In some parallel universe - I'm thinking Tokyo, perhaps - the tremendously small, totally unusual and surprisingly just-OK-frugal Scion iQ makes all kinds of sense.
Rolling along in the 10-foot-long iQ on a normal American street or, more frighteningly, an Interstate, you end up spending most of your time hoping that you will not be crushed by a Mini Cooper. Or a medium-sized dog. If you look at the iQ and then the new Chevy Spark, it looks like an Escalade, by comparison.
iQ is indeed the tiniest of the tiny, its major claim to fame being that it is the smallest four-passenger vehicle in current production for a North American audience. That's a jab at its most direct competition, the similarly sized Smart ForTwo; The iQ name is another not-so-subtle jab at the Mercedes Benz-sourced microcar.
And the description is technically true. The iQ, which looks more like the cab of a delivery truck than an actual vehicle, really does have a rear seat, though it also doubles as a bench that folds flat to become the car's luggage area, if you want to carry more than a sandwich and some socks in the briefcase-sized storage area in the back.
It also seems like the grandest optical illusion ever. Get inside and it's actually quite spacious for driver and front passenger, with ample leg and head room and full-sized, comfortable seating. You motor along, a 1.3-liter four-cylinder producing a Fiat 500- or hybrid-like 94 horsepower, you can merge in and out of traffic, and you can even fly along at 80 MPH on the freeway.
It feels like a fairly normal car, as well. The CVT transmission does require ample gas and a bit of prayer to merge into traffic, but it's no worse than full-size cars with CVTs, though acceleration can be jerky, almost universally. Handling is pretty good, maybe a little tippy on a long, wide curve, but it's otherwise well-mannered. Given that the rear axle is also nearly under your bottom, the ride quality is more than a little bouncy, but not impossible.
But open the door - and the iQ seems to be nothing but door - and you'll wonder where the rest of the car went. Those meager 10 feet (and just 78.7 inches of wheelbase) make for one very small footprint, parked on stubby and overly prominent 16-inch wheels.
For ultra-urban dwellers, the upside is that the iQ can be parked literally anywhere - about three of them fit in the same space as a big truck, and you could probably drive one into the bed of a Tundra, and do a three-point turn.
It's an experience that makes a small vehicle such as the Honda Fit or the Hyundai Accent seem SUV-sized by comparison. And the insides are very, very austere - stylish, sure, in that plain-but-cool Scion style - but it's so small there isn't even a glove box. Storage is at a premium throughout.
My biggest quibble was the fact that, like the Smart Car, you would imagine mileage of something like 60 MPG, right? Since the iQ weighs only 2,127 pounds, and there's practically no car to haul around?
Unfortunately, my real-world mileage was about 34 MPG (the sticker rates it for 37 MPG combined) and ... well, the new Altima gets that, and is also a real-sized automobile.
Overseas, the iQ is a Toyota and the engines are smaller and probably more fuel-efficient: In order to allow the Scion version to compete in a roadscape full of full-sized automobiles, the extra power was necessary, but not mind-blowingly efficient.
Also, it's not especially cheap. The car stickers for a touch over $15,000 but the model I drove had $4,000 in extras (the better stereo and satellite radio, a sway bar and a handful of TRD performance upgrades, plus carpets and illuminated door sills) and that takes the iQ into the leagues of full-sized autos.
The outside looks, cartoonishly Japanese, speak for themselves. Inside, it's a little more grounded, with attractive, glossy plastic panels on the door pulls and a manta ray-shaped center stack head atop the center stack.
The best part? iQ is the base material for the Aston Martin Cygnet, a three-times-more-expensive abomination created to satisfy European fuel consumption rules.
Tune in next week when I profile the new Ford Fusion, a real, totally normal full-sized car whose hybrid version generates a real 47 miles per gallon.