Hot Wheels

By Guy Bird for Design Week, May 2008

The power behind small cars

City cars used to be mainly dull affairs, more A to B than motoring pleasure. But as Guy Bird reports, a new breed of slicker eco-focused small motor is emerging that makes the new Mini look big and the old Mini seem basic...

Arguably the most important car at the influential 2008 Geneva motor show was not one of the many big sportscars on display from Lamborghini and others, but the diminutive Toyota iQ city car. Although half a metre shorter than the new Fiat 500 – currently the urban car of the moment – the iQ still offers four seats through an innovative ‘3+1’ packaging arrangement, an upmarket interior and sub-100g/km CO2 emissions, meaning no London congestion charge and low or no road tax elsewhere.

With environmental concerns and looming associated EU fines for non-compliance focusing the minds of carmakers as never before, the timing could not be better

It’s one of a raft of new city cars from major manufacturers – from VW to Mitsubishi – that looks set to transform the world’s roads in the next decade. With environmental concerns and looming associated EU legislative fines for non-compliance focusing the minds of carmakers as never before, plus a general public more inclined than ever to buy suitably green products, the timing could not be better.

Toyota Europe’s executive vice-president Thierry Dombreval went so far as to say: “We think the iQ’s revolutionary package will have the same sort of impact on the market that the Toyota hybrid technology introduced ten years ago, did in the world of powertrains.” That statement doesn’t mean hybrids like the Toyota Prius won’t stay relevant for people who need bigger vehicles but is merely an admission that smaller conventionally powered vehicles can and need to play a crucial role – using small frugal petrol and diesel engines teamed up with lightweight bodies but still roomy interior space.

Key to the iQ’s tiny proportions are major changes to the way its mechanical and electrical innards have been reorganised. At the front a new type of inverted transmission differential and higher steering mechanicals have allowed a more compact engine compartment, that means the front wheels can be placed further towards the corners of the car for a shorter front overhang as well as creating more passenger cabin length.

Inside, the air-conditioning system has been drastically reduced in size so it now fits just at the back of the centre of the dashboard – previous systems spilled across to behind the passenger side of the dashboard too. This is made possible by different routing of the air and means the dashboard can become asymmetrical and pushed much further forward on the passenger side to enable the clever ‘3+1’ seating configuration. As the iQ’s cabin length is greater on the passenger side it allows two adults to sit one behind the other, while the more conventional side still allows an adult driving space and either a child seat or luggage space behind. Despite effectively having no separate boot compartment, Toyota says the iQ “makes no compromises on safety” with a top five star rating for crash protection expected.

Slimmer seats create an extra 40mm of rear passenger knee room and space is created at the very back of the vehicle with a flat underfloor fuel tank only 120mm thick made possible by hi-tensile steel – plus rear-angled shock absorbers – meaning the car’s rear overhangs can be shorter too. Although much shorter than sister Toyota products the Aygo city car and Yaris supermini, the iQ has a similar width and height to the latter, thus still creating a wide-open interior feeling. The iQ won’t be budget motoring though. It offers a neatly styled exterior with a smart high quality interior aiming to tempt buyers out of upmarket bigger ‘small cars’ like the Mini and Fiat 500 with prices from £9000 when the final production version is shown at the Paris motor show this autumn. Like both of those products, it aims to be a unisex product. There is nothing overtly aggressive or indeed cutesy about its form. Toyota has big plans for its little vehicle with ambitions to sell 100,000 per year from late 2008.

And it’s far from alone. The Mitsubishi i is an innovative five-door city car package already on sale that genuinely seats four six foot adults comfortably but is narrower than the new Smart two-seater. Winner of the 2006 Japanese Good Design Awards Grand Prize it is powered by a tiny low-emission 0.6-litre engine with an even cleaner fully electric version due by 2011. VW is looking at a range of stylish small car products based on its recent Up! vehicle concepts for global markets and the BMW Group is looking so seriously at this segment it is contemplating launching a specific new city car brand to market the idea under its Mini range.

None of these cars will be cheap – unlike the no-nonsense Tata Nano, allegedly costing only circa £1250 for its local Indian market from later this year – but they do signal a new approach to city motoring focusing on low emissions, great fuel economy, tiny exterior dimensions but amazingly roomy interior packages. And this time – unlike most of the old Minis, Fiat 500s and Citroen 2CVs – a bit of luxury too.


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