The 2016 Smart Fortwo receives a full redesign and in the process rids itself of some of the demons that plagued its predecessor. Despite significant improvement, its narrow focus as a city car means that it is out of its element on the open road.
What Is It?
The redesigned 2016 Smart Fortwo continues the model's focus and intent as a dedicated car for dense metropolitan areas. For that reason, it's tiny, with only two seats and a small trunk. Nose to tail, it's about a foot longer than a golf cart. Under the trunk is a three-cylinder engine that drives the rear wheels.
Prices start at $15,400 for the base Pure trim with a five-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automated manual is available for an additional $990 on all models. Standard feature highlights for the Pure trim include air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows and Bluetooth phone and streaming audio.
At $19,230, the top-of-the-range Proxy trim adds alloy wheels, a premium JBL audio system and shift paddles for the automatic transmission, plus other amenities. In between are two other trims: Passion and Prime.
A convertible model will arrive stateside next summer, followed by an all-electric version a few months later. The four-door, four-passenger Smart Forfour will not be imported to the U.S.
The Smart Fortwo's greatest asset is its tiny size, which gives it motorcycle-like maneuverability. Lengthwise, it remains the same at only 8.8 feet, but it is now 3.9 inches wider and about a half inch taller than its predecessor. The new exterior styling is the most dramatic change in the redesign, with a more blunted and bulbous appearance. The interior is less polarizing, with a contemporary look and logical placement of controls.
The engine is still in the back and drives the rear wheels, but this time around it's smaller. The new 898cc three-cylinder turbo replaces the 1.0-liter unit but produces 89 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque (the old engine only made 70 hp and 68 lb-ft). Thankfully, the automated-manual transmission is also new, with far fewer flaws than before.
How Does It Drive?
As a car designed to slalom its way through dense urban traffic and narrow alleys, the 2016 Smart Fortwo certainly delivers. It's when you travel outside its intended habitat that its shortcomings become evident.
In the city, the little Smart squeezes effortlessly through openings in traffic and slots into the smallest parking spaces without the need for parking sensors or a rearview camera. Even more impressive is its ability to make a U-turn in an extraordinarily tight 22.8-foot space. Compared to the original Smart, the new model's wider track gives it more lateral stability, making it much more sure-footed.
One of our biggest complaints about the original Smart was its transmission, which subjected drivers to huge lurches and hesitations. The new transmission is much smoother and more predictable, but still falls short of current standards when it comes to response to input.
Knowing this, drivers should plan well in advance if they need to accelerate with conviction. While slowing, the transmission is also prone to clumsy downshifts, creating small but numerous lurches.
Smart claims that the Fortwo will reach 60 mph in 10.5 seconds with the automated-manual transmission (10.1 seconds for the manual). If true, that makes the new Fortwo 3.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph than its predecessor, which seems optimistic. Full throttle is still required for highway merging, but the new Smart doesn't labor as hard as it used to. On the highway, the Fortwo is less affected by wind gusts from faster traffic or opposing trucks than the car it replaces. The wider track and a standard crosswind assist system help keep it from being tossed around.
In normal driving, the brakes are predictable and smooth when coming to a stop. Emergency stops produce uneasy swerving, but the stability control system manages the situation effectively.
Handling isn't confidence-inspiring, but this isn't a performance car. Despite the rear weight bias, the Smart plows wide through turns, nose first. Stability control intervenes often and aggressively during spirited driving, and it cannot be disabled.
Is It Comfortable?
As a city car, the Smart doesn't place an emphasis on long-distance comfort as more conventional cars must. On short errands, its stiff ride and significant jostling can be easily forgiven. The same can be said for the intrusive road and wind noise. In sustained highway stretches, however, noise and ride quality are taxing.
After about an hour in the car, the leather upholstered seats become stifling in warm weather and the lack of a standard center armrest contributes to moderate discomfort. The hard armrests in the doors are also prone to creating pain points after prolonged exposure.
What's It Like Inside?
Impressively, the Smart gives the impression of abundant space, bolstered by plenty of headroom and tall windows. Visibility out the front and sides is excellent, but the low rear hatch glass limits rear visibility.
Interior plastics are hard like other cars in this price range, but the Smart benefits from an attractive design. Usability is compromised in the name of fashion, however. The primary gauges are difficult to read at a quick glance, and the digital speedometer is so small that it's nearly useless.
In a clever move to integrate smartphones and save buyers some cash, the Smart's Cross Connect system has the potential to add advanced infotainment functions. With the free app loaded onto iOS and select Android devices, users can control audio, navigation and phone functions. With the optional $100 dash-mounted phone cradle, the system operates with the same ease as a more expensive touchscreen interface.
Even though the Cross Connect feature was still in pre-production beta testing, most of these systems worked well. Unfortunately, the navigation lacked detail and specific instructions. In select cities (Portland, Oregon; San Diego; San Francisco and San Jose, California so far), the Cross Connect app offers a unique feature that will guide you to small parking spaces set aside for Smart cars. Later in the year, a built-in touchscreen will be available for $1,290 with many of the same features.
Behind the seats, there are 9.2 cubic feet of luggage space, which is enough for a half-dozen recycled/reusable grocery bags. For longer items, the passenger seat can be folded forward. The two-piece hatch is a functional clamshell design and there's a shallow bin built into the tailgate, too.
Despite the cargo flexibility, dropping a few bags in the hatch will require either a high liftover to clear the tailgate or a multi-step process to open both hatch halves.
What Safety Features Are Available?
Standard safety features on all Fortwo models include knee airbags, the Crosswind Assist system and Smart's Tridion high-strength safety cell. Options like a frontal collision warning system and rear parking sensors are available on all but the base Pure trim.
What Kind of Fuel Economy Does It Get?
Smart estimates fuel economy at 36 mpg combined (33 city/39 highway) for the automated-manual transmission. The manual is expected to be 1 mpg lower across the board. These figures are commendable among small cars, but it's important to note that the Smart Fortwo requires premium gasoline.
What Does It Compete Against?
With the discontinuation of the Scion iQ, the 2016 Smart Fortwo is left without any direct competitors. Other small vehicles worth considering include the Chevrolet Spark, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Scion iA. Although these alternatives are considerably larger, they're priced competitively and have broader capabilities that include more seats, greater cargo space and better driving characteristics and comfort.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
You live in a dense urban setting and seldom stray outside the city. Or maybe you want a second car to run errands in that's easy to park and maneuver.
Why Should You Think Twice?
With such a narrow focus on city use, the Smart Fortwo does little else well. It's not particularly comfortable after an hour or two behind the wheel, nor is it confident on the highway. Its premium gasoline requirement compromises its otherwise appealing low fuel costs.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.