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Published: 11/19/2007 - by John O'Dell, Senior Editor
That runty runabout from Daimler that's so good at plying the narrow, crowded streets of European cities has finally arrived in the U.S. The 2008 Smart Fortwo goes on sale in January 2008, and 30,000 prospective customers have apparently already plunked down $99 deposits to hold a place in line to buy one.
Here's our report: The Smart's chief selling point is its small size, and the Smart's biggest drawback is its small size.
We tested both aspects of the Smart Fortwo's personality. First, we drove it on the narrow, crowded streets of San Francisco. And second, we squeezed 503 pounds of driver and passenger — just 4 pounds under the car's maximum payload — into this 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion. And we lived through it.
Smart USA's target audience is the mostly whippet-thin, trendsetting crowd on both coasts. This is, after all, a city car better suited to the streets of San Francisco than a cross-country trek. But as it searches for increased sales volume, Smart's marketing team has got to be grateful that it can sell to the rotund as well.
Power Isn't a Strongpoint
The Smart is powered by a 1.0-liter inline-3 that produces 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque, more power than that VW Beetle you might remember or even the first Volkswagen Golf. It is the only engine choice in all three models of the two-passenger Fortwo — the basic Pulse, the Passion coupe and the Passion cabriolet.
While this Mitsubishi-built engine makes enough steam to carry the 1,808-pound Smart coupe down the highway at 80 mph, getting there can be downright painful, especially if there's a hill in the way. We found this out when we toured some of the tech centers of Silicon Valley, including the Computer History Museum, and then drove through San Francisco. Did you know there are hills in San Francisco? The place is practically full of them!
We're told that the U.S.-specification Fortwo gets to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds, some 0.5 second quicker than the European model. In any case, our Fortwo coupe took every bit of its allotted time and more.
Not Exactly Shift-by-Wire
If you're looking for the explanation for the Fortwo's sluggish run to 60 mph, you don't have to look much further than the drivetrain's automated five-speed manual transmission. Whether you operate it with the stick on the console or the paddles on the steering wheel or just leave it to its own devices in Drive, the Getrag-built gearbox shifts with a considerable delay between gears.
The sensation is akin to mistaking the brake pedal for the clutch while shifting with a standard manual, especially when you're going from 1st gear to 2nd. The nose of the Smart dives and your head pitches forward and then 2nd gear kicks in and acceleration resumes. The same thing happens with each gear, fortunately with declining intensity.
On a second day of driving the Smart, the transmission seemed to behave a bit more mannerly — perhaps a case of familiarity breeding competence, as you simply get used to it. But really this isn't the sort of neck-stretching acceleration we were hoping for, and we expect lots of people will think the same.
Rolling at Last
Once you get some momentum together, it's a pleasure to drive the Smart. Despite its short 73.5-inch wheelbase, the Fortwo absorbs bumps and potholes quite well. The ride quality isn't exactly as supple as a Maybach, but the motions are surprisingly gentle.
Since this car is as wide as it is tall and rides on substantial 15-inch tires, the Smart also feels surprisingly stable at speed. It's not a racecar, but we found it could handle the demands of cornering through a California freeway ramp.
The truth is, you quickly get used to the Smart. Soon you forget entirely that you're in a city-size package so short it can be parked perpendicular to the curb.
While its EPA rating hasn't been announced, Smart USA estimates the Fortwo will achieve 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. And the Fortwo's 8.7-gallon fuel tank should be good for 350 miles or so. But to achieve these results, the Smart's highly tuned engine requires pricey premium-grade gasoline. It will run on regular, but not as well, although we're not sure you'd feel it in the seat of your pants.
Because the Smart is 9.5 inches shorter than even a Mini, it's easy to be concerned about safety, especially in the land of Ford F-250 pickup trucks. You do have a keen sense of your own mortality while driving on the freeway, largely because you're not sure you can swerve out of the way when something big and dangerous doesn't catch sight of you in its rearview mirrors.
The '08 model represents the second generation of the Smart. The first car, launched in Europe in 1998, passed U.S. crash tests, even though it was never brought here for sale. While this model hasn't yet been tested by regulators, it's been designed to meet a higher standard of crashworthiness.
Daimler crashed its Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan headlong into a Smart Fortwo at 31 mph and the Smart's crash test dummies emerged without catastrophic injury. And we were shown a Smart that had been in a test that simulated a rear impact from a full-size car traveling at 50 mph. The Smart's rear end and right quarter panel were a mess, but the damage didn't intrude into the passenger area.
Part of the secret is that the occupants are encircled by a cage of high-strength steel, which works much like an energy-absorbing safety cage. Further interior safety features include two front-mounted airbags and two seat-mounted side airbags plus a knee pad. ABS brakes and stability control are standard equipment, and both brake assist and hill-start assist are part of the stability system's calibration. Indeed, the Smart is cheaper to insure in Europe than a conventional car, Smart's Dave Schembri told us.
Size Shouldn't Matter
At first look, the Smart seems too small to be practical. It's not. Rather, it is a marvel of packaging efficiency.
The engine and drivetrain are tucked under the passenger compartment. With the bulk of its weight so close to the ground, the Smart can be tall and provide both a high seating position and lots of headroom without the threat of toppling over in a corner.
Dimensionally, the Smart's passenger compartment compares well to the front seat area of larger subcompacts such as the Mini and the Honda Fit. Its 39.7 inches of headroom offers almost an inch more clearance than a Mini and an inch less than the Fit. Its 41.2 inches of legroom compares to 41.4 inches in the Mini and 41.9 inches in the Fit.
Only in shoulder room does the Smart require some compromise, offering just 48 inches compared to the Mini's 50.3 and the Fit's 52.8 inches. But packaging efficiency comes to the rescue because the passenger seat is offset 5 inches rearward to minimize shoulder-rubbing. And it folds flat to increase cargo space when there's no passenger.
With both seats up, cargo space is 7.8 cubic feet, and if you can stack stuff to the roof it increases to 12 cubic feet.
Setting Trends, or Just for Trendsetters?
The 2008 Smart Fortwo will appeal to those who see themselves as trendsetters and to city dwellers who feel the need for a small and easy-to-park conveyance, and we think it's going to generate a huge amount of media buzz. But the Smart's small size is going to challenge the perceptions and assumptions of a lot of people.
When the Smart was first conceived more than a decade ago by Swatch watch magnate Nicolas Hayek, he hoped it would reinvent the automobile in the same way his disposable watch had reinvented wristwatches. But the struggle to bring the concept to market revealed that it's just as expensive to bring a cheap car to market as an expensive one. And indeed the $11,590 price of the entry-level Smart Fortwo Pulse is close to that of several conventional subcompacts including the Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. Also the Smart carries only a two-year bumper-to-bumper warranty.
Yet automotive entrepreneur Roger Penske is Smart's U.S. distributor, and he's not a man known for poor business decisions. We think his Smart USA won't have much trouble hitting its initial sales goal of 25,000 a year. But growth after that could be a struggle unless gas prices create a panic.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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