I recently spotted a wild Scion iQ. It was a moment so exciting that I diverted from my route just to try to get a picture. The iQ is a brilliant little car, but there are so few of them out there.
Back in the aughts, some automakers were locked in a battle to produce the best, and also tiniest cars. Toyota came swinging with the iQ, the world’s smallest four-seat car. It’s had clever engineering that remains impressive today, and in the US, it was a failure.
The story of the Toyota iQ and its Scion badge-mate begins in 2003, only a few years after the Smart Fortwo and Mini Cooper hit the streets. Its design goals were somewhat similar to those of the Fortwo, with Toyota’s engineers tasked with fitting all of the qualities a real car into something only slightly larger than a go kart, notes Toyota UK Magazine. And unlike the Smart, the iQ would seat four.
Fitting a whole car into a tiny space is a challenge. Smart did it by eliminating a chunk of what would normally be a car’s trunk and filling the space with a miniscule engine. But that design decision meant only two seats.
Engineers gave the iQ a flat fuel tank below the floor, seats so thin they looked like they came out of a transit bus and minimized the size of every part they could. The iQ even came with the first production rear curtain airbag.
And best yet, it launched right when people were still trying to save money at the pump.
The folks at Fifth Gear detailed the absurd lengths that Toyota went to get this thing into the metal:
Now, dear readers, you know how much I love the Smart Fortwo. After all, I own four of them. So it’s going to surprise you to read what I’m about to say.
The iQ drives better than a second-generation Fortwo.
I got to drive the iQ when it hit the streets in the U.S. in 2011 and honestly, it made my 2012 Fortwo feel like a tractor.
Where my Fortwo’s hard front suspension would break your teeth on Chicago potholes, the iQ felt like a normal car. Where my Fortwo’s clunky transmission polarized drivers, the iQ’s CVT is smooth. And where my Fortwo’s 70 HP 1.0-liter inline three requires 91 octane or better, the iQ’s 94 HP 1.3-liter inline four is fueled with regular.
The iQ’s handling is even sharper than a stock second-generation Fortwo.
My only real complaint about the iQ is that the fourth seat is pretty useless at being a seat for adults. I still prefer the go kart feel and striking looks of my Smart, but the iQ does just about everything better.
I expected — just like Fifth Gear did — for the iQ to take off in sales. But it didn’t. Positive reviews and being good on paper didn’t translate to great sales in the U.S. or Europe. In 2012, Scion sold 8,879 iQs in the U.S. where Smart moved 9,264 Fortwos.
A problem was the iQ’s $16,000 price. While the Fortwo was the cheapest way to get under the Mercedes-Benz umbrella, the iQ had a larger sibling that cost less money.
A 2012 Toyota Yaris had a base price of around $14,000 and its fuel economy figures weren’t much worse than the iQ. It was a similar story in Europe, where the larger Toyota Aygo was cheaper.
Toyota axed the iQ in 2015, ending its experiment to build a better city car. Even if it didn’t sell, the iQ is a brilliant little car. It’s as if Toyota saw what Smart did and decided that they could do even more.
Nowadays an iQ can be had for cheap. So if you’re looking for a tiny runabout and a Smart isn’t for you, give the iQ a chance, it might hit the spot.