Toyota iQ: a recession proof car?

Tough times these might be but Toyota wasted no expense on the launch of its new

Tough times these might be but Toyota wasted no expense on the launch of its new “micro-premium” car, the iQ in Chiba, outside Tokyo, on Wednesday. Including Toyota employees, 1,000 people were in attendance at an event hall at Makuhari Messe, which serves at the site for the Tokyo Motor Show every two years.

While sales in Japan are likely to be just 2,500 a month, Toyota sees the tiny iQ, which measures just 2.985 meters (117 inches) long by 1.68 meters (65 inches) wide, as a big opportunity. The innovative auto, which will go sale in Japan starting at about $14,000 on November 20, seats three adults and one (small) child by taking advantage of some pretty nifty design innovations. Among them: a flat fuel tank under the floor, a total rethinking of the placement of components to eke out space savings, and a new smaller (but not less effective) air conditioning unit from Denso.

It’s also economical. Under the Japanese 10-15 test cycle, the iQ gets 54mpg, while C02 emissions from its one liter gasoline engine are among the lowest in the Toyota stable (including hybrids). That’s vital in Europe, where the iQ goes on sale in early 2009, as the European Union toughens up emissions regulations.

Chief engineer Hiroki Nakajima also confirmed, to an extent, reports in the press that Toyota plans to bring the iQ to the U.S. He said the iQ can be adapted to U.S. regulations relatively easily, by adopting the front bumper and changing the design of passenger side front airbags (the iQ has nine airbags as standard). Nakajima added that the iQ could appear in the U.S. midway through the current version’s product cycle.

But is Toyota’s iQ a recession buster? Inside, while small, it’s clear that it’s different to many small cars, especially in Japan where minicars tend to be cheap and cheerful econoboxes. The iQ’s doors have a satisfying clunk and the trim is much nicer than the average Yaris. On the other hand, it’s hardly cheap. Toyota says it hopes to create a new segment where small doesn’t have to mean low quality. And while slightly longer than the Smart Fortwo, Toyota points out the Smart only seats two.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way the space-saving technologies used in iQ will be extended to other new models. Nakajima said that while developing the iQ, one idea was to develop a seven-seater Yaris using a similar approach to space.