Go-karting always looked like a lot of fun.
Looking back at my youth, I would imagine that a few of my friends took up this first step in motorsport. I would have loved to partake, but I was a fat kid and we don't fit in those things.
Yet, the great drivers of our time began their journey in these lawnmower engine-powered machines. The names of Ayrton Senna and Sebastien Vettel came up quite frequently in their stories towards their driver's championships in Formula One. To become the next Vettel, Senna, Franchitti, Gordon or McNish, karting is a good place to start.
Having never been to a Go-kart track, a curious invitation came across my Facebook to do so. Scion, the cool/hip brand of Toyota, went out and rented some Go-kart venues across America for potential drivers to try out their newest product – the little iQ.
Though it may appear to be some form of joke, putting the small iQ on a Go-kart track seems logical. Actually, putting actual cars on these tracks had a precedent, thanks to Vicki Butler-Henderson and her crew from Fifth Gear putting both a MINI Cooper and a Alfa Romeo MiTo on some indoor kart track for a comparison. The iQ is much smaller than either one – making the challenge quite the curiosity.
The iQ was introduced by Toyota for select global markets over the past couple of years. One such iQ found its way on Top Gear with James May behind the wheel with a Saint Bernard on board. This "test" demonstrated the sensible nature of the smallest two-row automobile ever made this side of the kei car. The iQ's mission is urban transport with plenty of cool on board – just like any Scion-badged automobile.
The obvious question I had was whether the iQ was for real or not. The answer to this question was already provided by a similarly looking product – the two-seat smart forTwo. In cities where space is limited for on-street parking and/or traffic congestion, the smart and the iQ appear to be good solutions.
Having driven the smart a few years ago, I concluded that our cities would benefit from these ultra-subcompacts. However, the whole experiment almost went bust. Daimler took away the smart franchise in the USA from Penske and gave it to Mercedes-Benz of North America.
Now, the Scion iQ arrives. It may appear unconventional, but it is not. The engine and driveline is up front and there is a back seat. This sounds like a better proposition than the rear-engined, two-seat smart – but is it?
The design influence of the smart is evident in the iQ. Compared to the somewhat similar-looking Mitsubishi MiEV, conventional elements help make the iQ more accessible in its class. It works in terms of a visual implosion of the size and scale of this vehicle. Some may deride the vehicle as looking too squat for its own good. I beg to differ. The design works in Scion's favor – splashes of cool with a degree of practicality.
Inside is a similar story. The functionality factor works from the dashboard to the space saving measures in seat adjustment and the use of a high center position for Scion's Pioneer audio systems. Though it seems everything is placed right onto the edge of the windshield, there's enough access to switches from the driver to work through. It incorporates a decent amount of kit on board, which would entice even the most discriminating urban automotive consumer.
Front seating was comfortable, but I would prefer much more side bolstering. However, be astonished as to the amount of space front passengers have. It is extraordinarily generous in both height and length. The rear seats look decent, but I highly doubt of anyone would want to sit in them. They're better off in folded down for a decent amount of cargo space below. Otherwise, you can only fit groceries or anything that can be flat-packed on its side.
If you're concerned about safety, the iQ has more airbags than most mainstream automobiles – eleven to be exact. Not that we count airbags, but it practically eliminates the question of whether the iQ is safe to drive or not.
The iQ is powered by a 1.3liter, dual overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine with the requisite four valves-per-cylinder and variable valve timing. What may surprise you about this engine is the fact that there's 94 horsepower coming out of this engine to propel 2,124 pounds worth of car. If you're looking for the big star of the iQ, it's this powerful little mill and how it is packaged underneath that small hood up front. A continuously variable transmission transmits these 94 ponies right down to the front wheels.
Driving the iQ is an experience if you push it. For those of us who would just use it around town, it's a weighty and solid driver. Unlike the smart, the iQ feels substantial up front with an honest feel from the road. It is also quite balanced and poised when going upright. Steering feel is sharp and direct, while the brakes stop quite well – even with not a lot of weight to bring to a halt.
Into the corners, there is a bit of roll, but not enough to scare you when taking a curve or bank. That is if you only drive "normally."
Where the iQ would surprise you is on a Go-kart track. During this part of the demonstration, I was not the one driving. It was left to a professional driver who gave me the thrill of a lifetime. I have never been on a track – let alone a Go-kart one. This would be my first experience riding along with a driver on any given track.
At this indoor Go-kart track in the South Metro suburb of Burnsville, I was thrown into an iQ along with the professional driver, and – oh, dear, God! I endured six laps around its challenging turns as the iQ tested the limits of the apexes with its squat size and its wheels to the extreme corners of the car. They were unlike anything I’ve experienced – and I'd like more of that, please!
When you push the iQ to its limits, it shows you why it was developed in the first place. It is a tall Go-kart, but it can be handled like one. The best application of the iQ is of an urban dweller, faced with limited parking options, narrower streets and the ability to tackle an afternoon's worth of shopping for groceries, clothing and personal electronics even if the stores are in the suburbs.
Keep in mind that the iQ is not public transport, but think of the times when hauling a week’s worth of groceries on the bus or rail were a bit of a chore. The iQ would be a great way to tackle the crowded urban community.
In terms of fuel economy, Scion states that the iQ gets 36MPG in the city, 37 out on the highway. When other manufacturers are touting 40MPG, some consumers may be put off that the iQ doesn't reach that magic number. In realistic terms, these numbers are as good as it gets.
The price tag may also be a point of contention. It starts just below $16,000, which puts it in contention with mainstream subcompacts. Think about this for a moment, does a MINI Cooper buyer care how much they spend on their car? You don't buy an iQ for the same reasons you buy a Kia Rio or Chevrolet Sonic. There is a fashion sense to the iQ that perhaps justifies the cost – aimed directly at a discriminating urban consumer.
To sum up the Scion iQ and the experience I had in being thrown about in an indoor Go-kart arena and driving it in a more civilized controlled track, one word comes to mind: Fun. This is why you buy an iQ more than anything.
We may laugh its it's squat presence and lack of practicality for families. Make no mistake that the Scion iQ would run circles around the city – just like it did in an indoor Go-kart track
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles and event logistics provided by Toyota Motor Sales USA
All photos by Randy Stern