2008 Smart Fortwo: The Anti-Yaris
November 13, 2008
The Smart is a blast to drive. Is there some reason we're keeping this a secret?
For all the comments recorded so far, you'd think that the Smart is some kind of high-fashion Trabant, a crude auto-troglodyte dressed up in a snappy marketing campaign. But instead it's a city car for people who like cars.
You can tell that you're in something good as soon as you take a seat. The whole cabin is a masterpiece of ergonomics and style -- expansive field of view, superior driving position, supportive seat, great steering wheel and simple, intuitive controls. The Smart shows you what a horror of bad manga animation the cockpit of the Nissan GT-R really is.
Yet it's the driving where the Smart really makes its point. 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.
You can also work the single-clutch automated manual transmission pretty effectively with the throttle pedal in Drive, without any thrashing about with the shift paddles on the steering wheel. The drivetrain gives you so much advance warning of its intention to shift a gear that it practically sends a semaphore signal, so it's simple to ease shift shock with a lift of the throttle at slow speed or instead just put your foot down to hold a gear for uninterrupted acceleration. Kickdowns are slow (although quicker than the Ford Edge's six-speed automatic), while upshifts are quicker than almost anybody (including many in this office) can work a clutch-type transmission.
As a result, you find yourself hurtling around town in the Smart at top speed without any thought to fuel economy, making a pest of yourself just like those early adopters in the 1950s who drove the VW Beetle. In fact, the 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.
If you like to drive, the Smart is your kind of car. If you like to be carried around in a coma-like state by some kind of transportation pod -- one of those sad little entry-level cars like the Toyota Yaris that begins to apologize for its cheapness as soon as you twist the ignition key -- well, good luck to you.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 10,844 miles