When a new vehicle segment is created, its founder tends to define it. That pioneering status makes it harder for interlopers to steal the spotlight. Look at the Toyota Prius, which created the practical hybrid hatchback segment and handily dispatched the second-generation Honda Insight. Look, too, at the smart fortwo, a car that became so associated with its tall minicar style that juggernaut Toyota’s attempts to vanquish it with the iQ were for naught.
Toyota’s introduction of the iQ to the North American market as a Scion was, to some, a head-scratcher. This style of minicar has very niche appeal on a continent defined by wide, open spaces. The bulk of the fortwo’s sales typically come from densely populated urban centers like New York City but even in its best year, the fortwo has only managed around 25,000 sales in the US market. That makes Toyota’s projections of almost 24,000 annual sales of its fortwo rival seem dubious at best, something borne out by sales that couldn’t even scrape up half of that in the iQ’s debut year and which continued to fall.
Cast your eye over to Europe and the fortwo has always been vastly more popular, the car even surpassing 100,000 annual units some years. Yet despite the warmer reception to these quirky vehicles, the Toyota iQ managed only around 44k units in its debut year in Europe and trailed off very quickly.
The iQ didn’t deserve to fail as Toyota effectively built a better smart. Blame the fortwo’s pioneer advantage—it arrived three years prior to the iQ in the US, and earlier still in Canada. The smart also was around for almost a decade before Toyota ambled into the European market with the iQ.
It must have been that head start that helped the smart, as the iQ was a much better drive. The iQ’s highway manners were superior to the smart’s, proving quite stable, and the car boasted an excellent turning circle tighter than that of the smart. The steering had more feel and the transmission – although a typically droning CVT – was vastly more smooth and refined than the smart’s. Fortunately for Europeans, a manual transmission was available there. An electric iQ was made available, but in the US it was pushed into car-sharing fleets like early examples of the electric smart ED.
The car felt more composed on the move than the smart, thanks in part to a longer wheelbase (78.7 inches vs. 71.3) and a wider track. Both power and fuel economy were superior to the smart, the iQ sipping fuel to the tune of 36 mpg city and 37 mpg highway (2 mpg better in the city and only 1 less on the highway), while the iQ’s larger, four-cylinder engine also mustered 24 more horsepower (to 94 in total).
“Comfy back there?”
Toyota managed to fit a second row of seats in the iQ as it was 22 inches longer than the fortwo. To manage expectations, Toyota called the iQ a “3+1 seater” with an “offset seating arrangement”. That was just a silly way of saying, “Hey, you can fit an adult back there but they have to put their legs diagonally if they want to maintain circulation.” The seats looked like any other rear car seats, just considerably smaller. At least it was something, and if you folded them down you still ended up with slightly more cargo room than in the fortwo. Front passengers also had little dashboard to speak of in front of them to allow them to move their seat further forward and help the poor adult cooped up in the back. The downside of this design was the iQ lacked a glovebox.
But while the iQ managed to be more useable and better to drive than the fortwo, that was a fairly low bar to clear. And given the more bountiful parking opportunities afforded to those in North America, the iQ began to look as foolish a purchase as the smart against conventional subcompacts like Toyota’s own Yaris and the Chevrolet Spark. The iQ was pricier than the fortwo, which was a problem, but the larger problem was that its price was considerably higher than other subcompacts. The iQ listed for just over $15k, while more spacious and conventional subcompacts like the Kia Rio were around $1-2k less, and the roomy Nissan Versa started a whopping $4k lower. Even if those subcompacts were too plebeian for an idiosyncratic, potential iQ buyer, the more useable Fiat 500 cost the same as the iQ.
That left the iQ in an untenable position. It was less practical than almost every subcompact but cost more, and its one virtue – its parking-friendly size – was almost irrelevant outside of one or two cities in North America. And as for Europe, consumers could instead purchase the more conventionally-styled and cheaper Aygo minicar (North American readers: think Chevy Spark dimensions), launched in 2005. It was a more sensible option, was still sufficiently small for densely populated cities, and if you really cared about fitting into tight parking spaces you would’ve picked a fortwo over an iQ anyway given it was almost 2 feet shorter.
Toyota, commendably, had built a smarter smart. Unintelligently, however, they had done so several years later. The familiar smart had had years to entice buyers and had managed to attract many buyers despite its myriad flaws. It seems smart buyers didn’t want a smarter smart if it had a Toyota badge, and almost everybody else was happy with something more conventional. The iQ ended production in 2016 after a single generation.
iQ photographed in June 2017 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY.