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Discussion Starter · #1 ·

City cars: Smart Fortwo, Chevrolet Spark, Scion iQ

Three tiny cars designed for life in the big city
Could it be that one day all cars will be like this? After all, the human race is congregating into ever larger cities and metropolises. Families keep getting smaller, and ever more people live alone. How many of us really need anything more?

Alternatively, maybe the whole concept of 'city car' is an oxymoron. If you live in the city, you do not need a car, period. Walk. Take the bus. Join a car-sharing scheme.

Of course, you could do all the above and still own a car — you just don't use it in the city. Except, if your car is reserved for weekend getaways or road-trip vacations, you might need more than two-and-a-bit seats and the cargo capacity of a shoe box.

Oh well. It's not my place to solve the socio-political issues of car ownership. What we are here to do is examine three candidates for your city-car dollar, and maybe even pick a winner.

The cars assembled here present an interesting illustration of relativity. In the eyes of many, even the largest of this trio is too small to be considered a 'real' car at all. Yet even within this tiny sub-species of car-ness, we find a surprising diversity in their dimensions. The Chevrolet Spark may be only 3.7 metres long but it's almost a full metre longer overall than the runt-like Smart Fortwo; to put that in perspective, one metre is also the difference in length between, say, a Chevy Sonic subcompact and an Impala full-size sedan. Like I said, it's all relative.

Then there's the Scion iQ. Splitting the difference between Smart and Spark, it's almost identical in length to an original 1959 Mini. Except, for all its painstaking packaging, the iQ has less room for four passengers than the pioneering Brit did. Of course, the original Mini was also about as crashworthy as a piñata.

The engineering solutions are equally diverse

The Smart has its powertrain in the rear — a three-cylinder 70-hp, 1.0-litre unit hitched to a 'robo-box' automated manual transmission. The other two locate their motivators up front but the Scion opts for a continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) while the Spark provides a conventional choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes; both engines are four-cylinders, but surprisingly the Scion has the larger one — a 1.33-litre piece rated at 94 horsepower versus the Spark's 1.25-litre churning out 84 horses.

We all know there is no linear relationship between car size and price. Even down here in the basement of the market that is true, with the largest car here asking the lowest price of entry — $11,845 for a base Spark LS. Add automatic and air to a Spark, however, and you're up to $14,395 — coincidentally, almost exactly the same as the $14,400 listing for the lowliest, yet similarly equipped, Smart Fortwo. All these MSRPs exclude freight, taxes, and fees.

Spark pricing tops out at $18,245 for the 2LT automatic. You can spend a lot more on a Smart, which comes in three trim grades and is also available as a convertible. Check all the option boxes and you could pay well north of $25,000 for, say, a Brabus Convertible.

In stark contrast, the Scion iQ comes in just one version, asking $16,760. At that price it's better equipped not only than the base Smart but also out-features the mid-grade, $17,500 Smart.

Car footprints vs. Carbon footprints

All these cars have small footprints — in the literal sense. Figuratively, not so much. If you're on a mission to lower your carbon footprint, you can get better fuel economy in larger, more practical cars with alternative powertrains — a Golf TDI, for example, or a Toyota Prius c. According to U.S. EPA tests, which are more realistic than our Canadian ones, the iQ and the Smart have a clear edge over the Spark automatic in city driving, but in highway driving it's a wash. And if you're prepared to pick your own gears, a judiciously driven Spark five-speed should be easier on gas than the automatic.

Our comparison drive was too short to allow accurate same-day/same-place testing, but for what it's worth, past individual tests of these cars measured average consumption of 5.5 L/100 km in a Smart, 6.4 in a Spark manual and 6.9 in a Scion iQ. That doesn't quite make the Smart the moolah-miser it seems, though: would you believe it requires premium gasoline?

In the overall scheme of things all these cars are gas misers. Chances are, too, that you're not going to put a lot of clicks on them. So perhaps the real conclusion here is that fuel consumption shouldn't be a factor in choosing between them. In which case, what should?

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152 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Third place: Smart Fortwo

Photo: Jeremy Sinek
The Smart was the original urban mobility module, and despite a slight up-sizing in 2008 it remains true to the mandate. Key to its minuscule footprint is that it doesn't even pretend to have a back seat. Yet it's surprisingly accommodating for the two people it can carry — at least, if they're not overly wide-bodied. The cabin is very narrow, but we test-fitted my lean and lanky six-foot-seven neighbour without complaint.

Despite only the most rudimentary adjustments (seat fore-aft and recline) the driving position feels surprisingly 'right' for most body shapes, though the HVAC controls at the top of the dash are a stretch. Cloth-covered trim panels add an upscale look, even if the material below is hard to the touch. There are no visibility glitches.

Apart from being absurdly easy to park, the Smart — ironically — is not a great drive in the city. The three-cylinder engine is quite refined when it's working hard — at 120 km/h on the highway, for example — but it tends to snatch and lurch when trickling along at low speed, and vibrates when accelerating from below 2,000 rpm.

The automated-manual transmission just doesn't cut it any more. The robotised shifts feel like they're being performed by a learner driver. One moment the Smart is accelerating in lively fashion, the next there's a giant pause and a lurch while the robot laboriously selects the next ratio. Using the paddle shifters and feathering the throttle at appropriate moments can smooth over the worst of it, but isn't this supposed to be an automatic?

Don't look for any compensation in the handling. The steering is stiff and bizarrely reluctant to turn in; persuade it to do so, and any attempt at expressive cornering is met with understeer; and while the 8.8-metre turning circle is tight by any normal measure, it's actually almost a metre wider than the larger Scion.

Given the tiny wheelbase, some tendency to pitch is to be expected, but we didn't experience it often. Mostly the ride is unquestionably stiff, but the tight, almost sports-car-like damping soothes the sting of all but the worst surfaces.

Second place: Scion iQ

Photo: Jeremy Sinek
The result of Toyota's bid to build a better Smart only looks big in comparison with its nemesis. Toyota used the extra 356 mm of body length to squeeze in a pair of spare seats. To its credit the Scion can carry up to two extra passengers, but unless they are small children, this facility is best considered an emergency reserve, not a resource for daily use.

A more realistic use for the rear bench is folding it flat to expand cargo room from almost non-existent to a level more comparable to a conventional subcompact (with its rear seats up).

Up front, our medium-size tester loved the iQ's lofty seating position with firm under-thigh support and good forward visibility; taller members of our crew, however, complained of being too high (the iQ has steering tilt adjustment but the seat height is fixed). With its relatively wide cabin and cab-forward windshield, it doesn't feel as if the car you're driving is as small as it is.

The aesthetics of the iQ's interior, with a mish-mash of asymmetric shapes and mismatched materials, is an acquired taste. We liked the chunky flat-bottom wheel rim and straightforward HVAC controls, less so the sometimes hard-to-read speedometer and the user-hostile touch controls on the optional Pioneer audio upgrade. A big raspberry, too, for the massive shoulder-check blind spot created by the stout B-pillar.

Dynamically the iQ is (almost) everything the Smart isn't. Aside from turning on an even smaller dime, the steering is uncommonly quick, which lends the stubby car a real sense of agility on the move. As well, the iQ is faster against the clock than the Smart, and the machinations of the CVT automatic are as seamless as those of the Smart aren't.

But it's not all sweetness and light. The Scion stirs up at least as much wind and road roar as the Smart; and the CVT often induces seemingly random surges of engine speed even when you're not trying to hurry it along. As well, the firm ride is more likely than the other cars' to be rattled by potholes and sunken manhole covers.

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
First place: Chevrolet Spark

While the Smart and the iQ try to redefine what it is to be a car, the Spark is a 'car as we know it, only smaller' — a 9/10ths-scale replica, if you like, of a conventional subcompact. There are only two seats in the rear, but average-size adults can occupy them — and access them through their own doors — as long as those in front aren't greedy with legroom.

Seat-height adjustment theoretically gives the Spark more at-the-wheel flexibility than the other cars, though our less-tall tester lacked thigh support when using the extra height. The motorcyclesque gauge pod is a nice touch, especially the way it moves in unison with the steering column when you adjust the steering tilt, like in a Porsche 928. The small LCD tachometer is hard to read, though, and the feature-rich MyLink commutainment system (standard on LT trims) confirms that touch-sensitive switches and cars do not mix.

According to the city-car mandate the Spark's transmission should be an automatic, but we're loath to recommend the Spark's optional four-speed. Thus equipped (and as measured at AJAC TestFest), the 0-100 km/h stroll occupies a yawning 14.1 seconds. For our comparison drive GM supplied a manual, which feels peppy and willing and should knock two seconds off the slushbox 0-100 time. The shifter isn't the last word in precision, but its action is smooth and effortless.

The engine isn't especially muted even by teeny-car standards, but its voice is inoffensive in character. At 120 km/h on the highway the tacho may be showing a hectic 3,500 rpm, but it doesn't sound or feel stressed. Wind noise is well muted, too.

The electrically boosted steering is light at all speeds (no variable-assist trickery here) and direct. We'd like more on-centre precision but still, the Spark doesn't mind being tossed around if that's your style. The 9.9-metre turning circle seems on the wide side, though, for the size of the car.

The Spark's ride quality is a real surprise. To be sure it's very stiffly sprung, but it's also really well sorted: hit a bump, and the suspension registers it once, and then recovers with a discipline worthy of a Porsche.


If you're really on a mission to minimise your footprint, nothing does it better than the Smart. Too bad that, as a driving experience, it's at its worst in the city. And for a car this small, the fuel economy should be even better. If you're really set on demonstrating your eco-chic street cred, wait a few months and buy the Smart electric — the car the Smart should have been from the start.

The Scion is a much better drive than the Smart. It's quite quick, its handling is borderline fun, and even if you only need a two-seater, its 3+1 seating at least gives you options. Its real-world fuel-consumption, however, really betrays it. Unless you're really hard-up for parking, a base Yaris would cost less to buy and deliver similar fuel economy, or you can really shrink your carbon footprint, not just your car, with a Prius c for about $4,000 more.

Which leaves us with the Spark, a decent-driving little 'real' car with more practicality and better fuel economy than the iQ. The Spark offers the lowest price of entry of these three if you can do without auto and air, and even when it's optioned up it remains more affordable than the comparably equipped competition. Sometimes small is beautiful, but this time bigger is better.

Chevrolet Spark
Price (base/as-tested): $11,845 / $16,995
Type of vehicle: FWD subcompact hatchback
Engine: 1.25-litre, 16V, DOHC I-4
Power/Torque: 84 hp/83 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Five-speed manual (Opt. four-speed automatic)
0-100 km/h (AT): 14.1 sec
Fuel consumption (city/hwy; AT): 7.1/5.2 L/100 km

Scion iQ
Price (base/as-tested): $16,760 / $17,355
Type of vehicle: FWD microcompact hatchback
Engine: 1.33-litre, 16V, DOHC I-4
Power/Torque: 94 hp/89 lb.-ft.
Transmission: CVT
0-100 km/h: 11.5 sec
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 5.5/4.7 L/100 km

Smart Fortwo
Price (base/as-tested): $14,400 / $18,400
Type of vehicle: RWD microcompact coupe
Engine: 1.0-litre, 12V, DOHC I-3
Power/Torque: 70 hp/68 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Five-speed automated manual
0-100 km/h: 13.2 sec
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 5.8/4.7 L/100 km

Comparison: 2013 Chevrolet Spark vs. Scion iQ vs. Smart Fortwo - - Autos - MSN CA

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Much deserved first place. The Spark is the only one that can actually replace a full sized car. I can't help but feel that the Fortwo and iQ are compromises.
I agree. If it wasn't for the Chevy Spark I might have gone for the iQ. Gotta love having a car that replaces a full size car but gets the gas mileage needed these days with a super low MSRP.
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