Funky FWD Four-Bangers Compete For Our Enthusiast Soul [Comparison Test]



To borrow liberally from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s philosophical children’s book, Le Petit Prince,

“Quand on veut un turbo, c’est la preuve qu’on exist.”

As enthusiasts, turbos are proof positive that we exist. We need little more than a glimpse at a Ferrari F40 to be reminded of this. But is a turbo enough to separate the 2012 Ford Explorer EcoBoost from the 2012 Scion iQ?

We start with the Explorer EcoBoost, which features an upscale, downsized 2.0T engine new for this model year. This 240 hp, 270 ft-lb engine is an extremely close relative of the engine found in the pants-tenting Range Rover Evoque, a tidbit your wife will surely appreciate when she finds out you’re buying her the $50k 7-seat mommy wagon instead of the $75k 4-seat mommy wagon she really wanted. If the shared components aren’t enough to sway your fairer half, you always have the reliable Four Child Defense, made famous by Johnnie Cochran during the Bluth family treason trial. If that doesn’t explode her head, and yours, the way the Chewbacca Defense did, you’re on your own.

As I was saying, the Explorer’s EcoBoost promises a 10% fuel economy boost and a marked increase in low-end torque in exchange for $1,000 in multi-coloured Canadian money. There should be, but isn’t, a disclaimer that Ford’s fuel economy claims are nontrivially misleading in the real world. Why? Because staying out of the boost is the only way to achieve them, and there’s little progress or joy to be derived from driving this way. Turbos, after all, are nothing less than love letters to enthusiasts; here, with a blue wax seal reading “Drive One” romantically sealing the envelope. Mistakenly, the press vehicle I tested was front-wheel drive and therefore prone to the kind of hand-jerking torque steer not seen since the 1990 Ford Escort RS Turbo. To spend $49,900, the as-tested asking price, on a Ford Explorer and not have 4WD is akin to traveling to Paris without visiting the Tour Eiffel. Strangely, EcoBoost and 4WD aren’t even available together for 2012, but don’t be surprised if that changes in the near future, it just makes sense.

Even without 4WD, the Limited model that visited the CarEnvy Garage for a week was never short of luxury comforts worthy of the pricetag, including, but not limited to, voice-activated SYNC, blind-spot monitoring, MyFordTouch, Bluetooth audio, double sunroofs, back-up cam, heated/cooled front seats, and adaptive cruise control. Adaptive cruise, a feature I can never write enough positive praise about, makes highway driving infinitely more pleasant; although the braking can be a bit disruptive to the flow of traffic behind you when used in the city, as there’s a fairly delayed response in acceleration when a slowing car in front finally makes its turn. As for MFT and SYNC, little more needs to be said, but if you’d like to my in-depth take, check out Part I and Part II of my 2011 Lincoln MKX review, which features the same disagreeable systems.

Overall, between the FWD and turbo-four, the Explorer EcoBoost is a funky proposition in a class better known for macho off-road pretense. The 2.0T engine is more than capable of satisfying the driver’s needs, but the FWD component of the drivetrain is an unfulfilling experiment that detracts from the sense of lavish ease imbued by the rest of the vehicle.

Speaking of funky propositions, let’s see how this 4,550 lbs. technogiant compares with the vest-pocket Scion iQ, another vehicle with front-wheel drive and powered by a four cylinder engine. This is an unusual drivetrain layout compared to the class-defining smart.

The Scion iQ is powered by a naturally aspirated 1.3L engine producing 94 hp, 89 ft-lb, and enough gumption to make Robert M. Pirsig howl his characteristically schizophrenic howl. Mated to a continuously-variable transmission, the stout little engine is perfectly adapted for city life and hustles the smart-killer up hills and on-ramps with aplomb. Unlike the Explorer, the power is never enough to overcome the front-wheel traction, but the lack of turbo power does little to diminish the handling abilities and road glueyness exhibited by the iQ.

On paper, and according to established enthusiast mantra, the RWD rear-engined smart should be the sporting champion of this microcar class of two, but it is the unexpected iQ that grants grins in greater measure. With a stocky, but non-telescoping, steering wheel firmly in hand, the iQ is ever-so-keen to turn its laughably small nose into a corner and zip right out again. The body control is frankly remarkable, and the ride still maintains many of its Toyota qualities, with the occasional buck and jive more attributable to the 2000 mm wheelbase. The stubby 10 foot long iQ is ideally suited to ducking into traffic gaps normally reserved for suicidal bikers. Driving in this manner quickly confuses your fellow roadgoers, who aren’t accustomed to sharing the road with anything smaller than the yacht-like Civic, but that’s their problem, not yours. You just get can bask in the newfound freedom afforded by individual-sized motoring (as opposed to the what-if-sized motoring preferred by pickup truck drivers).

Needless to say, the thick-rimmed wheel and anally precise wheelbase length are also ideal for parking lot maneuvers, where the Scion shows off its compact form with a turning circle so small that the whole car feels like it’s spinning for Hanukkah gelt.

To further distance itself from the now-beleaguered 3-cylindered smart, the iQ squeezes an extra adult passenger seat behind the front passenger seat, as well as a child’s seat behind the driver’s. It’s a marvel of packaging efficiency that 1.5 extra seats are tucked into a package scarcely larger than the smart’s. Practicality is whoppingly in favour of the iQ, to say nothing of the safety.

That the iQ has 11 airbags to only 4 in the smart speaks to the increase in our safety expectations between the 1998 release of the first smart in Europe and the 2008 release of the Toyota iQ. That decade of automotive progress is also present in the quality of interior materials and the zesty Japaneseness of their design. The iQ has such an aesthetically pleasing interior that it’s a shame that other Toyota products like the Corolla aren’t this inspired.

The iQ is frugal too, achieving an impressive 5.1L/100km in the combined cycle, which is 6% less than the pricier and premium-guzzling smart, 24% less than the similarly priced Honda Fit, and 73% less than the turbobrute we’re comparing it with today.

All of which combines for a resounding victory for natural aspiration, as the iQ judo throws the Explorer EcoBoost into the next cul-de-sac. The iQ handles as confidently as my 350Z and can carry just as much speed into a corner. Seriously. If it could do no more than that, it would be a sublime machine and the best Toyota product in a decade. That it also fits in your pocket, sips 87, and fits 3.5 people is just plain nuts. The Explorer, which we also drove in Quebec and wrote about in a limerick, continues to grow more likeable and more comfortable with each new impression. The Explorer serves luxury and technology to the masses, but here FWD ultimately undoes it.

Turbos might prove that we exist, but here it’s powerless against a fury of brilliant engineering from one of the largest car companies in the world.

And that’s the Philosophy of Driving for this week. See you next Monday morning!

[Photo credits: author]