Toyota Yaris vs. Scion iQ: Which is smarter?

2012 Scion iQ

2012 Scion iQ (Click to enlarge)

These are interesting times at Toyota Motor Sales. No sooner had the hub-bub regarding unintended acceleration claims subsided than Japan was hit by a horrific tsunami. Although Toyota showrooms are now running on most cylinders, its entry-level/youth-oriented subsidiary, Scion, is experiencing some headwinds. And while release of the 2012 Scion iQ looked to be an intelligent move for Toyota, its intro raises the obvious question: Is it a smart move for you?

Our first drive of the iQ was in Houston’s arts district, an appropriate choice for this most-urban runabout. Looking like a more mature (or perhaps ‘smarter’) Smart, Scion’s iQ is billed by Toyota as a premium micro-subcompact and the world’s smallest 4-seater. We were immediately taken by its stance, which mollifies the phone booth (remember those?) proportions with a wide track and minimal overhangs. The greenhouse is – within the context of its ten feet(!) of overall length – expansive, and both ingress and egress (getting in/getting out) is remarkably simple. In short, the 2012 iQ is short, but for two adults of average height and weight eminently livable.

Of course, if you have three or four the lQ (that’s ‘el cue’, as in ‘livability quotient’) goes down rather abruptly. Accommodating a third passenger is relatively straightforward, but adding a fourth becomes problematic, despite the stagger built into the two front seats. We’d dub it a 2+1, but then, we’re not doing ad copy for Toyota.

If you’re impressed by the iQ’s quirkly proportions and can live with having no more than two passengers (we can), you then need to reconcile yourself with its 1.3 liter four connected to a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Impressions in and around downtown Houston over roughly 90 minutes were positive; a few days of errand running and commuting in and around suburban Dallas less so. The iQ feels winded, with the responsibility (we think) falling on the CVT transmission rather than its 1.3 liter four. And despite a curb weight of just over a ton and only 94 horsepower, the iQ’s efficiency is but 36 City/37 Highway, falling between ten and fifteen percent short of several compact 4-doors at the Scion’s $16K (or so) price point.

2012 Toyota Yaris

2012 Toyota Yaris (Click to enlarge)

One of those 4-doors, of course, is Scion’s in-house competitor, the Toyota Yaris, available in both a 2-door or 4-door hatch. Described as ‘all-new’, we’d dub it an aggressive refresh over its predecessor. With proportions that are almost conventional – given the growing popularity of the hatchback profile – the Yaris sits on a wheelbase twenty inches longer (98.8 vs. the iQ’s 78.7 inches) and enjoys almost three feet of additional length (153.5 vs. 120.1 inches). And those twenty inches and three feet make all the difference in the world.

We wouldn’t knock the Scion’s ride quality, as Toyota engineers have done a masterful job of creating composure in such a small, tidy package. But the Yaris’ longer footprint does a far better job of mimicking a real automobile, capable (presumably) of operating on a real freeway. The Yaris recipe is helped in no small way by a 1.5 liter four producing 12 more horsepower and 14 lb-ft of additional torque. To channel Churchill, “never was so much owed to so few;” the additional horses and torque, connected to an utterly conventional – albeit dated – 4-speed auto, is a revelation when contrasted with the iQ’s 1.3 liter and CVT.

Of course, the Yaris offers more than additional length and horsepower. In 4-door-with-hatch guise it also trumps the iQ in both accessibility and passenger volume. The Yaris boasts 85 cubic feet for passengers and another 15 cubic feet for cargo, while the iQ is but 74 cubic feet for passengers and (with rear seats up) 3.5 cubic feet for cargo. Putting the rear seats forward (which, admittedly, most iQ owners would do) results in over 16 cubic feet of storage space in the Scion – but only room for two.

In sum, your $16K investment in a new car can be spent in any number of ways. Even on a Toyota showroom there are more options, including modestly equipped Corollas and (very) base Tacoma pickups. If living in 300 square feet of Manhattan apartment we could rationalize the iQ; it is, after all, the automotive equivalent of a 300 square foot studio. But if your automotive needs extend beyond Manhattan, Toyota’s Yaris is the hands-down winner in any objective comparison with Scion’s 2012 iQ. Even this one…