Herky-jerky automatic gearbox, seats only two, gets buffeted on the highway by stiff crosswinds and big trucks.
After years of serving as frugal, park-it-anywhere transportation for a million Europeans (and Canadians), the Smart Fortwo has finally made it to the United States. Measuring more than 3 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper and rated at 36 mpg (combined city and highway), the Smart would seem ideal for urbanites looking for the perfect commuter car. But all things considered, is the Smart car the smartest choice?
With gas hitting $4 per gallon and with its park-it-almost-anywhere size, the 2008 Smart Fortwo may seem heaven-sent for a lot of folks. Indeed, nearly all Smarts have been sold before they hit the dealers' lots, with their future owners clueless as to what it's actually like to pilot the puny two-seater.
Once you remove the gas goggles, however, you'll probably find, as we did, that the Smart Fortwo isn't as easy to live with as its spec sheet and cute looks may suggest.
As with the previous generation, the Achilles' heel in the Smart's mechanical makeup is its sluggish automated clutch manual gearbox. Although it can be used in an automatic mode, it's a frustrating experience that closely resembles riding a mechanical bull. An annoying lag during upshifts makes it feel as if the Smart's catching its breath between gearchanges, and makes you feel like a bobble-head doll with your noggin pitching forward and then back with the first couple of upshifts. In the automotive industry, that's called "head toss"; around the office, we call it "very annoying."
The Passion model we tested comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that provide do-it-yourself gearchanges. Using them, you can at least smooth out the hiccups in the acceleration by lifting off the gas slightly before flicking the paddle or floor-mounted lever. Why Smart (a division of Daimler-Benz) doesn't offer either a traditional automatic or traditional manual gearbox is beyond us.
Around town, the Smart's 1.0-liter, 71-horsepower three-cylinder engine is adequate, as it seems to be geared for the cut-and-thrust of city traffic. Once you get up to cruising speed on the freeway (zero to 60 mph takes 13.6 seconds), the Smart Fortwo will happily cruise at 70 mph.
But in spite of its "Tridion Safety Cell" architecture and favorable crash test scores, you can't help but feel vulnerable as stiff crosswinds and passing semis on the highway buffet the 1,800-pound city car as if it were a four-wheeled phone booth.
Against EPA ratings of 33 mpg city/41 highway and 36 combined, we averaged 37 mpg. Yes, that's pretty impressive, but when you consider what you're giving up in terms of passenger and cargo capacity, not to mention long-trip comfort, a five-passenger Honda Fit, at a rated 30 mpg combined, offers a lot more space and comfort. Furthermore, the Fortwo requires premium fuel, strange given its non-high-performance personality.
With something so small and light, you'd expect handling and braking to be strong points. However, one must remember that tires count for a lot in these areas, and the small contact patches of the Smart's limit the car's handling abilities. Braking performance is good, however, with a stop from 60 mph taking 124 feet.
Parking is a snap, as we were able to squeeze into curbside spots that even a Mini Cooper (at nearly 40 inches longer, a behemoth in comparison) would have to pass up. The Smart's 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine is mounted above the rear wheels, which optimizes traction on the slippery stuff, as does the standard stability control.
As its name indicates, the 2008 Smart Fortwo is built for two passengers, but they enjoy an amazing amount of room considering the car's tiny footprint. Even tall drivers will find an adequate amount of space. The seats are supportive and sight lines are excellent apart from the somewhat cheeky rear roof pillars.
Although wind and road noise aren't intrusive, ride comfort leaves a bit to be desired. Smaller bumps and ruts are absorbed without drama, but larger impacts and freeway expansion joints ka-thump virtually unfiltered into the cabin.
Although the ignition key is mounted on the center console like a Saab's, the Smart car has no relation to that Swedish carmaker. Apart from that quirk, the controls are intuitive and simple. Even the seat heater buttons are front and center.
Cargo capacity is listed at just 8 cubic feet, but if it's just you and your Costco spoils, you can fold down the passenger seat to increase that considerably. You golfers will be pleased to know that your clubs will fit in the Smart Fortwo, but only if you plan on hitting the driving range solo or meeting up with your foursome at the course. Tossing the clubs into the car effectively reduces it to the "Forone," as the passenger seat must be flipped down flat to accommodate your Pings.
Otherwise, you can fit a lot in the Smart — a full-size suitcase and a couple of small duffel bags will fit in the cargo hold behind the seats. A baby seat can be mounted facing forward or back in the passenger seat. However, considering that the preferred place for a child is in the backseat and the Smart doesn't have one, we can't recommend this car for anything more than a very infrequent and/or emergency kiddie ride.
Design/Fit and Finish
Obviously, the Smart car is designed for maximum space-efficiency, hence its egglike shape that dedicates most of the car's footprint to passengers and cargo. With virtually nothing in front of the windshield or behind the rear window, it's easy to place the Smart into those tight parking spots that everything else on four wheels has to pass up.
The funky cabin gets some of its personality from the cloth covering on the lower dash, which matches the seats — a bright orange in our test car's case. Build quality is quite good; you'd expect the old door-shut test to reveal a tinny quality, yet they close with a solid thunk.
Who should consider this vehicle
With pricing around $14,000-$15,000 for the Passion version, one may argue that a subcompact like a Honda Fit is a far better value for the reasons mentioned earlier. But if you're a city dweller who regularly faces serious parking challenges, the 2008 Smart Fortwo is mighty tempting. Being able to snag those small spots that would normally accommodate only a shopping cart is a big advantage. But the price to live with a Fortwo is threefold: It carries only two, cargo capacity is seriously limited and it's only available with that annoying lurch-o-matic gearbox.