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The 2008 Smart Fortwo has the highest SPM (smiles per mile) factor of any car we've ever driven. We spent a week behind the wheel of the world's shortest production car, but it took only about 20 minutes to realize that it would be hard to do wrong in a car that seems to make everyone happy.
Want to drive down the Strand in Venice Beach? Go ahead. The cops might encourage you to leave, but they're not going to give you a ticket. How about parking sideways in your neighbor's driveway overnight? We did it. They thought it was so cute they brought us breakfast and wanted a ride. The 2008 Smart Fortwo disarms the angry, calms the uptight and relieves the anxious.
That's just how it works with the Fortwo. Everyone notices. In a country filled with SUV-driving 'Mericans listening to Britney Spears on the radio, this tiny, distinctly European machine can't be overlooked. It gets attention like a chrome-plated Lamborghini — only the right kind of attention, not the wrong kind.
Why They Notice
With proportions approximating a cube more than any other car ever built, it's hard not to notice the Smart. Its wheelbase is almost 2 feet (23.6 inches) shorter than that of a Mini Cooper, and there's nothing else in the U.S. that can match such bizarre dimensions. And there's not another car anywhere with an overall length of only 106.1 inches, which, just so you know, is only 5 inches longer than a Hummer H1 is wide. The Fortwo is 61.3 inches wide — about 8 inches narrower than a Mazda 3.
Surprisingly, all this squareness doesn't make the 2008 Smart Fortwo ugly. Well, not to anyone we ran into, anyway. The odd proportions elegantly incorporate a large greenhouse — both the front and rear glass is huge and there's a large polycarbonate "panorama" roof that has a retractable cover. The idea for the Smart began with the entrepreneur behind Swatch watches, and the wheeled cube still has the dizzy colors and proportions of a Swatch.
Massive doors fill the void in the side of the tridion safety cell. "Tridion" is Smart-speak for the car's rigid main structure, which is designed to match up with a conventional vehicle's crumple zones in an impact. The Fortwo's front wheels are designed as part of its front crumple zone and its engine absorbs energy in a rear-end collision.
There are four airbags — two dual-stage units up front and one side airbag in the outer bolster of each seat to protect the head and thorax of the occupants.
More smiles were generated inside our test car, where we were amazed by the available space. Much like Dr. Who's TARDIS time machine, there's more room inside than the vehicle's exterior dimensions seem to allow. This is a very good thing.
An upright seating position helps furnish excellent visibility in every direction, including up. There's ample room for even the largest of drivers — and their luggage. We loaded two adults, two briefcases, a large camera bag and a camera tripod in the Fortwo and had room to spare. A full-size suitcase plus other cargo will fit behind the seats.
If you choose not to carry a passenger, the unused seatback can be folded flat to accommodate larger cargo like golf bags. Unfortunately, the lever to release the seatback is on the inside hinge, which forces the poor soul doing the folding to sort out the physics of reaching it when the seat is folded halfway. It's usually accomplished after a few awkward contortions, which didn't make us smile. The rear glass and tailgate are a better design and open in a clamshell fashion, which is much easier to use.
The orange cloth covering most interior surfaces in our test car made us feel a little like being inside an orange peel with windows, but we liked it. A tachometer and clock sit in separate housings on top of the dashboard, and they (curiously enough) can be aimed independently toward either the passenger or driver. The instrument panel has an optimistic 100-mph speedometer, although top speed is electronically limited to 90 mph.
Controls for heating and ventilation as well as the audio system are refreshingly simple and efficient to use.
A Mitsubishi-built, 1.0-liter three-cylinder power plant generates 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque, and it sits out of sight beneath the rear deck, where it's mounted transversely. It drives the rear wheels through a five-speed automated sequential-shift manual transmission.
Like many transmissions of this type, the automated manual isn't as good as a conventional manual or a conventional automatic. It has two modes: automatic, which makes gear choices on its own based on throttle position and load; and manual, which allows manual upshifts and even makes a pathetic attempt at rev-matched downshifts. The biggest problem is the sluggish shift speed, and it leaves driver and passenger trading puzzled looks between gears. This transmission simply shifts too slowly, and there's nothing a driver can do about it.
Compounding the problem is the fact that 70 hp isn't really enough power for American roads — even in a car that weighs 1,804 pounds. Around town we found ourselves using full throttle to keep up with traffic, while on the freeway the power deficit is too often a frustrating liability.
The Smart Experience
Otherwise, the Fortwo is enjoyable to drive. Despite its weight and size, it's not engaging like a sports car, yet it's free of the burdens of larger, heavier vehicles. The steering is slow, yet offers enough feel of the road to make the Smart predictable and easy to manage. And despite the fact that much of the Smart's center of gravity is relatively high, we never got the sense that it was unstable.
Thanks to the Smart, finding a place to park went from being a necessary evil to a unique challenge. We parked the Fortwo perpendicular to the curb in areas where curb-parallel parking was the norm without impeding traffic. Enforcement agents drove by and smiled.
The Smart's suspension features struts up front and a DeDion axle out back, and the combination does a decent job of taming inputs from road imperfections. The car's overall ride quality is good, but the highway ride does get busy as speeds increase. By 80 mph, any surface that isn't glass smooth will keep you engaged with the challenge of simply keeping the Smart centered in its lane. There's not a lot of compression travel in the dampers, so slowing down for large bumps is a necessity.
Smart but Slow
At the track, the notion that the Fortwo's minimal weight might make it reasonably quick vaporized faster than frowns at Disneyland. How's a 19.4-second quarter-mile at 68.8 mph sound? To us, it sounds like we'd better never merge onto the freeway in front of a Peterbilt with worn brake linings. More than 14 of these seconds (14.1 to be exact) are used to achieve 60 mph. That, friends, is slow — 4.8 seconds slower than a Honda Fit, which isn't known for its sprinting ability.
The Smart's test numbers for handling numbers are similarly uninspiring. The relatively low threshold of intervention by the non-defeatable stability control (the Fortwo comes with ABS, traction control and stability control as standard equipment) keeps the handling limits lower than we expected for a car this size. Around our 200-foot-diameter skid pad, the Fortwo manages only 0.74g. It weaves through the slalom cones at 59.1 mph. Since the Smart is equipped with good-size Continental ContiProContact tires (155/60R15s in front and 175/55R15s in the rear), we expected more.
The Smart's braking performance is adequate, but pedal feel and response from the bottom-hinged pedal is strange. The Smart stops in 124 feet from 60 mph, a distance that identically matches the performance of the Honda Fit.
Rated by the EPA's 2008 calculation at 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, the Smart isn't as economical as its looks might lead you to believe. Our test car produced 37.2 mpg in mixed driving.
The price of the 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe starts at $13,590 plus the $645 destination fee. A cabriolet version is available for $3,000 more. Our coupe had $780 in options including two paint upgrades, an upgraded radio, foglamps and the multidirectional dash-mounted tachometer and clock, all of which brought its total to $15,015.
We like the Smart. It's fun in a goofy sort of way and provides endless opportunities to entertain both neighbors and random onlookers. Problem is, we can't help but think this novelty will wear thin with time. A similarly priced Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris offers better performance, more functional space and almost identical fuel economy for about the same money.
But neither of those cars can match the Smart's SPM factor.
Edmunds.com Senior Consumer Advice Editor Phil Reed:
The 2008 Smart Fortwo is the VW Bug of our time. It is so different from anything currently in the U.S. that there's nothing to compare it to.
It is likely to be purchased in large numbers more for its novelty and styling than reasons of practicality and performance. And it's on these terms that I judge it. I love new things, particularly in today's market where cars are given increasingly more horsepower to drive on ever more congested roads. When I see the cars automakers are rolling out, I wonder, is anyone paying attention?
Enter the Smart car.
I've driven this people pod around the streets of both Rome and San Francisco. And I've also cruised nearly 1,000 miles of interstate freeway in it. But despite reservations about the balky transmission, I have to say I like it.
It is little more than a way to move two people (and a couple of things) from Point A to Point B in a congested landscape. Given its modest price (I know, I know, there are cheaper cars on the market), it actually has good steering feel and a number of advanced safety features such as stability control and the much-heralded "tridion safety cell." The seating position is high, entry and exit is easier than an SUV (thanks to very wide doors) and once inside, you forget how small it is. After you get the hang of shifting manually, the transmission is acceptable and the acceleration is, well, present.
The Smart isn't for everyone, but I love the way it is redefining the role of the car in America. Maybe if it were simply called a people pod instead of a "car," then we'd all be a little more open to its newness and a little less quick to compare it to other cars.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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