When thinking about the all-new iQ microcar's origins, imagine engineers at Scion and parent company Toyota Motor Corp. grabbing a shrink ray and going to work downsizing a normal-size hatchback. They shrank the engine, the cargo space and the overall footprint.
Then the ray went missing, and they never shrank the price. The tiny get-about surprises you with its charm and livability but also with a sticker price of more than $20,000 for the loaded version I tested.
The iQ, a micro-subcompact, is aimed at urban buyers who need little more than a pair of seats and tiny cargo room. The car measures in at 10 feet long. The Smart Fortwo, the other high-profile car in this class selling here, is about a foot shorter.
Yet the iQ succeeds in almost every way the Smart fails: Driving it at full speed reveals none of the feeling that you're strapped to the front of a cannonball that plagues the Smart.
Road and wind noise are negligible, but the iQ's engine noise can be intrusive. Most of that can be blamed on the automatic continuously variable transmission with one gear. Both this CVT and the engine maximize fuel economy in city driving, but acceleration is limited.
The 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine makes 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque at high revs on the highway. Around town the CVT behaves better and the engine is less vocal.
The iQ's city fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon is close to its highway rating of 37 mpg. Its combined rating is 37 mpg.
The rest of the iQ's driving experience is like that of a larger car: nimble, comfortable and sporty handling. The two front seats offer plenty of comfort and space for a pair of adults.
Behind them is a bench seat for two -- ostensibly. Scion calls the iQ a 3+1 configuration, but the 1 better be a Muppet.
The front passenger seat and dashboard are positioned more forward than in the driver's area. The rear seats fold down to create the cargo space, for 16.7 cubic feet of stuff.
If an aggressive driver makes friends with the rear of your car, the iQ has you covered with 11 air bags as standard equipment, including what Scion bills as the world's first rear-window air bag.
When the iQ hits dealerships next month it will start at $15,995. Things get worse as you add options. The model I tested had features including a touch-screen navigation system, alloy wheels and fog lights. Total price: $20,192.
That's serious, almost silly money for a car this small.
THE 2012 SCION iQ
Base price: $15,995 (including destination charge)
Price, as tested: $20,192 (estimated)
Powertrain: 1.3-liter, double overhead camshaft, four-cylinder engine with dual intelligent variable-valve timing; single-speed, continuously variable automatic transmission with sport mode
Horsepower: 94 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 89 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm
0 to 60 mph: 11.8 seconds
Curb weight: 2,127 pounds
Wheelbase: 78.7 inches
Overall length: 120.1 inches
EPA fuel economy: 36 mpg city/37 mpg highway
Bottom line: Costs an arm and a leg, but has room only for the leg.