was accomplished by the engineers, without impinging on interior space by utilizing a compact, front-mounted differential, a high-mount steering rack with electronic power-steering, and a compact “stacked” air-conditioning unit. Additionally, those features allow significant decreases in front-end length.
The exterior design, with its stout headlights and unusual proportions are reminiscent of the most successful small car to sell in the States: the venerable, original Volkswagen Beetle. Sitting inside the cabin, you see that it's wide and gives one a sense of space not associated with a mini-car, especially the one that the Scion iQ was designed to emulate; yet improve upon its template.
The Smart car, which began life as a design concept from the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in California, was a response to that state's zero emission mandate; as much as it was designed to help Mercedes-Benz with corporate average fuel economy mandates, in Europe and America. It had a rocky gestation period, as a Mercedes A-class car, flipping during a test done by Swedish journalists. That test was designed to emulate avoiding a moose. It halted deliveries, back in 1997, until changes were made to the suspension.
In the last decade, production finally went ahead for America with distribution established by the Penske Automotive Group. In 2008, as gasoline hit four dollars a gallon, the dealer network established by Penske, sold 24,622 cars; however, sales fell dramatically in the following years. In 2010, sales had fallen to just 5,927 cars – a 59 percent drop.
While the entire automotive industry saw sales drop, the Smart car had its own issues. One of them was the fact that even though its small size indicated high fuel economy, the reality was something else. Car and Driver magazine's Steve Spence reported, during a stint evaluating one, “Our test vehicle got a disappointing 32 mpg overall, not the 50 to 60 mpg it looks like it should deliver; and the tiny engine requires pricey 91 octane fuel.”
The Scion iQ not only runs on regular gasoline, but achieves a EPA certified combined fuel economy figure of 37 mpg. It also is derived by using a 94 horsepower, 1.3 litre four cylinder engine, compared to the Mitsubishi built, 70 horsepower, 61 cubic-inch three cylinder engine in the Smart car.
But it's the overall size of the iQ which Justin Cornett sees as its unique selling point.
“This car is designed for an urban environment, where parking is at a premium,” he said.
The estimated MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) for the Scion iQ is $15,265; with delivery and handing fees adding another $730 to the sticker. That price includes 11 airbags – one being the industry's first rear-window airbag – and anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control.
Toyota also seems to understand the Scion's demographics. The standard 160 watt Pioneer audio system includes Bluetooth connectivity and hands-free telephone connectivity; but an option allows 200 watt maximum output audio with Pandora ® internet radio to be connected through an iPhone ®.
Due to the earthquake resultant tsunami which hit Japan earlier this year, production has been hampered, and so too, the roll-out. Toyota hopes to have enough vehicles for its Scion dealers in the West Coast states, by October. It's uncertain as to how soon those in the Southeast and Gulf coast states will get the iQ.
Scion is also hoping to start selling a fifth vehicle, a sports car called the FR-S, with a Subaru flat-4 cylinder engine and rear drive platform, next spring. When asked if it might mean a Scion factory in America, Cornett explained, “Only in the United States is the Scion marketed as anything but a Toyota. Low volume and the shared platform with the FR-S for the fifth car, means that it's unlikely that there'd be a factory built here.”
-- Terry Parkhurst _____________________________________________________________________________