Is the Toyota IQ the small car revolution which its maker claims it is?

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It’s taken five years for Toyota to bring the iQ to market - a long time for any car, let alone a small Japanese hatch. But that’s what happens when you break new ground instead of recycling old concepts.

Under the guidance of chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima, and with a brief to take the same sort of lead in the compact city car genre as the Prius has among environmentally concerned customers, the iQ was to be a small car like no other before. It took two years of hard work by Toyota engineers and designers both in Japan and at Toyota’s France-based ED2 design studio before the concept was given the green light.

The Toyota iQ is a genuinely mould-breaking car, which is reflected in its price.

The concept behind the iQ is simple to express, but it must have been brain-meltingly difficult to realise: a city car that is shorter than an original Mini and will out-turn a London taxi, yet one that will seat four, offer first-class safety and cruise in comfort on the motorway. But that, apparently, is what Toyota has achieved.

It sees the iQ as an entirely different product selling to an entirely different customer; it’s for people who want a small car, not those who need a cheap one. The clue is in the price, which is high for the car's size even in base trim.

In addition to the standard 1.0-litre car, there’s also the iQ3, which comes with a 1.3-litre engine. This is the model that forms the bases of the Aston Martin Cygnet – available at nearly three times the price.

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Toyota iQ rear light

You can see why it’s taken a car company with the resources of Toyota to come up with a car such as the Toyota iQ. Developing an all-new platform from scratch is a hideously expensive process for any normal car, but to design one with no prior reference point, packing as many innovations as you’ll find in the iQ, would have been beyond the means of many car companies, not least because the smaller the car, the smaller the profit margin so the more you have to make before you get your money back.

At the front, the A-pillars are notably thick for such a small and light car. Maybe they need to be that way for rollover protection, but they harm forward visibility. Smart 15in alloy wheels are standard on all iQs, but iQ2s like this one get a high-gloss finish. Even for a small city car, we were disappointed with the headlights. They might be fine on well lit urban streets, but out in the country they’re seriously underwhelming.

We’ve seen doorbins with a greater carrying capacity than the iQ’s boot

The iQ is special among all cars in including a rear curtain airbag. Then again, when you see how close rear-seat passengers sit to the rear screen, you can see why Toyota thought it necessary.

We’ve seen doorbins with a greater carrying capacity than the iQ’s boot. In fact, you should regard the iQ as not having a boot unless the rear seats are folded.

Rear headrests seriously restrict rearward vision for the driver and should be removed when not carrying passengers in the back. What’s more, the rear side window is not much more than a porthole. It helps over-the-shoulder visibility for the driver, but the view out for rear seat passengers is miserable.


Toyota iQ dashboard

If a miracle has been worked anywhere, inside the Toyota iQ is where you’ll find it. Look at the iQ from the outside and you’ll wonder how even a small child could find comfort on the back seat while two 6ft adults can sit in tandem (as long as the one in front isn’t driving) and still not feel short of space. Rear head room is limited for anyone taller than that, but given that this car is less than 3m long, there is no doubting the scale of the achievement.

The space is there thanks to the asymmetric cabin design, thin seats and other unseen innovations and it is sure to win the iQ many customers who’d never look at the strictly two-seat Smart.

Quality is far better than we’ve seen in other small Toyotas of late

That said, the praise does not come without qualification. On the driver’s side of the car, rear leg room varies from very limited to non-existent depending on the size of the driver, so the iQ is more of a 3+1 design than a full four-seater.

And you should be aware that there is effectively no boot, just a miserably small space behind the seats into which you might just squeeze a single thin briefcase. So small is this rear space that even if you fold the rear seats flat, there’s only fractionally more space in the back of the iQ than there is in a Ford Ka with the rear seats up.

There are other problems here too. The driving position is fundamentally sound but limited in its scope by the lack of seat height or steering reach adjustment. The speedometer is difficult to read, the A-pillars are too thick and the touch-screen navigation unit is stuck on top of the dash like an afterthought.

That said, quality is far better than we’ve seen in other small Toyotas of late and is commensurate with Toyota’s ambitious pricing policy. If the plan was to create an interior that looks and feels like one from a considerably larger car, Toyota has largely succeeded.


Toyota iQ engine bay

With only 67bhp under your right foot in the 1.0, the Toyota iQ was never going to feel particularly fleet. Nor is it helped by being not only heavier than a Smart, which you would expect, but also a Fiat 500 – which you would not. Still, the little engine is eager enough and willing to rev cleanly to its red line; if you believed the numbers that were appearing on the clock, you might actually think the iQ possessed a reasonable turn of speed.

But two things become apparent after speedometer correction. First, the iQ’s straight-line performance is very modest indeed, and second, it has not been helped at all by Toyota’s choice of gearing. This is a car with a top speed of just 99mph that will nevertheless do 62mph in second gear. We can only hazard that its bizarrely high intermediate gearing has something to do with achieving good results on official consumption and emissions tests. Unfortunately they also mean that on our performance test the iQ fails to realise even its modest potential. We scrabbled to 60mph in 13.6sec, which sounds slow only until you learn that it took 25.4sec to cover the 50-70mph measure in top gear.

The Toyota iQ is heavier than a Fiat 500

The 1.33-litre, 98bhp, four cylinder unit Toyota also uses in other economy models such as Auris and Verso. The idea is to provide a bit more overtaking and open-roads ability for customers prepared to sacrifice some of the original iQ’s deeply impressive economy in exchange for considerably longer legs, a more conventional engine sound, about 12mph more top speed but remarkably little extra acceleration. For your extra outlay on the asking price, you get a car that’ll officially do 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds (with the manual gearbox). That is only about 0.7 seconds better than Toyota's claims for the smaller-engined car.


Toyota iQ rear cornering

How a car like the Toyota iQ handles has more to do with its ability to thrive amid the urban warfare on our city streets than how it flows through bends on quiet country roads. In town, its case is helped massively by ultra-compact dimensions and its world-beating turning circle. It’ll about-face in such a small space that you actually have to re-educate your mind to stop you from passing potential turning spots without even considering them. And when it comes to parking, that turning circle and its sub-3m length means it’s rivalled only by the Smart, and then largely because of its ability to park nose into the pavement (where legal).

Better still (and unlike the Smart), the iQ has power steering and a quick rack, which, combined with its diminutive dimensions, allows it to change direction with impressive alacrity.

The iQ faces out-of-town handling tests with confidence

But there’s a flaw here, and for a car like this it’s a serious one. The iQ may be the shortest four-seat car on the market by a comfortable margin, but it is also the widest of all selected rivals and wider even than a full-sized hatch like the Volkswagen Polo. That makes it tricky to weave between lanes when you're in dense traffic.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the iQ faces out-of-town handling tests with confidence. The steering remains impressive while grip is reasonable, but most notable (given its severely abbreviated shape) is its stability. Crosswinds don’t upset it, and should you have to brake suddenly in a damp corner, there’s enough natural balance in the chassis and the standard ESP is quick enough to respond before any unruly behaviour is detected.

We were impressed by its ride, too. In fact, for a sub-900kg car with a wheelbase as short as the iQ’s and simple suspension architecture, the level of comfort achieved in all normal conditions is to be applauded.


Toyota iQ

Not only is the Toyota iQ relatively expensive to buy even in base spec form, but it’s also likely to prove nothing like as cheap to run as the raw data suggests. Believe the official claims and you’ll think fantastic fuel economy is possible (especially with the 1.0 litre car) in restrained but hardly saintly driving. It’s not.

We had two all but identical iQs at the same time, and even when driven in no great haste and in favourable conditions, neither managed to stretch a gallon of unleaded even 50, let alone 60 miles. We averaged a disappointing 35.2mpg, which didn’t even allow us to cover 250 miles before filling up.

The IQ is likely to prove nothing like as cheap to run as the raw data suggests

Oddly enough for such a car, the iQ1 & 2 lack the stop-start technology that’s starting to pop up on a wide range of small cars, not least its Smart ForTwo rival. Better news is that unless you opt for the 1.3 or the CVT auto (and we wouldn't, having tried it), the iQ’s tax disc will be free and it will be assessed for company car tax based on a low benefit in kind .

The iQ3, powered by the 1.33 engine, officially returns marginally worse economy, and substantially worse CO2 emissions, not least because of the VED road tax the rise attracts.


4 star Toyota iQ

Cars like the Toyota iQ don’t just happen. To be as clearly conceived, thoroughly developed and cleverly executed as it undoubtedly is will have soaked up terrifying amounts of time, money and brain power.

But as Toyota’s engineers and executives now soak up the plaudits it will earn and deserve, they will not question the value of that investment. No, the iQ is not a revolutionary product. In fact, it’s rather conservative today compared with a 10-year-old Smart. But, excess width aside, it is supremely fit for its purpose, which is all you can ask of any car. Most impressive is the fact that despite being an urban specialist, it doesn’t struggle beyond the city limits.

Despite being an urban specialist, it doesn’t struggle beyond the city limits

There is plenty to like, not least its cruising ability that is way beyond that of rival superminis, let alone a Smart. The view from the driver’s seat is that of a rather posh small hatchback – thanks in no small part to the car’s width, but also due to the quality of the materials inside the iQ.

The car’s cleverness extends to the packaging, with space for three adults an easy proposition. Whether a fourth passenger can be taken depends entirely on the position of the driver’s seat, but it’s best not to count on it. Nor should you count on taking any luggage – boot space is minimal to say the least.

It would be a shame, then, if Toyota’s rather bullish pricing policy denied the iQ full access to the wide audience its conspicuous talents otherwise so richly deserve.

Toyota IQ 2009-2014 First drives