Scion 2012 iQ review: Everything's compact except the price

When thinking about the all-new iQ microcar's origins, imagine engineers at Scion and parent company Toyota Motor Corp. grabbing a shrink ray and going to work downsizing a normal-size hatchback. They shrank the engine; they shrank the cargo space; they shrank the overall footprint.

Then the ray went missing, and they were never able to shrink the price.

The result is a tiny get-about that surprises you with its charm and livability but also with a sticker price of more than $20,000 for the loaded version I tested.

The iQ is officially known as a micro-subcompact. It's aimed at urban buyers who need little more than a pair of seats and a dollop of cargo room. It's been puttering along in Europe and Japan for a couple of years under the Toyota brand.

The car measures in at a tidy 10 feet long. That may not seem micro until you consider that a Toyota Camry is almost 6 feet longer. The beleaguered Smart Fortwo, the only other high-profile car in this class to sell in the U.S., is about a foot shorter.

Yet the iQ succeeds in almost every way the Smart Fortwo fails. Driving this Scion on the freeway at full speed reveals none of the inherent drama or feeling that you're strapped to the front of a cannonball that plagues the Smart.

The car is stable and well planted, and only when you step firmly on the brakes at high speed (they're disc brakes in the front, drum brakes in the rear) does the car become a little unsettled.

Although road and wind noise are negligible, the iQ's engine noise can be a bit intrusive. Most of that can be blamed on the automatic transmission; it's a continuously variable transmission with essentially one gear. Both this CVT and the engine are configured to maximize fuel economy in city driving, so the driver really has to work the car when passing others and when entering onramps.

The 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine makes 94 horsepower and 89 pound-feet of torque, but these peak outputs happen when the engine is revved high and loud on the highway. It's then that the hollow, flat whine tells you that you're making it work hard. Around town, however, the CVT behaves better and the engine is less vocal and is well-suited to a car of this size.

Urban efficiency is also why the iQ's city fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon is so close to its highway rating of 37 mpg. In 210 miles of testing, I averaged 29 mpg, though more patient drivers probably will see an average closer to the car's combined mpg rating, which is also 37. Scion says that combined rating is the highest in the U.S. for all non-hybrid cars.

The rest of the iQ's driving experience is no different from that of a larger car. It's nimble and comfortable, and the ride and handling fall on the sporty side. The steering wheel adds to this inclination as it's wrapped in leather and features a flat bottom.

The cabin relies heavily on hard plastics, but their textures and finishes vary to avoid looking drab or cheap. A large radio or navigation screen sits in the center of the dashboard. Below, three simple knobs for the heating and cooling descend vertically.

The two front seats offer plenty of comfort and space for a pair of adults to ride in without feeling like they're violating each other's personal space.

Behind the two front seats is a bench seat for two more humans — ostensibly. Scion markets the iQ as a 3+1 configuration, so if you have to carry four people, one of them better be a Muppet.

The company pulls off this spatial sleight of hand by positioning the front passenger seat and dashboard more forward than in the driver's area. This allows just enough legroom for a third person to sit behind the front passenger, though hip room and headroom are a little tight.

Since the driver's area isn't as far forward, the seat behind it has mere inches of legroom and is suitable only for very small kids or pets or Kermit. Those rear seats fold down to create the iQ's only cargo space, which Scion says is capable of holding 16.7 cubic feet of stuff. A week's worth of groceries or a couple of carry-on suitcases fit nicely back there.

What's interesting about this seating configuration is it doesn't sacrifice any space or comfort for the two front passengers. It was easy to forget I was driving a car with such compact dimensions until someone started tailgating me and their proximity to the back of my head meant I could practically smell what they had for breakfast.

But if an aggressive driver does make friends with the rear of your car, the iQ has you covered. The car features 11 air bags as standard equipment, including what Scion bills as the world's first rear window air bag.

Other safety features include anti-lock brakes, traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system. Standard equipment on all iQs includes air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, Bluetooth, HD radio and CD player with USB input.

Another feature not mentioned on the window sticker is how the iQ's size and a turning radius of a shopping cart mean an entire world of previously impossible parking spaces is available to you. It's hard to put a price on that.

But Scion manages to put a price on nearly everything else on the iQ, it seems. The above features are respectable for the base model of a car in this segment, especially since Consumer Reports recently rated Scion as the most reliable car brand on the market. But when the iQ hits California dealerships at the beginning of December, it will start at $15,995.

Bigger cars such as the Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Chevrolet Sonic and Toyota's own Yaris have lower starting prices, even with optional automatic transmissions.

Things only get worse as you add the options to the iQ. The model I tested had features including the touch-screen navigation system, alloy wheels and fog lights that raised the total to $20,192.

That's serious, almost silly money for a car this small. Which is a shame because the iQ distills the automobile down to its most basic premise better than anything we've seen in the U.S. for a long time.

You would think that if you're buying a washing machine on wheels, you'd be rewarded with an equally diminutive price tag. You're not.

Anyone have a shrink ray Scion can borrow?