Four blocks have passed and our eyes remain locked on the rearview mirror. Drive faster. Drive slower. Change lanes. Our attempts to shake the 1990s-vintage Explorer behind us are in vain. His erratic driving has us on edge, and for good reason. We are driving the 2008 Smart Fortwo, a car that offers only inches of separation between its rear bumper and our BVDs. NHTSA gives it a four-star driver crash test rating, but with this moron shadowing our rear bumper we're skeptical.
A closer look at the driver confirms he's different from the Smart gawkers we've come to expect. This guy is oblivious to the Smart. He's unaware of anything beyond whatever he's fumbling with in his lap. A string of green lights allows some separation between us and our mind is back at ease. Up ahead the signal turns red and we slow the Smart to a stop. This car isn't all that bad. We sit patiently for a second. Two seconds. Three. Wham! We're rear-ended by a 1990s Explorer.
Why We Got It
We laid down a $99 deposit to take delivery of a Smart as part of a Smart USA promotion program after we learned of this French-built, Mercedes-engineered arrival in the U.S. After participating in Smart USA events all across the country, hordes of commuter car trendsetters did the same. Such demand earned us a slot on the six-month waiting list for a 2008 Smart Fortwo. We couldn't wait that long, so we tried our hand at a new technology called the Internet. Soon thereafter we located a 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe for auction on eBay. Our winning bid of $17,000 landed us $15,300 worth of Smart Fortwo novelty. (As the Smart was still considered a rarity, the seller was able to get a premium over sticker for it.)
Our interest was based largely on the car's novelty factor. Were we to take the Smart seriously as a daily driver or was it a glorified golf cart? Beyond practicality we wondered just how safe the 1,800-pound Smart could feel traveling U.S. highways while sandwiched between 5,000-pound SUVs and 80,000-pound trailer-laden big rigs.
Would its popularity in the urban European market equate to success in the suburban sprawl of North America? An extended 18-month and 18,000-mile test of the Smart sought to answer all of our questions.
Less than two weeks into our durability test of the Smart Fortwo, there we stood, exchanging insurance information with the motorist who had rear-ended us. "I just looked down for a few seconds," he said, apparently the only explanation he could muster.
As luck would have it, this was the first Smart to receive such damage in the Los Angeles area. No Smart-certified dealer in the Western United States could help us. As the dealer network was still getting its feet on the ground, no dealer yet had the tools, training or parts for the job. So we tried another route. Beverly Coachcraft handled the vast majority of body repairs for our local Mercedes of Beverly Hills, and was located a block from our office, so our logistical debacle began there. Parts could be ordered from Germany and shipped unpainted. But the correct paint codes could not be confirmed. Neither could price. After some time it was suggested we head directly to Mercedes of Beverly Hills. It was a certified Smart dealer, though at this juncture that meant squat.
Once at the Mercedes dealer we started making progress, albeit slowly. Body panels had to be ordered from Germany, as did the bent control arm. And it would take weeks for them to arrive. Also in the shipment were the necessary tools to complete the work. All told, the damage repairs cost the at-fault party $3,000. But it cost us 29 days without our most recent addition.
Once back on the road, we finally began to get a feel for how this unique coupe drove. For the drive around town a Smart presents clear benefits. "It's a city car for people who like cars," Inside Line Executive Editor Michael Jordan began. He continued, "You can tell you're in something good as soon as you take the seat. The controls feel perfectly European -- direct, communicative and lively. And the Smart asks you to drive it. If you want to go fast, you must use the throttle pedal and then the triple behind you answers with a smooth, motorcycle-style growl, as if it's turbocharged. This Smart is the VW Beetle of the 21st century. It's a car with a simplicity that can be mistaken for crudeness, and it tests your attitudes about transportation as well as your driving skill."
On the freeway our Smart Fortwo proved far less appealing. Its short 73.5-inch wheelbase didn't offer the straight-line stability required to resist the water runoff grooves etched into California freeways. So when its 15-inch Continental tires grab hold, these channels shift the car to and fro accordingly. Just as the road seemed to have its way with the Smart at speed, so did the elements. Wind really tossed the Smart around, which we caught on video across one expanse of highway 15 through the Nevada desert. Automotive Editor James Riswick was pilot on this adventure and commented, "For a good chunk of the drive I had the wheel pointed 30 degrees to port just to manage the crosswind. At one point I couldn't help but laugh hysterically as the winds whacked the Smart all over the road. It's one of the few enjoyable moments I've had behind its tiny wheel."
Inside the cabin we found the comfortable, commanding seating position and excellent visibility vital assets to the Smart driving experience. They are a necessity considering the size of the vehicle, because it demands a defensive driving mentality at all times.
Aside from the traffic collision it was bulletproof. At 10,000 miles we performed its scheduled service for $200. During the visit there were warranty items to replace a poorly printed VIN label, ECU software upgrade to improve shift characteristics and a preventive shift knob replacement (shift knobs were known to stick in some Smarts. Overall we were quite pleased with the car's mechanical durability.
Total Body Repair Costs: $2,960
Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over 18 months): $211
Additional Maintenance Costs: None
Warranty Repairs: ECU software upgrade, shift knob and VIN label replaced
Non-Warranty Repairs: None
Scheduled Dealer Visits: 1
Unscheduled Dealer Visits: 1 for body repair due to accident
Days Out of Service: 29
Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None
Performance and Fuel Economy
Fuel economy is as much a strength of the Smart as performance is a crutch. We recorded fuel economy upward of 43 mpg during our 18-month test. That's among the best we've seen from a long-term test. But we also documented some of the poorest performance figures we've ever recorded.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot drove the Smart for instrumented testing. Jacquot noted, "Electronic limits make all handling tests pointless in this car. The limits are set arbitrarily low. It generates 0.73g of lateral force on the skid pad and pushes through the slalom at 55.4 mph. On a scale of excellent, good or poor, I would rate the Smart's handling: pointless."
In a straight line the Smart further secured its role as a city dweller. From a stop it needed 13.6 seconds to reach 60 mph, and completed the quarter-mile in 19.1 seconds at 70 mph. This is performance for urban gridlock, not the open road.
Best Fuel Economy: 43 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 24 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 34 mpg
We purchased a used Smart on eBay for $17,000 when new cars had a six-month waiting list and the dealer network was nonexistent. MSRP on our car was $15,305. We sold the Smart to Carmax for $9,000 after nearly a month of advertising privately. TMV® at the time was $11,000.
True Market Value at service end: $11,000
What it sold for: $9,000
Depreciation: $8,000 or 47% of original paid price
Final Odometer Reading: 18,877
As a first-year car, the Smart was a rousing success in urban Europe. Its popularity overseas ultimately earned it a place in the Inside Line long-term durability fleet. But suburbia is quite a different environment from that which gave rise to the Smart. And so we entered our test skeptical that this super-sized big wheel would survive.
Our concerns were met with some validity. When a careless motorist incapacitated the Smart for a month, a soft "we told you so" filled the air. But that turned out to be the only hitch in the Smart's giddyap. From there it took everything we threw at it and remained a mechanically sound performer.
Realistically the Fortwo can be a fun, limited-range city car. And when it comes to parking it's like no other. But pull any one of us aside and we'll tell you that driving the Smart for any length of time feels more like punishment than reward. We disliked the awkward, single-clutch automated transmission and the inverted brake pedal.
In general, the driving character of the 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion is too unique for our tastes. It was brilliant for errands, but terrible if you wanted to go any place. It was really entertaining if you liked a challenge, but endlessly frustrating if you really just wanted painless automotive transportation. In the end, it proved a test of expectations, not machinery. And if our commute required extensive freeway time, we'd choose the Smart last every time.
The Smart has a place. But for the majority of us, that place isn't our driveway.
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.