I felt like I was having things a bit too easy Will It Baby-wise recently — a car with an extra door just for kid-loading, a huge, spacious truck — so this time when I picked a car to try I decided to really make it tough. So, with that in mind, I set out to try and find the absolute smallest car I could cram a toddler, myself, and my wife in without turning ourselves into a thick, viscous paste.
The winner of that search was the Scion iQ, at about 120" long. That's a good 19" shorter than a Fiat 500, and just over a foot longer than a Smart ForTwo, which has no back seat. It's by far the smallest four (we'll get to that later) seater out there, so it's perfect for my possibly masochistic purposes.
So, it's tiny. Really tiny. Like a Miata dwarfs it in length tiny. In the vivid orangey-red color one I got, it looked sort of like driving a colossal tomato. And, though I hate to spoil it for those of you who read these with tense, breathless anticipation, it most certainly would baby.
Actually, I should qualify that. It will toddler very well, and for babies from, say 10 months and up, it'll baby just fine— remarkably well, even. But newborns and other young, more external-fetus-aged babies, it's a different story, because of how much equipment they demand.
I don't have pictures of our strollers in the car this time because, aside from either just using the tiny and almost useless umbrella stroller or installing some black-hole-powered singularity that stores big strollers in a wormhole-linked storage facility in Jupiter's orbit, there's no way in hell you're getting a full-sized stroller in there.
That said, the use of space in this car is really, really good. It's by far the best thing about the car, and it's a genuine achievement. The key is to work with both the restrictions of the car and the novel solutions the design affords. For example, despite what Scion says, screw that "four-seater" crap. Sure, in a pinch, it could, but nobody's going to be that happy with four full-grown sweaty adults in there. Think of it as a two adults and a kid car, and then it makes a metric crapload of sense.
With the baby seat in place, the amount of legroom in the front passenger's seat is not bad at all— certainly better than in, say, the FR-S. The staggered dashboard design is a big help here, even if it means you give up your glove box for a funny little glove drawer under the seat. It's worth it, and besides, you could fill the drawer with sand and make a great little pull-out sandbox or zen garden for your kid. No, that's a terrible idea. Don't do that.
Behind the driver, the smart thing to do is fold down the other half of the seat, which transforms the hilariously shallow trunk into a very usable cargo platform area. With the seat totally up, you could carry, oh maybe a laptop bag if it wasn't too bulky and a small sheet cake, placed vertically. With the seat half down, we were able to carry about two week's worth of groceries in there.
Another big plus of the iQ that my wife discovered was that this was the first car she's been in where she could put Otto in his seat while she was already in the driver's seat. Easily, too. That's very handy in the cold or rain, where both mom and tot can get in the warm, dry car, and do all the complicated buckling and shoving rubbery little limbs through baby seat straps in comfort. It's a handy perk.
So, where the interior defies the smallness to make a surprisingly usable space, the exterior, Tardis-like, stays steadfastly small, and that's great. The car, while not exactly thrilling to drive, is very nimble. For a modern car packed full of airbags (seriously, there's ones at your head, knees, sides, the whole rear window— in a wreck the insides of these things must look like a couple of Michelin Men were going at it in there) it only weighs 2127 lbs, and the tiny wheelbase combined with a relatively wide track and wheels right at the corners make it amusing to toss around.
Streets that normally require a three-point turn can be handled in a graceful arc. Gaps in slow traffic that you'd normally never consider are now options, as are parking spaces that would normally have to be dismissed. Driving in city traffic is absolutely a different and better experience in a really small car. It's just easier.
Of course, the real achilles' heel of the iQ are the oily bits that actually make the driving part possible. 93 HP on a car this scale should be fine. But, the engine/CVT auto combo just sort of suck. There's no pickup, the engine is loud and actively whiny. You can almost hear it actually complaining in drawn-out syllables as you step on the gas: AWWWWWWCOOOOOMMMEEEOOOOONLEEEEETTTTSSSJUUUUUUSSSSSTPAAAARRRK. It's irritating.
I kept wanting an actual manual transmission. I drove a Chevy Spark with about six fewer horsies, and it felt much, much peppier, thanks to its transmission with its well-chosen ratios. The CVT on the iQ has a "Sport" mode, but from what I could tell all it does is keep the "ECO" light from turning on.
Plus, if you're going to be stuck with a slushbox, it should at least hold you on hills. And this one doesn't. This is a big deal, since I can see this car selling well in hilly cities like San Francisco, and if your auto box doesn't keep you from rolling back on a hill like a manual, then what the hell is it good for?
Another hill-related issue: Loading the toddler is actually pretty easy, thanks to a single lever that springs the passenger seat back forward and unlocks it so you can slide it up and out of the way. But on a hill, that unlocked seat just wants to slam into your ass as you're trying to load or unload 25 pounds of milk-fed little kook. On my inclined driveway, it was always a pain. This is the sort of annoyance you'd think would be caught in the testing stage.
Back to the shifter, and specifically, the stupid shift gate. This I really don't understand. What's the point of the Mississippi-like meander of the shift gate on this auto box? It was always a pain to get it in R instead of N, and every time I shifted I wondered why a nice, straight slot wouldn't have worked here. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
So that's the big drawbacks. Incredibly, though, despite all this, I genuinely enjoyed this car. Hell, my wife, Sally loved the damn thing. She said it was her favorite, even. Now, to clarify, that's not her favorite to drive (FR-S) or be in (Panamera), but from an overall usability standpoint, she had the easiest, most hassle-free experience in the iQ.
I'll admit, I'm a bit stunned by this. But, at the same time, I get it. If you live in the city and have a toddler, this is a surprisingly easy car to use. If you're just thinking about the least hassle of getting your kid and the basic stuff to and from parks and friends houses and restaurants and libraries, this little tomato is a terrific tool.
Oh, and you can fill up the tank for $25. Sure, it's an 8.5 gallon tank, but the car gets an honest 29-34 in real city driving and 35+ on the highway. Not quite as much as you'd hope, but still the best of anything I've tested so far.
Quite often on Jalopnik we'll deride cars for being appliances, souless machines that just get you from one place to another. The iQ likely fits in this category, but I'd never really thought about the concept of a really clever and well-done appliance car. Sure, it may be an appliance, but it's an appliance that knows it's job and does that job very well. I even think it manages it with a bit of charm. I respect it.
The iQ really does a surprisingly capable job of being a baby carrier. One thing I would like to see is some sort of factory-option roof cargo pod to make a real stroller at least a viable option. As it stands, that's the biggest baby-related drawback of the car, and I think an optional roof pod would finish the job and make the car look truly bizarre and be genuinely useful as well. It'd look like a hat.
Now I really want to try the Aston-Martin Cygnet version of this thing.