Cast your mind back to the Eighties, and the definition of urban cool consisted of Nike Air Force Ones, headbands and ‘Boombox’ portable tape players whose portability depended on whether you could afford to be trailed around by a small forklift truck. Phones came in one size – brick – and if you wanted one with a camera then you had to gaffer tape a Nikon to the top. Technology wasn’t pretty, or friendly, or desirable; it was merely industrial. And accessible only to those who had time to work through the bugs.
Cast your mind forward a couple of decades, and oh how things have changed. Now we expect multiple functionality, terrifyingly intuitive interfaces (get out of my head Ive, get out) and lustful good looks. Things need to operate on so many levels, and operate well, that the only way we start to tell things apart is by margins of failure so small (only eight megapixels? So yesterday, dear) that we’re in danger of becoming obsessed with nit-pickery. So, in a world where we expect so much, can a super-geeky car like the Toyota iQ really deliver all that it promises?
First impressions: in real life, the iQ is quite a lot wider than you think. As wide as a VW Golf and under three metres in length, which makes it look more than a bit square. It’s also got each wheel pushed well out into the corners, giving it what Toyota refers to as ‘super stance’. It is very odd out in the real world, pushed up against Puntos and Focuses and plopped into a mêlée of Milanese traffic like some little techno-invader. It’s not a sense of proportion we’re used to from a car this short – Smarts are a decent wedge narrower.
So it generates plenty of attention on the streets of Milan. Italians are interested in small cars because they see them as solutions rather than any practical indication of status, so they were all over the iQ. But even so. Either Toyota has paid off literally hundreds of ‘passers-by’, or this little wedge generally has a big thumbs-up from the style-savvy Milanese. It’s not a pastiche, it doesn’t rely on a stylistic reinterpretation of a Sixties icon, it isn’t retro. But it looks great. Black out those windows to fully appreciate the reverse swooshy glass on the rear pillar and it just works.
On the inside, it’s a proper little head-scrambler. The shoulder distance between you and your passenger is bigger than in most normal-sized hatches, but then you turn and realise that you can actually touch the rear windscreen from the front seats. The passenger seat has a noticeable shaft of extra legroom, thanks in part to the miniturisation of the aircon/heating unit that now resides in the driver-canted asymmetric dash arrangement – it usually lives in the passenger footwell of most cars. And there’s a handbag velcroed to the passenger side that Toyota calls a glovebox. Toyota seems to have forgotten the definition of ‘box’. The iQ has nine airbags crammed into various pockets, one of which is an industry-first rear curtain jobbie that’s a nice idea but probably won’t do you much good if you get a 70mph rectal exam from a runaway DAF.
Still, all this packaging ingenuity means that the passenger can slide forwards far enough to get one six-footer sat behind another. Not for a long time, admittedly, but for long enough to scoot about a capital. It also means that the other rear seat – the one behind the driver – is for kids only, but we all have at least one small friend. Just make sure that when you’re showing off all this Tardis cleverness to your mates that they don’t touch anything – the interior plastics are rubbish. Really rubbish.
Of course, there’s a raft of stuff that makes it possible to cram big car space into a small car footprint, and some of it is dead obvious – like the supportive but thin seats, which allow for bigger knees – and some of it not so, like the diff mounted alongside the engine up front, or the trick steering arrangement – both of which allow for neater packaging and trim overhangs. But the cleverness isn’t overwhelming when you drive the car. It drives really quite nicely, thanks to a useful five-speed manual (there’s an auto option that’s fine if you really are a committed urbanist). It ain’t no Mini in terms of duck and dive, but it’s very nearly fun to chuck about and can seriously hold its own on a motorway. Noise is well-suppressed, ride is firmish but well-sorted.
The best thing about the iQ is that it has – and remember that I’m saying this about a Toyota – a tremendous sense of personality. From a car maker whose range is generally worthy but about as exciting as bleeding to death in a warm bath, you can’t help but think they’ve gone and done it. A bit of Mini cheek matched with the modernity and rationality of a Smart – except better than both. Best of all, it’s bang on timing-wise, well-sorted and brilliantly conceived. And it makes all the rest look compromised, out-of-date and dull. It’s also reassuringly expensive. Remind you of the iPod yet?