Conceived by Swiss watchmaker Swatch and designed in conjunction with Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, the Smart Fortwo microcar has been all the rage in traffic-choked European cities since its introduction in 1998. Smart has recently redesigned the Fortwo and is now bringing it to America as both a coupe and a convertible, with the former tested here. Is the Smart the right car for America -- and is America ready for the Smart? Read on. Base price $12,190, price as tested $15,420, EPA fuel economy estimates 33 MPG city, 41 MPG highway.
First Glance: Let's get small!
The Smart Fortwo was introduced in Europe in 1998 -- not so much as a cure for high gas prices (they've been driving cars with lawnmower engines for generations) but for parking on crowded streets (link goes to photo). With gas prices climbing here in the States, more and more of us Yanks are starting to see the appeal of small cars -- and let's face it, cars don't get much smaller than the Smart Fortwo. At 8'10" long, it's over 4 feet shorter than a Honda Fit and little more than half the length of a Toyota Avalon.
Even after a week of living with the Smart, it's still hard to look at it and think of it as a car. I'd look at all the vehicles parked on my street and think "Car, car, car, Smart, car, car." And clearly I wasn't the only one; the Smart attracted lots of attention, comments and smiles from fellow drivers and passers-by. Lots of people wanted to talk about it, many of whom had seen the Smart when visiting Europe or Canada.
The first question most people would ask is "How safe is it?" In the US Government front-crash tests, the Fortwo scored 4 stars (out of 5) stars for the driver but only 3 for the passenger, and 5 for the side impact test (though the door came open in the crash). In the more realistic IIHS tests, the Smart got a best-possible "Good" rating in both front and side impacts. The Smart is designed with a metal safety cage (the silver bits on my test car; the blue body panels and roof are plastic), while the engine is positioned under the trunk floor to take advantage of what little front crumple space the car offers.
In the Driver's Seat: Not so small
With a tall roof, miniaturized center console, and a cabin devoted to just two people, the Smart Fortwo is a lot roomier than you might expect. There's a wide range of seat adjustment and everything is within easy reach -- including the back window. Even so, the Smart doesn't feel as small as it is. The distances between driver's seat, dash and windshield are similar to a conventional car, and the tall seating position puts your eyepoint at the same height as a small SUV. It's only when looking at the car from the outside that you realize how tiny it is.
Regular readers know that dark interiors are a pet peeve of mine. My test car's interior was trimmed with bright-orange fabric -- one of several colorful choices -- and, needless to say, I loved it. And if that wasn't enough, an optional clear-plastic roof lets in plenty of sunlight. The shape of the dash provides plenty of storage space -- my cell phone, house keys and garage door opener all fit nicely into the spaces beside the steering column.
I was amazed at how much stuff I could stuff into the Fortwo's 12 cubic foot cargo bay: A week's worth of groceries, two full laundry baskets, even Mrs. Gold's bulky massage table. I did have a problem with cargo sliding into the space behind the seat; the owners manual mentions a retractable cargo cover which would have prevented that from happening, but my car didn't have one. And I really didn't like the split tailgate -- the flip-up glass is a nice convenience, but the lower half gets in the way and makes loading the trunk harder than it should be.
On the Road: Drives nicely, but stay out of the wind
The Fortwo's 1-liter 3-cylinder engine puts out 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. Smart claims the Fortwo -- which weighs 1808 lbs, 600 lbs less than a Honda Fit -- gets to 60 MPH in a lazy 12.8 seconds and tops out at 90. In reality, pickup is snappy, if not quite quick, and the Smart putters along happily at 75 MPH, though it struggles on steep hills.
The Smart comes with a 5-speed sequential-manual transmission (SMT); it has the guts of a stick-shift but a computer does all the clutching and shifting for you. The feeling takes some getting used to -- while a regular automatic shifts almost instantly, there's a noticeable pause in power delivery as the SMT changes gears. Driving it feels like being a passenger in a stick-shift car. I found that easing up on the throttle during shifts made things a bit smoother, as did shifting manually using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
I figured such a small car would be noisy and tinny, but the Smart is surprisingly comfortable and quiet. The ride is fine in town, though on the highway it gets blown around by crosswinds and passing vehicles, and on one unusually windy day I had a hard time staying in my lane. But handling in the curves was better than I expected, with great grip and standard electronic stability control as a backup.
Fuel economy is good, though not as good as you might expect: I averaged 35.8 MPG. For comparison, I got 31.1 in the last Toyota Yaris I tested. To make matters worse, the Smart requires premium fuel. The Smart's economy pales compared to the Toyota Prius hybrid, which gets 45 MPG on regular.
Journey's End: I want one… or do I?
I fell in love with the Smart Fortwo the moment it was dropped off. By mid-week, I was convinced I wanted to buy one. But by week's end, after crunching the numbers -- and driving in winds high enough to knock over trees -- I wasn't quite so sure.
I love the Smart's futuristic design and bright interior, and I got used to the transmission's herky-jerky behavior. But the split tailgate was a constant annoyance, and I never was comfortable driving it on windy days. And as for all the attention the car generated -- it was fun at first, but after a while it got old. (I don't mean to sound anti-social, but you can only return so many grins and thumbs-up before you want to scream.)
Here in Los Angeles, parking isn't an issue like it is in some cities, so I'd consider a Toyota Yaris or a Honda Fit, both of which trade slightly lower fuel economy for more power, smoother transmissions, proper tailgates and better highway behavior (plus a back seat; you never know when that'll come in handy). That said, they're pretty boring compared to the novel Smart.
Of course, if I lived in New York or San Francisco, the Smart is the car I'd buy -- think of all the parking spaces I'd have to myself, at least until more people started buying Smarts. And I've yet to test the Smart convertible, which opens up (pun intended) all sorts of possibilities. Bottom line: The Smart Fortwo may not be the end to all our problems, but it's a great car -- stylish, efficient and unique. Bravo to Smart for bringing it to the US. -- Aaron Gold