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Friday, March 16, 2012

Scion of Manhattan: Rooftop Party

For city drivers, this is a peeve that gets the best of us. Here you are, minding your own business, gingerly pulling a yellow Cinquecento out from a snug parking space that had taken you hours to find in the first place when [SPOILER ALERT!] the world's largest leg of ham falls from the sky.

Through the decades, many European automakers have tried to solve city transportation, introducing clever solutions such as the original Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 500, and Mini Cooper to navigate Europe's narrow city streets. While these names still exist today, the present-day offerings are only bloated caricatures of the past tools of urban mobility.

However, just because the successors have strayed from its original M.O. to become fashionable accessories, it doesn't mean that city cars are no longer necessary. Case in point, there are more than 8 million people now living in New York City. If anything, owning a micro-car makes more sense now than ever before.

The question is... which one?

To help me find the answer, I contacted the friendly folks of Scion Manhattan requesting for some seat time behind the all-new Scion iQ. Monday morning, sales Manager Josh Hennion calls back and asks, "How would you like to come in later today and drive our iQ on a closed course located on a Manhattan rooftop against a Smart fortwo and a Fiat 500?" Unexpected, sure, but how could I say no?!

Objectively, Scion faces some stiff competition. Back in 1998, Smart fortwo was a break-through collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and watchmaker Swatch. Conceived for the sole purpose of creating a product that'll effectively alleviate Europe's crowded cities, Smart has sold more than a million fortwo's to date. Last year, the new Fiat 500 was the new darling of the automotive industry. In fact, the Fiat 500C cabrio that hung on the wall at last year's New York International Auto Show made Fiat arguably one of the most attractive booths at the entire show. What's more, the new 500 has garnered extremely successful sales numbers across Europe as well. Despite the odds, there were three reasons why Scion could come out on top. First, it's the newest offering of the three models. Second, European results do not guarantee North American success. Lastly, Scion is a brand Toyota created exclusively for North America.

Arriving at Scion Manhattan, I was greeted with an entourage that escorted me up to the top of the building. The trio of city-cars lined up against one side of the building with little traffic cones set across the rooftop for a makeshift autocross circuit that overlooked the Hudson and New Jersey on one side, as well as a glimpse of Times Square on the other.

First things first, I took care of the paperwork and signed a waiver of liability in the unlikely event I plunge off the edge (this is going to be fun!). As this rooftop party was created on extremely short notice, I pretty much had the three rides all to myself for the evening save for a cute blonde (looked like she was PR or marketing) that got there first.

The cute blonde jumped into the Smart fortwo and was off. Not only did this give me a moment to have a chat with the Scion staff, but I got to watch her get around the course before I did. This will help me look like less of an ass when I get behind the wheel later.

This isn't my first encounter with the Scion iQ. In fact, that would be about a year ago when I saw it at the 2011 New York Auto Show. My initial impressions were pretty straightforward: the name iQ is clearly a play on Smart, hence I believed that Scion's city car is but a mere front-wheel-drive copycat of the fortwo. However, much can change in a year. Despite solid sales numbers in Europe, neither the Smart or the Fiat enjoyed similar success in North America. Is U.S.A. a failed market? If we don't really want a Smart or a Fiat, then why would we want a Scion iQ?

According to Josh Hennion, Fiat and Smart's lack of success comes down to its inability to create a product that provides as much of what the consumers want as the way the Scion iQ does. Scion is a showcase of innovative design, clever packaging, and unique urban capabilities. It's got modern conveniences like Bluetooth hands-free, audio/usb connectivity, 6 speakers, and HD Radio that are all standard equipment. In terms of safety, the Scion iQ boasts 11 airbags including a world's first for the rear window.

What's more, Hennion explained that the Scion iQ's selective North American release in the west coast three months ago allows for the east coast to better understand the iQ's reception and to better gauge marketing strategies. Finally, Hennion noted that Fiat and Smart are both a one-product company here in the United States. Contrarily, as a new product, the iQ also serves as an attention grabber to increase foot traffic in Scion dealerships, creating a valuable opportunity to expose new customers to other Scion models in the line-up as well.

Anyway, enough with the chit-chat. I'm up.

Inside, each of the city-cars could well be a TARDIS. Exterior dimensions are tiny but once inside, I never felt cramped in any of them.

On paper, the Smart fortwo should deliver the most go-kart-like handling. It has got the shortest wheelbase, a rear-engine rear-wheel-drive layout, unassisted steering, and is also the lightest of the three (1609 lbs.). Unfortunately, in practice, the 70-hp 3-cylinder engine sounded pathetic and the drive was joyless. Out of the box, the Smart still felt quite peppy but once I encountered some cones, my arms were scrambling to yank the steering wheel as quickly as I could while both my feet feathered the brakes and throttle to find the balance necessary to pull a decent looking slalom. Nothing worked. I resorted to working out physics equations during my run, experimenting braking points that would hopefully bring some weight to the front wheels for grip. Feeling a bit sweaty, this was all physically and mentally draining, to say the least. Reflecting on my time spent with the Smart fortwo, while I'll give credit to the ingenious engineering required to create a vehicle of such light and compact dimensions, I did not enjoy a second of it. Perhaps this is because I've yet to acclimate to driving a mini-car or it could be that the Smart is simply hard to drive. I'm going with the latter. Later that day, I was also told that the Smart has a clunky transmission to boot. I didn't get a chance to shift any gears while driving on the rooftop.

Next up: the Fiat 500. Of the three, the 500 definitely gave the best first impression. While all three vehicles were built on a price point and extensive use of plastics are found in all three interiors, Fiat presented quite a pleasant cabin to be in. My only reservation would be the placement of the gear shifter. While it might improve cabin ergonomics, a lack of a center console makes this little toy car feel even more toy-like.

The Fiat 500 is the largest, heaviest, and has the longest wheelbase of the three cars. If the Smart was such a struggle to drive, then this should not bode well for the chubby "topolino" either. Surprisingly, the Fiat 500 turned out to be much easier. First off, the power-assisted steering made for less of a workout. Secondly, the multi-air 1.4 liter inline-4 makes up for the Fiat 500's heft by producing 30 more horsepower than the Smart fortwo.

Compared to the Smart, turn-in also felt more darty and the Fiat 500 was just easier to place. Despite these improvements, the wide turning radius was definitely inadequate for the tight course. On more than one occasion, I had to come to a full stop, and shift into reverse to reset myself. Embarrassing for sure, but since I did not accelerate off the building, I don't think anybody noticed. This brings up another point-- a Fiat 500 isn't exactly the car of choice for rooftop driving; no car really is. However, on the road, Fiat's respectable wheelbase should make it the most comfortable of the three to drive day-to-day (A Scion marketing rep disagreed after driving the Fiat for 3 hours but I suspect the Scion emblem on his snazzy windbreaker had something to do with his opinion as well).

Finally, it was time to get familiar with the Scion iQ. The most eye catching in design and surface treatments, the silver paint slightly let the car down. Since the iQ is very much a trendy statement vehicle, why not give each and every one a Skittles candy-inspired statement color?

While the iQ looks very similar to the Smart from afar, the small differences combine to make a big difference. Compared side by side, the front-engine, front-wheel-drive iQ is lower, has less ground clearance, and is wider than the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive Smart fortwo. Inside, the iQ's vastly black and dark-gray interior felt kind of dull but did show superior build quality and clever packaging. In fact, the tiny Scion also manages to fit in a set of backseats, making it the tiniest 4-passenger vehicle in North America. Demonstrating the iQ's versatility, the gentlemen at Scion showed me that the front seats are actually staggered and that the passenger footwell is significantly deeper thanks to the absence of a steering column. This allows the passenger seat to roll forward for space at the back, officially making the Scion iQ a proper 3+1. From the naked eye, the ability to carry extra passengers only seems implausible because Scion has done a great job hiding the fact that it's actually a foot longer than the Smart fortwo.

The "Goldilocks" of the trio, Scion's 1.3 liter engine produces 94-hp and 89 ft.-lbs. of torque, numbers that sit right in between the Smart and the Fiat. Weighing only 2,127 lbs., or 300 less than the Fiat, the Scion certainly feels lithe. If I had a long enough er... rooftop, the Scion iQ will reach 60 mph in 11.8 seconds. Comparatively, the more torquey Fiat reaches 60 mph in 9.7 seconds while the Smart takes 12.8 seconds. Despite the modest numbers, acceleration from these micro-cars are more than enough for city driving. As a matter of fact, all three can get around 40 mpg so you won't ever feel guilty for flooring it anyway.

Despite falling into the middle of the pack in terms of power delivery, the Scion iQ's handling prowess is where it really shines. In both the Fiat and the Smart, the slaloms were a lock-to-lock exercise. Anticipating more of the same from the iQ, my muscle memory was committed and ready for some more steering wheel frenzy. To my relief, and surprise, the Scion iQ lives for rooftop slaloms, flicking itself back and forth effortlessly as the tires chirped happily as if asking me for more. Body roll was negligible and I didn't have to feather the brakes and throttle nor worry about its turning radius (12.9 feet) either. I didn't even break a sweat. As a matter of fact, flinging a 180 around the end point was so quick, I actually had to counter a little bit. Hell, I even had the control and confidence to stick my head out the window to tell Josh Hennion, "Wow, this is really fun!" before tucking my head back in to complete the turn. I know, what a show-off! There's no question, the iQ's turning radius puts itself leaps and bounds ahead of the Fiat and the Smart in terms of agility.

And there you have it. In a rooftop autocross, the Scion iQ is a clear winner, literally steps ahead of its two competitors. It provides generous standard equipment, nice fit and finish, great gas mileage, and an interesting passenger layout that will allow you to share the iQ experience with more friends. But what about owning an iQ in the real world?

In terms of practicality, it's hard to get over the fact that a Scion iQ starts at $15,995. Frankly, this is a bit expensive, especially when you consider that a 2012 5-door Toyota Yaris starts at a more affordable $14,115. Sure, the Yaris may not have the bluetooth and HD radio, but it does have two extra doors and a more conventional body design.

The important thing to understand is that the targeted consumers of the Scion brand don't always make rational purchases. Unapologetically aimed at the hip and young "me" generation, the Scion iQ is all about individuality, personalization, cool alloy rims, and pop culture. No doubt, Scion's always got 'swagga' down pat.

Muchas gracias to Scion Manhattan once again for their hospitality and for providing me with the three vehicles.

Click on the pictures to start GALLERY:

Check out Scion of Manhattan on Facebook for more event pictures and videos: Link

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