This can't be good. We're parked on the side of a go-nowhere road in the middle of go-nowhere California while we're cleaning the car for photos and we have a visitor. We're interloping on private property -- a cattle ranch and oil wells -- with our newest long-term test car and an unmarked white pickup truck with no license plates has just cornered us. Frankly, we feel about as welcome out here in our new fuel-efficient microcar as a vegetarian.
"Par-don me, fellas," comes a low drawl, "but what the heck is that?" The last syllable rings with an undeniable sense of joy. We feel like we've dodged a bullet. He isn't going to wrangle us off of his property. Like everybody else that sees the diminutive Daimler product, he just wants to know more about our 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion coupe.
And so do we. That's why Edmunds' Inside Line has bought a Red Metallic Smart Fortwo Passion for a year-long road test.
Why We Bought It
"How did you get one? They're sold out everywhere!" -- comment from passerby while we're trapped in gridlock after the Long Beach Grand Prix.
Indeed they are. Well, at least they are here in L.A. When the word came down from on high that the Smart -- already in its second generation in Europe -- was finally coming to the States, the deposits funneled in faster than a dealer network could be set up. Within days, all of the Smarts tagged for our consumption in 2008 were gone. And we had one. At least, we had a deposit down for one.
With $99 of our own money laid down early, we fully expected to be at the front of the list. We weren't. When cars started funneling into dealerships, we were told that ours would be here late in 2008. That wasn't going to work for us. We decided to go to a different dealership and see what we could manage.
Call after call after call failed. "Sold out." "Not 'til September." "We've got one; what's it worth to you?" No, no, no. And so, being hip to that whole Internet thing, we went 21st century on the car-buying experience and hit eBay.
After a little searching we found what we wanted for a reasonable starting bid. It had virtually no miles, was located in California and was clearly being flipped for a potential profit. We jumped on it right away, watching as the minutes ticked down with our bid still the highest. When the auction finally ended, we paid $17,000 for $15,300's worth of Smart Fortwo. We didn't get to pick options or color. We took what we could get this time.
What We Bought
"Is it electric? Is it safe enough to go on the highway?" -- comment from passerby while outside of a Starbucks in L.A.
No, the 2008 Smart Fortwo is not electric. It's not even a hybrid. It has a traditional gasoline engine. Residing in the trunk is a 1.0-liter inline-3 that produces 70 horsepower and 69 pound-feet of torque. Volumetrically speaking, the Smart's 70 hp/liter nearly matches the Chevrolet Corvette Z06's 72 hp/liter. Yeah, it's a stretch, we know, but even our used 2005 VW Jetta makes more power than the Smart.
Attached to the engine is a five-speed automated manual transmission. While it is geared especially for fuel economy in the automatic mode, there is a manual mode with shift paddles on the steering wheel so you can take control of the revs when the situation calls for a little bit of pep. The two units working together eke out an EPA average 33 mpg city/41 mpg highway.
And speaking of the highway, yes, the Smart is safe enough for highway use. Boasting a Tridion Safety Cell -- a fancy way of saying an alloy roll cage -- the Smart gets a four-star crash test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for the driver position. The passenger rating is a disappointing three stars, however. The rating for side-impact crash is an impressive five stars, even though the driver door did open during the test.
The scariest part of the Smart's NHTSA crash test rating is the rollover performance, an unimpressive three stars. Who'd have guessed that something narrow, tall and compact is a rollover risk? Apparently the standard electronic stability control is no match for simple Newtonian physics.
What we have here is a 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion. The top-of-the-line Passion trim substitutes nine-spoke alloy wheels for the stock steel ones, then adds air-conditioning, power windows and power mirrors. Since our Smart is (thankfully) a coupe, the Passion model features a transparent panorama roof as standard equipment. It doesn't open, but it lets in the light, which helps the cabin feel airier than it really is.
The Road Ahead
"Is it good?" -- Everyone
Hopefully in the next 12 months the questions will stop. At least we hope people will stop following us home to ask them. For one thing, that sort of thing is creepy and when driving a car that's smaller than the average commercial washing machine, it's a tad intimidating. And the other thing is, we have enough of our own questions about the Smart that we don't need anyone else adding to the stupor.
Is driving something this size reasonable in the country that thinks super-sizing is a good idea? Does it feel safe? Did we just waste $17 grand on a novelty or is the Smart Fortwo a real car capable of real duty in the real world?
And you're right, we've already put almost 5,000 miles on our Smart.
Current Odometer: 4,619 miles
Best Fuel Economy: 43.4 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 25.7 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 34.8 mpg
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.