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SMART THINKING


Toyota's iQ offers something quite new in the citycar sector. Jonathan Crouch drives it

Ten Second Review

Less than three metres long but packed with intriguing design features, the Toyota iQ is an unashamedly upmarket citycar that's the size of the smallest urban runabout, has the performance of a supermini and the cabin quality of a family hatchback. Designed to seat three adults and one child, the interior finish and exterior detailing are several notches above the citycar norm - as is the price. Still, for those smart enough to seek a tiny car that's anything but tiny in its outlook, it could be just right.

Background

Just as Toyota's Lexus luxury division takes conventional designs, adds a dash of hi-tech and repositions them up-market as cars you might aspire to, so the company's iQ citycar offers urban dwellers a cleverer product they can feel better about owning. You can see why people being forced to downsize might grab an opportunity to do so without sacrificing comfort and style. This is the world's biggest car maker really showing what it can do.

Driving Experience

Many citycars are much better at longer distances these days but they're still most at home in urban surroundings. As is the iQ of course. Yet this is also a car that's more comfortable than any town tot we've driven when it comes to stretching its legs. At higher speeds on windy motorways, you don't get blown around like a leaf in a gale and the cabin's refined enough to enable you to converse in normal tones right up to the legal speed limit. Many superminis can't even manage that.

The ride's generally pretty good, though it does crash a little through major road faults. At higher speeds though, you feel like you're in a larger car, especially around corners where the Toyota feels flat and stable. Refinement depends a little upon the engine you choose, the 1.0-litre petrol unit we tried offering up the slightly louder but not unpleasant thrum typical of three cylinder powerplants. The four cylinder 1.33-litre engine is more relaxed.

Around town, the steering's electric assistance makes manoeuvring the car simplicity itself and the tiny square-cut dimensions, minimal front and rear overhangs and astonishingly tight 3.9m turning circle mean that it's easy to edge into even the tiniest parking places. City people comparing this 3 to 4-seater car with the cruder, cheaper but comparably-sized two-seater smart fortwo will doubtless want to consider the 6-speed CVT automatic version. Though this gearbox takes the edge off performance that was hardly neck-snapping in the first place (rest to sixty takes nearly 15s on the way to just 93mph in the 1.0-litre version most will choose) its demeanour is a world removed from that of the jerky smart.

Design and Build

If you thought the two-seat smart car to be well packaged, then you'll marvel at how Toyota has been able to fit in room for three adults and a child into a package hardly any bigger. How have they managed it? Well, the big 15-inch alloy wheels really are exactly at each corner of the car, so the space in between is virtually all dedicated to people. This wasn't easy to achieve: the front wheels and their driveshafts had to be repositioned in front of the engine and gearbox rather than in their usual place behind. As a result, the typical distance from the tip of the front bumper to the accelerator has been reduced by 120mm, freeing up that extra cabin space. The iQ's classy-looking too: the wraparound rear glass, the smoked headlamp units and the door mirrors with inbuilt indicators all position this as an up-market small car choice.

Step inside and the clever ideas continue. The asymmetric dashboard was designed to open up the whole cabin area, scooped out ahead of the front seat passenger so much that legroom is acceptable even when the seat is pushed right forward to allow for a large six foot adult to sit comfortably behind. It's a different story in the seat behind the driver of course but a child would probably be fine there for short distances. Alternatively, you can fold down half of the back seat - or all of it - and increase luggage space from a negligible 32-litres to a small Tesco shop-sized 242-litres. There's also a storage tray that slides from below the rear seat.

This is a cabin that feels much larger than Toyota's more conventional Aygo citycar. And it is. Shoulder-to-shoulder distance between driver and front passenger is 50mm wider than in the company's supposedly larger Yaris supermini and you could downsize from their even larger Auris family hatchback without noticing much difference in this respect. A flat, thin under-floor fuel tank, a 20% smaller heater unit and repositioned steering gear all make this possible. One day, all small cars will be designed this way.

Market and Model

Most iQ variants are sold in the £10,000 to £11,500 bracket, about the same as comparable Toyota Yaris supermini models and a bit more than you'd expect to pay for a city runabout - but then, as we've said, this model also offers a lot more than you'd expect from a car of this kind. If you want some perspective, then Toyota's more conventional little Aygo sits, like most citycars, in the £8,500 to £10,000 bracket, while smart's smaller 2-seater fortwo costs mainly between £9,000 to £10,500. Some will also be considering Fiat's funky little 500: with mainstream pricing set between £10,000 and £12,500, this was the first urban scoot to prove that citycar buyers could be persuaded to pay supermini prices if the right product came along. You could argue that BMW's MINI had established this already, but prices for that car start not far short of £12,000.

There's a choice of two petrol engines and the option of either manual or CVT automatic gearboxes. Most will go for the 67bhp three cylinder 1.0-litre unit that I'm trying here but you can also talk to your dealer about the four cylinder 98bhp 1.33-litre engine borrowed from the Yaris. All models come with at least nine airbags (including the world's first rear window curtain shield airbag) and all iQ models come with the kind of standard specification that you'd expect in a much larger car: alloy wheels, colour-keyed paintwork for the bumpers that's also carried over to door mirrors that are heated and electrically adjustable, air conditioning, a six-speaker sound system with MP3 connection, electric windows, remote central locking, dark tinted privacy glass in the rear window and leather trim for the steering wheel and gear knob.

Cost of Ownership

The iQ isn't only small, it's also very light, with weight kept down to just 880kg. That's one reason why Toyota has been able to achieve such low CO2 figures - just 99g/km in this manual 1.0-litre. This sees the car fall into Tax Band A, meaning it's exempt from road tax, while company car users will pay the lowest 10% tax obligation and London visitors will escape the congestion charge. Though the iQ's entry-level engine is shared with the company's Aygo citycar, the iQ offers significantly better fuel economy, returning 64.2mpg on the combined cycle (though this figure does drop if you go for the CVT automatic). The 1.33-litre version uses a clever Stop & Start system to deliver 113g/km of CO2 and a 57.6mpg combined cycle showing. Insurance is group 2 or 3 thanks to body panels that easily slot in and out if damaged, while residual values are likely to be very strong.

Summary

This is the ultimate expression of refined, yet environmentally efficient urban mobility, a model that turns conventional city car thinking on its head. True, there's premium pricing but nothing you'll ever buy will be more cleverly designed. It is, in essence, a little car for people who think big.

As well as appealing to plusher citycar buyers, it's a novel alternative to a conventional supermini that will hold its value better, be cheaper to run and attract envious stares with frankly astonishing cabin space for a something so tiny you could almost park it sideways. If you thought that all small cars were the same, then think again.

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