Certainly not ordinary - the Toyota iQ

Any car named after a quality usually associated with humans is in for a hard time if it falls short of its claim. Open your well thumbed Oxford English Dictionary and there, in the entry for ‘irony’, is reference to the Mitsubishi Carisma. So, is Toyota’s diminutive iQ as clever as its tailgate badge would have us believe, or is it less smart than, well, a smart?

The iQ (not a typo by the way, just the way Toyota likes it) is part of a growing line-up of smaller offerings from the world’s largest car manufacturer, all serving different needs.

The familiar Yaris, now in its third iteration competes with the Fiestas and Corsas of the world, whereas the AYGO offers an inexpensive entry to Toyota motoring.

The iQ is a totally different proposition – firstly, it’s the shortest 4-seater car available on the market at a scarcely comprehendible 2.985m long. But lack of size doesn’t equate to a miniscule list price for the Japanese-built range – it’s marketed more as a premium offering. Is less truly more in this case?

Although it's a familiar sight, many seemed unsure as to exactly what the tiny Toyota was

iQ first went on sale in the UK back in January 2009, with the larger 1.33 petrol engine joining the range that summer. They’re not uncommon sights on the road now, yet many people who stopped me in the work car park weren’t sure what it was.

That said, the vast majority of those who saw, sat in or rode in it, got the whole concept of what Toyota was trying to achieve with the iQ – to produce a car with greater flexibility than the smart fortwo but still in an incredibly small package. Only my next door neighbour seemed to take exception to it – laughing out loud when he saw it.

Bright red paint usually suits small cars but I’m not totally sold on it in this application. The pearlescent white, black and aubergine hues that many appear in look more sophisticated and premium to my eyes. In Chilli Red, I felt like I’d pinched Noddy’s car, albeit remixed for the 21st Century.

Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, but in terms of the iQ’s styling, I’m just not feeling the love. It’s not a disaster by any stretch, and has some effective themes going on, but the overall look lacks a homogeny that would bestow it with a to-die-for cuteness.

Pert stance with its 16" wheels right at the extremes of the body

Its stance is diddy, in the Ken Dodd sense of the word, the bluff visage has various triangular themes going on, with an MPV-esque slanting nose continuing the pattern. The flat roof and sheer rear prolong the geometric pertness of the lines too, but the rear is also home to the least successful element of the designer’s pen – that S-shaped wiggle that forms the leading edge of the rear side windows, tail lights and joining seam for the back bumper. The softness of the curve, whilst cleverly linking the three body elements, jars against the straightness elsewhere. I’d have preferred to see a sharper zig-zag forming that line.

Triangular shapes and straight edges are easier to find at the front of the iQ

Three grades make up the line-up of the smallest Toyota: iQ and iQ2 are fitted with the 67bhp 1-litre 3-cylinder, while the flagship iQ3 models gain an extra cylinder and an increase in capacity up to 1.33-litres. All engines are petrol, with Toyota’s VVT-i system. Each model can also be specified with manual (5-speed on 1.0 and 6-speed on 1.33) or Multidrive CVT automatic transmissions.

Prices start at £10,445 for the iQ 1.0 VVT-i manual to £13,545 for the iQ3 1.33 VVT-i Multidrive tested here. 

Actually, that’s only part of the story, because for a whopping £32,115 you can buy essentially the same mechanical package, albeit with a luxuriously trimmed interior and modified front and rear panels as the Aston Martin Cygnet. Probably best leave that for those with more money than sense, though.

Inner Intelligence

Cramming four seats into such a small exterior is not quite TARDIS rivalling but would no doubt have had Sir Alec Issigonis marvelling at how much capacity had been liberated for passengers. However, whilst it’s good, it’s not perfect – almost every permutation is something of a compromise.

The reality is, although there are four seats, the one behind an average sized driver best be a child because legroom really is tight. The passenger side works better though because the dashboard is scalloped out on the nearside, allowing the seat to be slid right forward, permitting ample legroom for those in the front and back.

The iQ's glovebox, sorry, boot - with the rear seats up

With the very slender rear seatbacks in place, carrying capacity is a shockingly slender 32l, making it all but useless unless you’re prone to transporting sheets of lasagne as luggage. With the seat backs tipped forward (those tall rear head rests slide out and live in a well under the seat base), the boot’s a much more reasonable 238l, but then of course your iQ’s become a two-seater, negating almost all of its advantage over its smart rival.

More space - but now a strict 2-seater

The best compromise for most buyers will be to have the half of the seat behind the driver folded for a useable amount of shopping bag space and have three seats available.

An unusual mix of shapes, surfaces and colours to be found indoors

Interior flexibility aside, the styling and surface finishing mirrors the exterior treatment, with a mix of triangular themes and curves seemingly meandering out of nowhere. The dashboard is dominated by a glittery silver triangle atop a protruding central column housing the heating/ventilation controls and some minor switchgear. It adds boldness to the interior but the high gloss finish to the plastic reflects like a mirror if the sun hits it at an awkward angle.

More Blake's 7 than iQ3

The instruments are in a two-sectioned pod directly in front of the driver. The stereo and trip computer display are in a square recess to the left, with the speedo and tiny rev counter under a curved wave of the glittery plastic. With their amber back lighting and retro fonts, they give off an air of an eighties vision of the dashboard of the future. A simple, digital display in a triangular binnacle (why not?) would have been more appropriate. Cleverly, the stereo can only be controlled by means of a dexterous left thumb, scrolling a steering wheel mounted toggle. Its use becomes second nature very quickly, although control of the iPod when plugged in has to be done manually.

If the amber instrument glow and glittery silver plastic appliqués weren’t enough, that compact interior also has room for charcoal grey mouldings and seats (with pale grey spots on the seat base) and a weird plum or brown shade, depending on the light, to the remainder of the plastics. It’s a curious mix that by and large seems to work.

The front seats hug their occupants well and prove comfortable on longer journeys as well as the urban dashes the iQ was primarily designed for. They feature integrated head restraints reminiscent of racing seats – the driver’s one is six-way adjustable. From the driver’s seat, the iQ feels like a much larger car, as the cabin is wide and the windscreen base far away, similar to that of a people carrier. It’s only when you glance over your shoulder that you’re reminded how close the rear screen is.

Once you're in the back, there's not a lot to look at to take your mind off the lack of legroom behind the driver's seat

Releasing the passenger seat to enter the rear seats sees the seatback tip forward and the base slide forward on its runners, making climbing aboard convenient enough. Less convenient is the lack of memory function for the position of the passenger seat, meaning it has to be manually relocated each time it’s used.

The rear seat itself is comfortable for shorter journeys at least, although vision is restricted by those high seatbacks and thick pillars aft of the doors. Those small side windows allow in a surprising amount of light, despite their privacy tinting. Egression from the rear quarters is not a dignified affair – one needs to be blessed like Houdini to save face on exit.

That feeling of being in a conventionally-sized car evaporates when you look around at this

The iQ3 is a well equipped small car, but at that sticker price it should be. MP3 compatible radio/CD player, 16” alloy wheels, chrome finished electrically-folding door mirrors, keyless entry and start, power steering and digital climate control grab the brochure headlines.

And it’s a safe place to travel too with no less than nine airbags, including one to protect the heads of rear passengers, in its compact shell and a full 5-star Euro NCAP safety rating – the first car to do so under the more stringent regulations.

Clever on the Road?

The iQ’s remarkably small chassis rides on a wheelbase just 2m in length, suspended by independent MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam rear axle, as is the fashion for most smaller cars these days. What’s more unusual, especially for a car of this size, are those huge 16” wheels.

The iQ's short but doesn't quite fit sideways in a parking bay

I’m minded of a quoted conversation with Mini guru Issigonis, where he illustrated how perfect his creation looked on 10” wheels compared to the larger wheels of contemporary late fifties cars. I’m not suggesting the iQ needs wheels that small, but the tiny Toyota could look less cartoony with say 13-14” alloys in its arches.

The link to the Mini doesn’t end there either for the iQ possesses a character which reminds the driver of its older, British forebear. Handling is definitely in the point and squirt category, providing sharp turn in to bends with the ability to put a smile on your face. The steering ultimately lacks the depth of feel to become truly engaged and will understeer with squealing front tyres if pushed too hard, but nevertheless, it’s enjoyable. The rear end, aided by the short wheelbase, quickly follows the front end around too, providing neat and tidy progress.

Toyota’s engineers have worked wonders ensuring the iQ has supreme manoeuvrability in urban environs. It’s shortness makes it a doddle to park, without beeping or visual aids mind you, while the turning circle itself is so tight it makes taxi drivers envious. Although it doesn’t quite turn on the proverbial sixpence, it will happily do a complete 360° turn in a road without clipping kerb. I have to confess, the first time I did this, so impressed was I that I accompanied the feat with an audible “wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”.

The iQ reveals the secret of its tight turning circle

Bump absorption over ruts and potholes errs on the firmer side of being well damped but in itself is not uncomfortable. It rides with equal aplomb in town, on back roads and on smoother dual-carriageways and motorways. In no situation does it feel out of its depth either. What does make it feel uncomposed is where the road surface has a series of undulations – these induce a bounce in the iQ’s chassis, which also reminds me of childhood trips in old Minis. Whether you find this endearing or annoying will largely depend upon what the roads are like you mostly drive on. I find it makes me smile if it’s short-lived and eye-rollingly tedious if it continues too long.

One aspect of the set-up that did surprise me was the engine refinement. Below 3000rpm, the 1.33 4-cylinder unit was smooth and quiet if a little pedestrian, but above that rev range and a coarse tune begins to be played. This may be exacerbated by the pairing to the CVT box which effectively has only one gear. Under harder acceleration from standstill it’s more noticeable, but once up to speed and the revs drop again, calmness returns to the cabin. I suspect that managing six ratios manually would provide a more satisfying and less harsh accompaniment.

The 1.33 VVT-i 4-cylinder engine. Most of it covered by the dashboard, not the bonnet

Performance is nevertheless sprightly, with a 106mph top speed, where laws and conditions permit as they say, and a 0-60 sprint of 11.6 seconds. It feels faster in the way small cars often do and on paper the automatic version is slightly speedier than the manual.

Verdict

The iQ is one of those cars that solves a problem nobody had but somehow creates an appeal all of its own in the process. It offers greater flexibility than the smart fortwo with those rear seats but decisions will have to be made before most journeys as to whether the primary requirement for the back of the cabin is to carry people or stuff.

For a similar price range, Fiat’s 500 offers a more useable rear seat and boot, looks cute (if retro) and is not exactly out of its depth in the city.

But that’s the thing – the iQ doesn’t really have a direct rival. For potential buyers it’s a perfect two-seater runabout with a decent boot, but which can also be used to take an extra a passenger, or two, as and when the need arises. And for many, that’s the clincher, because it’s still very, very small. The Fiat 500 is some 60cm longer.

Customers will also enjoy Toyota’s comprehensive 5 year warranty as well as solid build quality utilising tough plastics. What they might not enjoy so much, is the price of the 1.33 versions, despite its performance advantage.

If you’re considering one, spend some time with the 1-litre first. It’s not as fast but offers significantly better economy. And the iQ2 isn’t shabby on the equipment quota either. Plump for the automatic if yours will spend most of its time in town and the manual if you go further afield.

The diminutive Toyota iQ - four seats and can still get into tiny spaces

So, is it clever? Yes, but like most clever creations, it has its flaws, or idiosyncrasies, depending upon your perspective. But it does outsmart the smart.

Thumbs Up: Concept, build quality, character, manoeuvrability

Thumbs Down: Price, engine coarseness at higher revs, bouncy ride

Quick Facts

Model Tested: Toyota iQ3 1.33 VVT-i Multidrive

Top Speed: 106mph

0-60: 11.6sec

Average fuel consumption: 54.3mpg

CO2 emissions: 120g/km

Engine size: 4/1329cc fuel injection petrol

Power: 97bhp

Torque: 92lb/ft

Price: £13,545 (June 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011

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