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First drive: Toyota’s intelligent iQ

Urbane urbanite: The Toyota iQ city car is all about the packaging.

GoAuto drives the slick city slicker that Toyota should consider for Australia

7 Jul 2009


TOYOTA’S iQ, the world’s smallest four-seater car, boldly goes where nobody could have envisaged in the dull old days of the Corona and Crown Super Saloon.

The iQ is the most original model the brand has created, even if this car’s inspiration has been on sale for more than a decade.

Furthermore, in one fell swoop, the tiniest Toyota sidesteps the pitfalls of the Smart Fortwo.

While the Smart, even in hugely improved second-generation 451 guise, ultimately lives and dies by its unique design, engineering and execution – two seats, jerky automated manual, unyielding ride, pitiful boot and high pricing – the iQ exploits its smallness by coming up with new solutions in a most fabulously Japanese way.

Conversely, more than 1000 kilometres of big-city and open motorway driving, combined with actual Smart ownership experience has revealed to us a true Toyota through and through … and that means for good and bad.

Surprisingly, Toyota’s take on this new ‘A-segment’ city car under consideration for Australia reeks of a ‘glass-half-full’ attitude compared to the ‘glass-half-empty’ feel of the Smart. Or, in other words, the iQ revels in its smallness while the Fortwo falters because of it.

8 center imageJust look at the Toyota’s major stats: sub-three-metre length by 1.68-meter width, 1.5-metre height and a two-metre wheelbase with wheels in each corner for a box-like stance seating for three adults and a halfling three-cylinder engine, six-step continuously variable transmission 360-degree protection from nine airbags for a five-star ENCAP safety rating, 4.7L/100km economy and 110g/km of CO2 emissions, aided by an unbelievable 0.299Cd drag co-efficiency rating.

Somehow this box slips through the air as wet soap slides from one’s grasp.

Yet the 400mm longer, somewhat skinnier Smart trumps the iQ for character and offbeat charm. And, incredibly, it is the latter’s blinding efficiencies that will dissuade some potential buyers seeking something different, non-conformist and anti-mainstream.

And this is a crucial point as Toyota is banking on most iQ buyers to be T-brand virgins.

However, for Australia, we reckon that this car’s Toyota-ness is just the ticket because it feels more like a shrunken Yaris than the jumped-up dodgem car the Smart can be.

Amusingly, the press kit calls this the “J Factor design which combines Japanese authenticity with engineering ingenuity (making it a) quintessential Toyota.” Apparently, the iQ’s outer shell was inspired by marine life-like seashells and fish (we’ve heard this before, for the 1991 Honda EG Civic). But the Echo/Yaris design imprint is firmly infused in here.

Toyota says mathematical formulae were employed to help create the iQ’s precise proportions. Virtually no overhangs plus 15-inch wheels and cartoonish face, like a real-life Transformer.

Yet the Smart clearly served as the Toyota’s stylistic template.

Inside, more ocean-going styling themes abound but, like Honda’s seminal 2002 Jazz, it is a rethink of the interior’s physical packaging, and some revolutionary miniaturisation processes, that truly set the airy and spacious-feeling iQ apart from its rival.

Open the door and you might exclaim: “Honey, Toyota shrunk the air-conditioner and heater back units!” since the dash is pushed right back against the front bulkhead – particularly for the front passenger – to allow a 193cm person to sit behind two equally endowed people, creating an intriguing 3+1 seating arrangement.

Brilliant! Why hasn’t anybody else ever put this sort of thing in production before? A detachable satchel-style ‘glove box’ swings down beneath the air bagged upper section to liberate even more room for knees, though it is a fiddly thing to refasten, and really only suitable for collectors of old 45 vinyl.

Other space-saving solutions include side-by-side placement of gear lever and hand brake, thinner door skins and skinny seats, as well as things you cannot see, such as a front-mounted differential (which sits ahead of the engine, saving 120mm), repositioned steering gear and an underfloor fuel tank that frees up room for the rear suspension and lowers the iQ’s centre of gravity to make it feel less tippy toed than you-know-what.

Some of these lessons will be applied to the next-generation models across the range, Toyota promises. We think perhaps Smart might be doing the same too.

The attractive, pleasingly squeak-free dashboard itself is finished in a sea of pumice stone-style grain (“techno-organic” in Toyota-speak) matching a host of other agreeable textured plastics, set in monochromatic shades of brown (“Chocolate Plum”) to give it an eye-catching designer look. We totally dig it.

You are also likely to appreciate the ease and simplicity of using everything inside here. It’s merely a matter of jumping in, belting up and turning a key (or pushing a button in our up-spec iQ2 – for squared – example).

Directly in front of the driver is a simple and clear analogue speedo and tiny tachometer ensconced beneath the shell-shaped binnacle. Beside that is a comprehensive trip meter and odometer displays, as well as a hopelessly vague digital fuel gauge, where the ‘Full’ light seems to stay on until only a few millilitres of petrol remains, after which time the fuel lights extinguish to flashing empty with the speed of a freefalling elevator light.

And while the chunky and tilt-adjustable-only flat-bottomed steering wheel looks cool and is good to grip, the left spoke houses audio controls operated via a tiny and unsubstantial toggle switch and CD/aux/radio band mode button. Neither feels intuitive.

So why didn’t Toyota position the sound system on the manta ray-inspired triangular centre console? Because the fan blower lives back there instead of in the front passenger footwell as in most other cars, that’s why. In our version it operates the perfectly adequate climate control air-con/heater via a natty three-mode turn dial for the fan, flow direction and temperature setting. In contrast to that flimsy audio toggle, this one works a treat.

Toyota provides sufficient storage in the doors, a sole console cupholder, and a shallow concealment tray, but there isn’t anywhere to hide bulkier bits and pieces from prying eyes, although the thick B-pillar (which provides the iQ’s only serious blind spot that is at its most awful when changing lanes at high speed) does obscure stuff left on the back seat.

More interior illumination wouldn’t go astray either.

But the driving position is first class, despite the lack of reach-adjustment for the steering wheel.

On the other hand, while the front seats look fine, they are flat and provide precious little longer-journey support, so a numb-bum is an iQ way of life. There is no height-adjustment either. A return memory for when you slide the passenger’s pew forward to let people out the back (via a surprisingly large aperture) would also be appreciated.

Why Toyota did not flush-fit the ludicrously tall rear headrests is anybody’s guess as they serve to curtail vision if left in situ, but the rear bench is reasonably accommodating for shorter journeys, if a bit of a stretch for folk of more than about 175cm. Maybe the headrests keep the world-first rear-window airbag from thumping your noggin forward during deployment.

For the vast majority of times when two or less people are in the car, the rear backrest splits and folds down flat on to the cushion to bring a welcome increase in luggage space from a computer-bag-crushing 38 litres to a workable 238L, although you would never fit a large suitcase or bicycle behind the front seats. Toyota fitted an innovatively flat fuel tank to aid cabin-space maximisation.

That fat B-pillar makes the rear quarters feel a little too hemmed in for some, but the iQ’s sizeable width advantage over the Smart means claustrophobia is no issue, while it helps keep this dinky little Toyota secure on the road.

The moment you set off on any journey you will notice how normal the iQ feels to drive. If you are familiar with a Yaris then you may marvel at how little road noise permeates the cabin, although our car had mats fitted throughout while all models employ a triple-layered windscreen.

So here you are, enclosed in a reasonably quiet baby car that feels like any other smaller Toyota, until you turn the wheel. Typical Toyota lightness and response ensues, complete with feel-free feedback from the muted steering, but you are more likely to be astounded by a turning circle that is tighter than Lady Gaga’s miniskirt. A full 360-degree U-turn is possible on any suburban two-way street.

Under that bijou bonnet is Daihatsu’s brilliant little single-litre in-line triple-cylinder petrol engine, and it has never sounded quieter or smoother than in this application.

We have loved this unit ever since a variation of it debuted in the late and lamented Daihatsu Sirion back in ‘98, and it proved more than able driving the front wheels of the tiny Toyota.

For the iQ it develops 50kW of power and 91Nm of torque, and features VVT-i variable valve timing to help plump out the performance in the lower rev ranges – or so the theory goes.

Married to the optional Multidrive CVT – a five-speed manual is also available for less in Europe – step-off acceleration in this sub-900kg runabout is ultra smooth but somewhat leisurely in city conditions, although it then builds up sufficiently for the iQ to keep up with most other vehicles.

Only on the open road, when attempting to join oncoming fast-moving traffic, does the 1.0L CVT combination seem slow. And on the go, there is sufficient power for sprightly overtaking manoeuvres (providing the road is fairly flat). We averaged around 150km/h for a number of hours no sweat.

It is also very, very economical. We managed around 6.5L/100km without trying to be parsimonious, and often with the air-con quietly whirring away and with a passenger on board.

As with most light cars, road noise intrusion varies markedly according to road surface, and at 110km/h on a section of coarse chip-like bitumen the iQ’s tyre roar went quadraphonic. Yet for the most part this is a remarkably refined cruiser, feeling rock-solid on the road even through torrential summer rain and in gusty winds.

Under the all-new platform is a fairly conventional, though thoroughly optimised, drivetrain comprised of MacPherson strut front suspension, a torsion beam out back, and a powered rack and pinion steering system.

Slow, winding roads reveal an eagerness to change direction, but the iQ begins to feel less agile the more you up the speed ante, leaning and lurching about. Even slight traction loss results in the very intrusive stability and traction control systems cutting what meagre power you might have at your disposal. Blame the ultra-low resistance economy tyres on our UK-spec specimen.

The anti-lock brakes, too, would whirr into action even under mild braking instances, but the anchors do have a large-car feel and stability when stomping on them at high speed.

How you judge the Toyota’s ride may depend on whether you are familiar with the Smart’s. Compared to the latter, the former is a magic carpet ride, with ample absorption capabilities over most urban surfaces and a loping, effortless gate when cruising along an open road.

But for most people, they will find it a little busy and choppy, while bigger speed bumps feel enormous and betray the iQ’s short wheelbase, requiring the driver to awkwardly traverse them as if going up a steep mound to avoid a crashing thud.

In every important area except for long-distance seat support and quirky character, the iQ builds on the Smart Fortwo’s appealing formula and avoids its pitfalls by being far more accessible and mainstream – and not just because of the rear seats.

Singles and retirees alike will appreciate this car’s city-focussed zippiness and frugality, while the Toyota can stretch to being an occasional three and even four-seater commuter if the driver is shorter than about 160cm and there are no luggage requirements.

The iQ is the perfect second car then.

And, as with the Smart, there is the esoteric appeal of a classless urban commuter that can also be employed as an alternative to a scooter, annual rail pass or bicycle.

However, though beautifully built and exquisitely engineered, we doubt the iQ is as strong as the Fort Knox Fortwo that features the shark-cage like Tridion safety cell to prevent cabin deformation as no other vehicle can. We wonder how crushproof the Toyota is if it ends up sandwiched between two larger vehicles. Rear-window airbags aren’t much of a substitute.

But as a low-emission high economy alternative to the upper-end of the light-car spectrum, the iQ would make a welcome and enjoyable alternative.

So, c’mon Toyota, wake up and bring this marvellous motorised midget into Australia now.

If a minnow like Aston Martin can see the potential in the iQ – by coming up with its own version of it – then so should a giant like you.

Read more:

Toyota Oz bids for iQ

Aston ‘iQ’ the ultimate accessory

First look: Toyota thinks petite at Paris

Geneva show: Toyota eyes iQ, Urban Cruiser

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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