RICK KRANZ

4-by-8: Great for a toy train layout, a bit small for a car

The seat behind the Scion iQ driver is big enough for a baby seat.
Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News.

When I was a kid, one of the highlights of the Christmas season was running my Lionel trains on top of a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood.

But a car that size? Forget about it.

It was an annual ritual after Thanksgiving Day. My dad and I carried a 4-x-8-foot sheet of plywood, painted green to create the impression of grass, from the garage, across the driveway, through the kitchen and down to the basement.

Some 2-by-4s were nailed together and positioned as legs, and the sheet of plywood was placed on top. The rest of the day was devoted to putting the track together, connecting wires to the transformer, assembling the village and, finally -- for hours -- running a Santa Fe passenger train and a freight train pulled by a Pennsylvania Railroad steamer around the layout.

That 4-x-8 layout is vividly ingrained in my mind. It impossible for me to understand why anyone would purchase a car that's just a little larger than my old train layout.

Toyota believes there's a market here for its recently introduced iQ and Smart persists with the ForTwo. The Smart is just 10 inches longer and 13 inches wider than that old train layout. The recently introduced 2012 Scion iQ is 24 inches longer and 18 inches wider.

Scion says the iQ is the perfect vehicle for urbanites living in crowded neighborhoods where parking is at a premium. That's the major selling point: The iQ is small enough to fit the remnants of a parking space. Ditto for Smart.

Of course, the trade-off is seating -- the Smart seats two. The iQ? Let's call it 3.5 seats. The seat behind the iQ driver is big enough for a baby seat.

But there's no advantage in terms of price or fuel economy to either car. Similarly priced cars that seat four offer a small trunk, the same fuel economy or better, and obviously are longer.

The cars make sense in Europe and Japan where very small vehicles -- let's call them microvehicles -- are common because some streets are barely wider than the cars themselves. But here it's a different story.

I think Smart's sales make it clear U.S. buyers want a vehicle with a useable backseat and some trunk space.

Look at the numbers: Smart's best year was 2008, with 24,622 sales. Through November, 4,498 were sold, a 16 percent slide from last year.

With the rear seats up, the iQ has a narrow area for cargo, suitable for two attache cases. There is no space for even a small suitcase.

How will the iQ fare here?

The iQ, as the ForTwo has shown, will be a tough sell. Size matters.

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