Scion iQ provides a grim view of future driving

Scion iQ

I've gotten a glimpse at the future, and I'm not sure I like what I see.

Our government has established some tough new fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

Until 2010, all of the cars each automaker manufactured had to average 27.5 miles per gallon. Some models could get less. Some could get more. But that's what the total production run had to average.

Now that requirement is headed up to 35.5 m.p.g. in 2016, on its way to a truly breathtaking 54.5 m.p.g. in 2025.

Some polls I've seen say a majority of Americans are all for such an increase.

Why wouldn't we be? Isn't buying less gas better than buying more? In the abstract, even I can get behind the less-is-better concept.

Except, we don't live in the abstract; we live in the real world.

Can the auto manufacturers double fuel economy in 15 years?

The manufacturers themselves say yes, but -- isn't there always a but? -- there will be consequences.

Where you fall on the scale of viewing a car -- simply a conveyance to get from point to point or a statement of lifestyle and fulfillment -- will determine how dire you think the consequences are.

To meet the new standards, carmakers will have to increase technology and reduce weight.

I give you the 2012 Scion iQ, a car Toyota designed to meet the 2016 fuel-efficiency number.

Its EPA-estimated mileage is 37 m.p.g. in combined city and highway driving, which actually exceeds the 2016 goal by a bit.

But let's compare the iQ to the Fiat 500 to get a sense of what Toyota had to do to meet the 2016 government mandate.

The 500 is one of the smallest cars on the road; its diminutive size startles most people the first time they see it.

It is equipped with a 1.4-liter engine that generates 101 horsepower and gets a combined 30 m.p.g. with a 6-speed automatic transmission or 33 m.p.g. with a 5-speed manual transmission.

Note that neither powertrain reaches the 2016 goal of 35.5 m.p.g.

The iQ does by using a slightly smaller 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 94 h.p. and a more efficient continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

I found that the Scion motors around the city just fine and even merges onto the expressway without much drama.

But you can't escape the fact that it's more boring to drive than the 500, which at least offers both a manual and a driver-shiftable automatic transmission, adding a bit of fun to its driving experience. And whipping the 500 around town isn't all that exciting.

Anyone who enjoys driving will not get much pleasure from the Scion.

The iQ is also smaller than the 500 -- an amazing feat of engineering if I ever saw one.

At just 10 feet long and 2,127 pounds, it's more than a foot-and-a-half shorter and 236 pounds lighter than the Fiat.

It will accommodate three in fair comfort and a fourth, very uncomfortably, in a pinch.

While the iQ has about the same front-seat legroom as the Fiat, backseat passengers have about 3 inches less legroom, and, with the rear seats up, the Scion has no usable cargo space.

How many air bags does it take to protect passengers in a mini subcompact in the event of a crash?

Scion evidently considers 11 to be the appropriate number. The iQ even has one that protects the backs and heads of rear-seat passengers in a rear-end collision.

I'm just not sure that all the air bags in the world will be much help if the offending vehicle is a full-size SUV, let alone a 40-ton 18-wheeler.

The only good thing I can say about this comparison is that at least we won't have to pay more for less.

The iQ's base price is $15,265 (without delivery charges), which is about the same as the least expensive 500.

I have to think that most people will buy cars like the iQ because they have to, not because they want to.

As basic transportation in what seems destined to be an age of uninspiring, fuel-sipping driving utensils, the iQ covers all the bases.

And in that context, I might even be persuaded to say I like it.

But if this is what 2016 looks like, 2025 will be purgatory for car guys like me.

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