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?