2008 Smart Fortwo First Drive

2008 Smart Fortwo First Drive

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2008 Smart Fortwo Hatchback

(1.0L 3-cyl. 5-speed Automated Manual)

Driving the tiny two-seater that's coming to a town near you

Pictures don't really do justice to the 2008 Smart Fortwo. Only when you see it in traffic will you come to appreciate its significance.

The 2008 Fortwo is larger than its predecessor, but it's still outrageously small, some 40 inches shorter than a Mini. In real life, it looks like an artist's impression of what a car might look like if we all drank skinny lattes.Several years ago, such a car would have been unthinkable in the U.S., but times are changing. Environmentally friendly cars are trendy, and the tiny, fuel-sipping Smart Fortwo goes on sale in America next January.

We were given a preview in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

770,000 owners can't be wrong
The new Fortwo is a subtle evolution of the original Smart, of which more than 770,000 have been sold since 1998. The one-box silhouette remains, but it's 7.7 inches longer than before and 1.7 inches wider. More important, the wheelbase has been stretched 2.2 inches to enhance the platform's driving stability.

Smart's marketing gurus would like you to think that the Fortwo is more grown-up, but such things are relative.

Both coupe and cabriolet versions will be available as soon as the Fortwo is launched. The latter will only be offered in the fully optioned trim called "Passion," and it will be the most expensive Smart. It features a beautifully engineered, manually operated canvas roof that can be opened at the touch of a single release button.

It's lost that funky feeling
The interior of the old Smart was a work of modern art, with an S-shaped fascia and funky, periscopelike air vents. The S-structure couldn't meet crash safety requirements in the U.S., so it's been replaced with a more conventional horizontal beam that doubles as a protective knee bolster in the event of a head-on impact.

Harder to explain is the replacement of the former center console with what is best described as a plastic box. You can funk up the Fortwo with bright fabrics (upmarket models will also feature a roof made of transparent polycarbonate), but there can be no denying that some of the fun has been lost.

As its name suggests, the Fortwo is a strict two-seater, but its novel, sandwichlike chassis platform frees up plenty of cabin space. While thinly padded, the seats are much more comfortable than they look and offer plenty of support.

The steeply raked rear hatch also provides a surprisingly spacious load bay with a capacity of 7.8 cubic feet (or 12.0 cubic feet if you load it right up to the roof).

Three cylinders are on call
In Europe, Smart offers four engine options — a turbodiesel and three gasoline-fueled variants — but U.S. buyers will be offered only the normally aspirated, 999cc Mitsubishi-built three-cylinder. The engine is mounted transversely beneath the floor of the trunk. There's just 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque, but it has to motivate only 1,653 pounds (89 pounds more for the cabrio).

This is enough power for a run to 60 mph in 13.3 seconds on the way to a top speed that's electronically limited to 90 mph. The engine sounds good, but we'd worry about it feeling uncomfortably wimpy on highway inclines.

These suspicions were reinforced by our drive in a Fortwo with a turbocharged, 83-hp Euro-spec version of this engine. It feels better suited to U.S. conditions, with a satisfying burst of midrange urge. The extra performance feels more in tune with the Smart's cheeky persona.

According to Dave Schembri, Smart USA's president, the 70-hp car has been chosen because it "offers the best blend of performance and economy." Nevertheless, we've learned that the decision is already under review and it seems likely that the turbo engine will be introduced in the U.S. in due course.

There can be no debate, though, about the improvements to the gearbox. The former six-speed automated manual transmission shifted gears so slowly and clumsily that it made you feel like you were just learning to drive. Fortunately there's a new five-speed version, and the shifts are made in half the time and the whole action is far smoother.

The Getrag-built transmission remains an automated manual with an electrically operated clutch and shift mechanism. You change gear by operating either the central shift lever or tapping the shift paddles on the steering wheel. Passion models will offer a fully automatic mode.

More like a car than ever before
The old Smart had a ferociously firm ride and wandered like a drunkard at high speed, especially if there was even a wisp of a crosswind. The new Smart Fortwo carries over the familiar MacPherson-strut front suspension and DeDion rear suspension, but the layout and the geometry have had a radical makeover and the way the car drives has been transformed.

Of course, a car with a wheelbase as short as this will never glide down the road like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but the new Fortwo's stretched wheelbase helps it deal with bumps and thumps with something approaching aplomb. Meanwhile, high-speed stability feels much better to us, though crosswinds still can't help but affect such a boxlike shape.

The way the car handles depends a lot on the combination of steering and tires that you choose. If you opt for manual steering and the narrow 155/60R15 front tires, the Smart feels slightly ponderous and the front tires give up pretty quickly in the corners. Once you upgrade to quicker-ratio, electrically assisted power steering and 175/60R15 front tires, then this agile little car can be hustled along at a surprising pace. It's no sports car, but it is fun.

Can smallness sell in the U.S.?
Smart is well aware that it needs to convince U.S. buyers that such a small car can be safe.

The safety cell made of high-strength steel — the black or silver cage that's part of the car's exterior design — is a visual statement of this intent. Front airbags are standard, while side- and head-protection airbags are likely to be an option.

The new Smart also has an impressive array of electronic safety systems.

Antilock brakes are standard equipment, as are electronic brakeforce distribution and even brake assist. Most important, stability control is also standard equipment.

Soon to be seen in America
Smart will be undertaking a road show this May that will travel across the U.S. and offer test-drives. According to Schembri, Smart USA has received 34,000 requests for information from potential customers and the Web site has received 630,000 visitors.

Two different models will be offered initially: Pulse and Passion. The latter will provide luxury features, such as air-conditioning, cast-alloy wheels and a panoramic roof, although power steering is likely to be an option. Expect the price of the Pulse to begin at about $11,000, while the Passion should start at $13,000 and the Cabriolet will begin at $15,000.

The 2007 Geneva Auto Show in March will see the introduction of a Smart Fortwo with a Brabus appearance and equipment package, but since this car features the turbo engine, there are no plans as yet to bring it to the U.S. Schembri does tell us that Smart USA is still working on a sports model.

Huge improvement in a small car
Although we have reservations about the engine choice for the Fortwo destined for the U.S. market, there can be no denying that the new Smart is a huge improvement over its predecessor.

The concept of such a small, relatively expensive car might take some getting used to, and we'll admit that few people are likely to choose the Smart as anything other than a second (or third) car. But if you're looking for a car that suits an urban environment and is both cheap to run and fun to live with, the Smart has plenty to offer.

Think of the 2008 Smart Fortwo as the motoring equivalent of Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria — small but hugely desirable.

The manufacturer loaned Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

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