Editors' note: CNET tested a preproduction version of the 2012 Scion iQ. Some details of the car's operation and electronics may change for production.
At a press event for the 2012 Scion iQ, Scion Vice President Jack Hollis compared the car to the Fiat 500. Both are small cars, microsubcompact being one term, priced well under $20,000. Both use small engines to achieve fuel economy in the mid-30s.
But where Fiat went retro, Scion goes sci-fi. The 2012 iQ's wheels and headlights seem too big for its body. The wraparound rear window belongs on a concept car. The windshield overwhelms the front, and the car is very stubby. It looks like a toy, like you should be able to drive it from an app on your phone.
Despite its small size, the iQ packs some surprising utility. At a glance, you would assume this 10-foot-long car is, like a Smart, a two-seater. But it actually has a rear seat. Scion calls it 3+1 seating, as the left rear seat, behind the driver, only gets leg space if the driver is very short.
People can fit in the driver, passenger, and right rear passenger seat with relative ease, but the left rear is better left for cargo or a child seat. The car also has a rear hatch, but there is no cargo room unless you put at least one of the rear seats down. To give a feeling of more interior space, Toyota built in more passenger width than in a Corolla.
The huge advantage of this very short car is in parking. Drive in any major city, and you will be amazed at the number of curb spaces in which the iQ fits. The turning radius is also phenomenal. On a typical San Francisco two-way street, the iQ could easily pull a U-turn.
Scion's strategy of using customized aftermarket head units for its cars stalled in the last few years. This strategy should have let Scion update its cabin electronics every couple of years, keeping on the cutting edge of automotive technology. But instead the head units got old and did not see replacement, until now.
The iQ is the first Scion model to sport the new line of cabin electronics, with head units from Pioneer that are a vast improvement over the previous generation of technology. The car CNET tested came with the midlevel head unit, which should prove a popular choice, as it offers a full-size screen on which to view a connected iPod library, along with Pandora integration.
The Pandora interface worked very well, with easy access to the station list. Touch-screen controls let you give a song the thumbs-down or thumbs-up. The system only works with Pandora on an iPhone, which has to be plugged into the car's USB port. Of course, the iPhone's own music library also becomes available through the car interface. Other audio sources include Bluetooth streaming, HD Radio, and satellite radio.
This head unit also builds in a full-featured Bluetooth phone system, with its own screen for accessing the dial pad and a paired phone's contact list. But Scion does not allow you to access the contact list or even a music library when the car is in motion. And there is no voice command for the phone system, either, something commonly found in other cars.