The new Toyota iQ is a landmark car: the world's soon-to-be-biggest car maker has gone and made the world's smallest four-seater. You see, the iQ packs two rows of pews into a tiny slip of a hatchback. It's not even three metres long. But the Toyota iQ has a twist; like Smart's Fortwo, the last car to rip up the packaging rule book, the iQ wears a distinctly premium price tag.
Think of it like house prices. Although the iQ is tiny, at just 2985mm long, it is plonked slap bang in Mayfair, carrying an estimated £10,000 price tag when UK sales start in January 2009. So it had better be good...
Ok, so the Toyota iQ is pricey, but is it good to drive?
CAR drove some of the first pre-production prototypes on the roads around Toyota's European design centre in Nice, on the south coast of France. This posed a bit of a problem; the Provençal roads might be sun-kissed and blessed with heart-stopping views, but they're also rather steep. And the pair of 1.0-litre iQ models we drove felt out of their depth.
Granted, the cheapest iQ models are designed to flit from Chiswick to Bond Street and back, not blast up the Col de Vence. But we were finger-tapping disappointed by the lack of oomph up the hilly Nicoise roads in the cars powered by the Aygo-sourced 1.0-litre triple.
The 1.3-litre engine option might be better (we didn't have the opportunity to drive it) and there will also be a 1.4-litre diesel option, but the UK won't bring it here. Small diesels just don't sell in Blighty...
And on the motorway?
The 1.0-litre iQ is fine on a motorway run. It'll cruise at 85mph no trouble, but we did feel strangely vulnerable when passing HGVs towering overhead. The iQ is still leagues ahead of the first-gen Smart Fortwo, which bobbed and weaved and felt generally out of sorts at dual carriageway speeds.
Click 'Next' to read the rest of CAR's review of the new Toyota iQ
So how will the Toyota iQ perform in the city?
The iQ might struggle up hills, but it has sufficient pep to zip around its natural town habitat. But the best thing about the iQ is its truly astonishing turning circle. This city car pulls a U-turn unlike anything else I've ever driven. The diminutive 3.9m arc is brilliant, enabled by a rejigged suspension layout – a real boon in urban driving.
The steering is finger-tip light – perfect for threading around parked cars, but again disappointing on the open road. Zip onto a route nationale and there's organ-wrenching body roll aplenty through faster corners, so you end up (often involuntarily) selecting a slower pace. This makes for more comfortable travel; the angles of lean if you push the iQ hard can be uncomfortably large, although you never feel like you might topple – a problem that can afflict earlier versions of the Smart Fortwo.
And what about the transmission?
Ah yes, the gearbox. This was perhaps our biggest single gripe with the iQ. We drove the 1.0-litre with and without the CVT transmission and we'd avoid the latter like the plague. The stepless auto really emasculates the iQ; just check out the figures in our spec panel to see the performance penalty it carries, and it feels even slower on the road.
We'd advise buyers to shun the dismal CVT option and stick with the much better manual. The five-speed iQ is still a s-l-o-w car, but it's not painfully so and you won't miss the rubber band thrash one iota. Just watch out for the manual's incredibly long gearing – we managed to hit 60mph in second gear! Blame that economy watchword again...
How does it feel to drive the tiny Toyota iQ?
Pretty special, to be honest. Just as the Fortwo moved the goalposts back at launch in the 1990s, so the new iQ feels remarkable on the road. It turns heads, too. The packaging is as clever as we expected – there is an extraordinary amount of space inside and clever touches abound.
Once installed behind the wheel, the iQ feels as wide as it is long and tall. There's a strange sensation of driving a roomy cube – helped by the fact that the dashboard is so far forward, especially in front of the passenger. It's part of the 3+1 seating configuration; the front passenger is faced by little dash to speak of, so they can push their seat far forward and liberate room for the second-row occupants behind.
Click 'Next' to find out if the Toyota iQ's packaging actually works
Does this 3+1 package actually work then?
Yes, in a nutshell. You'll struggle to fit four people in the iQ, but three adults is a genuine possibility. The rear pew is a bit tight on headroom but with that front seat pushed far forward, the iQ is easily big enough for trips three-up around town. Just make sure you measure your mates first.
We were impressed by the thinking that makes the iQ so small. There's no glovebox to speak of (the driver's manual is in fact Velcro'd to the dash!) and everything from the air-con module to the 32-litre fuel tank is reshaped and minimised to boost interior space. That three-pot engine is canted to liberate more room for the passenger cell, there's a single headlamp bulb for high/dipped beam and there's not even a parcel shelf in this Back to Basics blitz.
Ok, so the iQ is roomy and clever, but does it feel premium?
That dangerous word again... Toyota is pitching the iQ as a premium small car. Always has done – it was the message out of Japan even when we saw the first iQ concept.
Sadly, we were disappointed by the interior finish of our test cars (admittedly, pre-production ones). The cabin feels square and characterless, and it's let down by plenty of details. The bland instrument pack, for instance, is woeful and would look at home in a Perodua. Seriously.
At least the iQ is screwed together with that reassuring Toyota-like attention to detail. They just haven't nailed the premium feel in the iQ. And that's a pity.
Click 'Next' for CAR's first drive verdict on the new Toyota iQ
Toyota iQ: the CAR verdict
We remain impressed by the packaging of the world's smallest four-seater. It's quite an achievement to have sqeezed room for three-and-a-bit passengers into the iQ when it's not even three metres long.
But the driving experience is compromised in the quest for shrinking tape measures. Let's hope that the finished cars will perform better than our 1.0-litre prototypes on the road. And the interior of the iQ just doesn't feel special enough: ignore any claims of premiumness being engineered into the DNA of this city car. It's roomy and clever – and head-swivellingly different – but it ain't posh.
In an age when the Mini, and even bargains like Fiat 500, make small-car owners feel like they haven't made sacrifices, that's a shame.
Still, many people will buy an iQ for its packaging and looks, and they won't be disappointed.