The power behind small cars

The latest generation of small vehicles shows car designers at their ingenious best. Not only have there been huge strides in downsizing, but compact exteriors and low-emission mechanicals haven’t compromised interior space and comfort. Some feel more like the Tardis – bigger inside than out, says Guy Bird

Arguably the most important car on display at the influential 2008 Geneva Motor Show was not a big sports car from a manufacturer like Lamborghini, 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 offers four seats through an innovative ‘three-plus-one’ arrangement, an upmarket interior and sub-100g/km carbon dioxide emissions, meaning no London congestion charge and low, or no, road tax elsewhere.

It is one of a raft of new city cars from the big manufacturers – from Volkswagen to Mitsubishi – that looks set to transform the world’s roads in the next decade. The reasons are clear/ environmental concerns and looming European Union fines for non-compliance are focusing the minds of manufacturers, while car buyers are increasingly inclined to buy Green products.

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.’

Hybrids like the Toyota Prius will stay relevant for people who need bigger vehicles, but it is nevertheless 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 with roomy interiors.

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

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 ‘three-plus-one’ 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 by incorporating a flat underfloor fuel tank (only 120mm thick because of the use of high-tensile steel) and rear-angled shock absorbers – meaning the car’s rear overhang can be shorter, too. Although much shorter than the Toyota Yaris, the iQ has a similar width and height, thus retaining 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 designed to tempt buyers out of bigger, upmarket small cars like the Mini and Fiat 500. Expect prices to start at £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, and hopes to sell 100 000 a year from late 2008.

And it’s not alone. The Mitsubishi I is an innovative five-door city car already on sale, which seats four six-foot adults 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 0.6l 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! concept vehicle, while BMW is looking so seriously at this segment it is contemplating launching a specific 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 £1250 in its home market (India) from later this year. However, they do signal a new approach to city motoring, focusing on low emissions, greater fuel economy, tiny exterior dimensions but roomy interior packages.

And unlike most of the old Minis, Fiat 500s and Citroen 2CVs, there will be a bit of luxury, too.

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