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Test drive: 2012 Scion iQ

Toyota considers its Scion brand an incubator for new ideas. It’s a place for the company to toe into new segments that the mother ship wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, let alone a 10-foot car.

The Scion iQ is just that: An otherworldly city car with an edgy design that gives it the appearance of a probe recently arrived from Saturn, if not Uranus.

It’s not the first of its kind to explore these shores in recent years, that dubious honor goes to the even smaller Smart Fortwo. But just as the U.S. was second into the great beyond, Scion has its thrusters on full and is hoping to do both better and bigger than the competition from Europe.

To the latter point, the iQ is a four-seat car. Well, Scion likes to say 3+1, because the spot behind the driver is little more than trompe l’oeil, but two six-footers can fit in tandem on the shotgun side. (Note: I didn’t say comfortably.) If you ever wondered what the smallest family car is, question answered.

Behind everyone is a claimed 3.5 cubic feet of cargo space, much of which must exist in another dimension. You’d have a hard time fitting the owner’s manual back there, which you’ll need to find room for because there is no standard glove compartment. Fold down the rear seats, however, and you end up with a two-seater that has more luggage room than a Toyota Camry.

Front seat passengers are well taken care of and the iQ's enormous doors offer easy entry and an unexpectedly satisfying thunk when you close them. Thirsty? Feel free to fill one or all of the the five cup and bottle holders scattered about.

Like the geometric exterior, the cabin is done up in a sci-fi motif, complete with lots of glossy black plastic, a triangle-topped center stack and a deeply-sculpted steering wheel with controls for the standard HD radio, which sits in a pod on top of the dash. It’s hard to imagine that the Scion designers didn’t have a lot ton fun working on this little guy.

Hidden on board are 11 airbags -- including one that covers the rear window -- which help it achieve an astonishingly good four-star crash test rating. I still wouldn’t want to find myself in the middle of a Suburban sandwich behind the wheel of an iQ, but four stars, that’s good, right?

Under the hood – look closely, it’s there - the iQ has a 1.3-liter 4-cylinder engine with 94 hp and a CVT automatic transmission driving the front wheels. It’s not the slowest car in America, and I’ll leave it at that.

Actually, around town it’s zippy enough and, if you don’t mind driving a car that sounds like a power tool, entirely adequate. The only time it truly disappoints is when you try to merge onto a highway and head out of town, at which point its lackluster effort comes across as the iQ trying to remind you that it doesn’t like to leave the nest.

“Hello, what part of ‘city car’ don’t you understand?”

Owing mostly to the short wheelbase, the iQ is a little darty at high speeds, but payback comes on the mean streets where you can make U-turns so tight that you’ll call them V-turns. The suspension is equally capable when it comes to absorbing the bumps and bruises of chewed up tarmac, but wallowy enough to keep you clear of the local autocross circuit. (As is the case with every Scion model, a set of lowering springs and a rear sway bar are offered as dealer-installed options.)

Nevertheless, the iQ delivers 37 mpg combined, which is best of the non-hybrids and one reason you might consider spending $15,995 to buy it, even in the face of many competitors that offer a lot more car for a lot less money.  The other is the iQ’s raison d’etre: parking.

What can you say? A so-called MINI is two-feet longer than the Scion and the only car you’ll have to worry about stealing spots from under you is the Fortwo, once you get the hang of it. Coming to terms with how small the iQ is takes some time, but you’ll be amazed at where you can squeeze it into after your brain has been properly recalibrated.

Ultimately, the iQ is as much of a niche player as an electric car or 600 hp exotic, just for a very different and literally smaller niche. It’s prime rolling real estate for places where space is as a premium, like New York City or Tokyo, but a stranger in a strange land anywhere else.

Including a Toyota dealership.

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2012 Scion iQ

Base Price: $15,995

As Tested: $18,347

Type: 2-door, 4-seat, 3-door hatchback

Engine: 1.3L 4-cylinder

Power: 94 hp, 89 lb-ft torque

Transmission: CVT automatic

MPG: 36 city/37 hwy