Scion's Tiny iQ is Impractical but Cool -- and Cool Sells

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

NEW YORK CITY -- I've heard of son et lumiere, but this was an assault on the senses. To help cement Scion's reputation as a "youth brand," the company rolled out its new iQ model with the deafening roar of disco music and a blaze of laser light at the New York International Auto Show Wednesday. And young people will definitely love it, though they may have more sensible choices.

"Scion is the youngest brand in the industry," said Scion Vice President Jack Hollis. The boxy Scion xB, he said, is an "iconic vehicle" that "ushered in a new urbanism." These metropolitan customers, he said, are young professionals in search of cool cars with "an emotional appeal." And emotion sells -- witness the market success of many impractical cars (the Hummer stands alone in this regard).

Sure, that's hype. But the first-generation Scions really did catch the zeitgeist, especially the so-square-it's-hip xB, which has since been imitated in both the Nissan Cube and the Kia Soul. And my guess is that the new iQ will also have an impact. About the size of a Smart car but nicer made and appointed, the iQ (on the market under the Toyota name in Europe and Japan for more than three years), the iQ features a unique interior layout.

Scion says the 10-foot-long iQ is "the world's smallest four-seater," but it's really a three-seater. The passenger seat is asymmetrically positioned forward of the driver's seat to yield a modicum of legroom. Behind the driver -- well, that's a parcel shelf. The iQ is only 14 inches longer than a Smart car. At the auto show, television crews were shoehorning their reporters in the back seat (a tight fit) for a good visual.

Scion calls the iQ a pioneer in the "premium micro subcompact" segment. If that segment didn't exist before, it sure does now. In all the sound and fury, Hollis glossed over some of the iQ's fine points. It establishes its premium credentials by coming standard with both vehicle stability and traction control, and 10 airbags. With a tiny 1.3-liter engine producing 100 horsepower (33 more than the 67 horsepower of the European and Japanese versions) , the iQ yields not yet fully defined fuel economy in the upper 30s. It goes on the market early next year, with no price announced yet.

The iQ is designed for fuel economy, but another car at the show -- unveiled with far less fanfare -- actually beats it at the pumps. The forthcoming Chevrolet Cruze Eco uses a variety of canny tweaks -- from shaved welds and thinner panels for lightness to a front air dam and opening louvers to improve aerodynamics -- to yield 41 mpg on the highway.

The Eco is a Corolla-sized compact with a traditional back seat, and the Eco model, whose starting price may be around $20,000 well equipped, beats the iQ in the increasingly important fuel economy metric. The iQ definitely is cooler though, and winning the practicality sweepstakes can prove a pyrrhic victory.

Hedging its bets, Scion also revealed its new and more conventional -- but still distinctively styled -- tC sports coupe. Scion, which is expanding into Puerto Rico and Canada (the brand will still not be sold outside of North America) now has a four-model lineup for the first time in its history (iQ, tC, xB, xD). The company has sold 800,000 cars in its seven years of existence, and half of those are tCs, so the long-awaited redesign will probably send consumers into showrooms. Some 60 percent of Scion buyers say in surveys that they would buy either another Scion or a Toyota.