As a reporter who covers motor shows in Paris, Geneva and Frankfurt, I get to chat with a lot of European car engineers, designers and journalists. And I’m sorry to say but, no folks, they are not all in a lather about skyrocketing oil prices. Global warming’s No. 1 cause, rising carbon dioxide levels, is the issue on everyone’s lips and the one being addressed on every manufacturer’s stand.
A look at cars displayed by Toyota, Mercedes-Benz or General Motors, for example, shows that making smaller cars in response to high gasoline prices is a secondary priority for carmakers. More importantly, if next-generation cars don’t meet the common cultural desire to drastically reduce CO2 emissions and, in the process, clean up the planet, makers might as well pack up and go home; buyers will ignore them and the media will question their civic resolve — if they don’t just relegate stories on said vehicles to the briefs.
The focus of research and development for cars of the future spans a number of alternative energies, such as electric, hybrid (cars with both a gasoline engine and an electric motor), fuel-cell (cars that use hydrogen and an electric motor) and biofuel. All have one thing in common: They are part of the search for the Holy Grail of the car industry — a viable replacement for engines powered by fossil fuels.
Some scientific estimates say fossil fuels will run out as early as 2050, but while these alternative forms of propulsion show promise, they are still experimental. The huge cost and logistic difficulties of not only building them but creating a viable support infrastructure, as well as gaining public acceptance, means the dominant form of propulsion for the next 40 years, at least, will be some version of the internal-combustion engine. Gasoline and diesel engines, and hybrid derivatives, are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
While Toyota built the first environmentally friendly Prius hybrid car a decade ago, and plans to scale up its production and range of hybrids soon, it also sees growing demand for smaller, cleaner, fuel-efficient gasoline-powered cars. What the market needs now, in Toyota’s opinion, is an unconventional conventional car — such as its iQ.
Rarely does a car come along that tips the auto industry upside-down and shakes it to the core as much as the iQ. This is a car so innovative in its concept, packaging and design that it might become the new yardstick for small cars — not to mention CO2 emissions. (Its results rival the lowest found in Europe, where there are the world’s toughest restrictions.)
And the iQ has a major advantage over alternatively powered vehicles: They will need to travel at least 500 km on one tank of fuel for the public to accept them. Few do. Toyota’s FCHV fuel-cell pickup truck impresses me the most, with an industry-leading 830-km range (thanks to a high-pressure hydrogen tank and state-of-the-art electronics). Honda’s smart-looking FCX Clarity, the first fuel-cell, four-seater sedan powered by hydrogen also has cleared 600 km, and it is the closest alternative yet to the average family car. But these experimental vehicles cost well over $1 million each to build, and a grossly inadequate infrastructure — only a handful of hydrogen refueling stations exist in Japan, the United States and Europe — means drivers must limit travel to restricted areas.
A slightly better option is an electric car, which you can just plug in to the mains to recharge. Of these, Nissan’s electric Cube prototype is something of a revelation. I was amazed, at a recent drive session, by its acceleration, stability and just how well it handled. Its lithium-ion batteries and high-tech electric motor will appear in Nissan’s first specially designed and developed — but as yet unnamed — electric vehicle, due to go on sale in 2010.
But those are cars of the future. Of the ones available right now, the iQ offers the breakthrough engineering of the moment — not just in regard to emissions, but also its size. If you thought Toyota’s Yaris was small, get a load of this. At under 3 meters in length, the iQ is considerably smaller than the Yaris. Japan’s No. 1 carmaker is calling it the world’s smallest four-seater car. That it may be, but really the iQ will seat only three adults reasonably comfortably, with the fourth space, behind the driver, basically providing enough room for shopping or one anklebiter.
The iQ is only marginally bigger than the German two-seater Smart microcar. But at a test drive of the iQ in Japan in August, chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima stressed that the chunky Smart was not Toyota’s benchmark, despite the similar name and looks of its own microcar. “Our aim was not to make a four-seater Smart. In order to ensure a sustainable future, there was a need for a radical change in vehicle packaging. We needed to create a breakthrough, away from the traditional belief that small is basic.”
A couple of hours in the iQ proves that the tiny Toyota is anything but basic. Its disgruntled puppy-like face surprisingly boasts greater on-road presence than the Yaris, and inside the car feels surprisingly spacious. Indeed it is here where Toyota’s engineers really shine. To build such a stubby car and yet deliver a spacious cabin for three adults, competitive handling and world-class safety levels, the people in white coats came up with some startling innovations. They redesigned the entire drivetrain and suspension system, downsized the bulky air-conditioning unit, and in the process managed to fit nine air bags. Slated for release in October in Japan and Europe, the iQ will come with a choice of engines, including a 1.0-liter gasoline motor (in Japan) and a 1.4-liter diesel turbo (in Europe).
While both these versions drive well, it’s Toyota’s attention to CO2 levels that impresses potential buyers most. Boasting more than 21 km/liter, the 1.0-liter iQ produces just 99g/km of CO2 which is equal to the lowest in Europe today. That mantle belongs to the VW Polo TDI diesel, which is also a bigger car. So while CO2 emissions will weigh heavily on customers’ minds, it seems that the little iQ’s price, starting at around ¥1.3 million, will either make or break it.
As I turned off the key and exited the car, I thought that even if the iQ is not the huge success its maker hopes for, lessons learned in the construction of this microcar will be far reaching, with ripples felt from Detroit to Frankfurt and beyond.
Peter Lyon is a 20-year motor journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.