2008 Smart ForTwo - Does Size Matter?

John Roe

Based on my interactions with curious passersby in Arizona, it looks as if the Smart is facing an uphill battle to bridge the schism between public expectations and its actual capabilities. People see this tiny car and think that it must be amazingly light, cheap, and efficient. One guy guesses that it costs $6000 and gets 80 mpg. Another asks if it gets 100 mpg. It's as if people are mentally computing what sort of benefit they'd need to receive in order to drive something that looks like this. And without fail, they're way off.

Smart claims the ForTwo will deliver about 40 mpg under "normal use," but I never break out of the 30s. If that seems staggeringly low for a car this size, it's because Smart erred on the side of safety and refinement, and equipment like power windows and side air bags and generous sound deadening all equate to added weight, that basic enemy of efficiency. The ForTwo weighs about 1800 pounds, which is light by conventional standards but pretty chunky for a car saddled with a three-cylinder engine. The result is that you go everywhere with your foot to the floor, and even a one-liter three-banger isn't going to deliver great mileage if it's sitting at 6500 rpm all the time. On the way up to the Grand Canyon, I get 31 mpg. On the next tank of gas, driving a little less aggressively, I manage 38 mpg. A bartender at Rod's Steak House in Williams, about an hour from the South Rim, asks about the Smart's mileage, and when I tell her, she replies, "My Corvette does better than that." I express skepticism as to the veracity of that claim, and she replies, "Did I say 'Corvette?' I meant to say 'CorvEcho.' "

Is it fun?
Anyone with an interest in cars has to be intrigued by the Smart's basic specifications: rear engine, rear-wheel drive, and a sequential manual transmission look like the ingredients for a pocket racer, a Mini-Me Porsche 911. But you've got to remember that this is a car built by Mercedes-Benz (check the Benz parts-bin icons on the switchgear), and the primary goal of any Mercedes is always to keep you alive so that you can buy another Mercedes. So it's hard to provoke the Smart into doing anything too entertaining without the electronic safety net interrupting. On one slightly greasy back road, I pull a U-turn, and as I roll onto the throttle, I feel the back end start to swing around in that relentless rear-engine pendulum motion. But as I add a surprised, happy measure of opposite lock, the stability control system cuts in and guillotines the throttle, and with it, the entertainment.

There's fun to be had in the Smart, but it doesn't lie in traditional metrics like acceleration or outright grip. While Ferrari measures its semiautomatic shift times in milliseconds, you can complete a customer-service call to Banga-lore while the Smart moves from first to second. The suspension is biased toward comfort, and the springs are so soft that the car squats like a 600-hp Camaro under throttle, even though it'll take you about thirteen seconds to reach 60 mph. The Smart's entertainment factor, then, lies in its ability to surprise, and many are the times when I find joy in banging down a gear and squeezing into a gap in traffic where none had dared to go. There's novelty in that, but the question is how long that novelty would last.

Will I get crushed to death by an eighteen-wheeler?
Good question. I've watched Smart crash tests on YouTube, and while the steel safety cell is nearly impregnable, you don't have much in the way of crumple zones. Mercedes has a video in which a Smart endures an offset frontal collision with an E-class, and the Smart sacrifices what little hood it has before that rugged safety cell commences ripping through the bodywork of the big Mercedes. I guess the lesson is that if you crash into something that deforms, you're all right, but if you smack into a bridge abutment, you might regret it.

Honestly, though, thoughts of collisions don't much cross your mind when you're behind the wheel, because the Smart is very good at fooling you into thinking that you're driving a much larger car. The interior is light and airy and big enough to provide room for someone who's six-five. There are normal-car attributes like climate control and a nice stereo and power locks and windows. It's only when you glance over your shoulder and realize that the car ends right . . . about . . . there . . . that you're reminded that you might want to apply motorcycle tactics to your driving technique-always assume that the other guy doesn't see you, and always look for holes in traffic that can serve as an escape route. The Smart might be safer than it looks, but I really don't want to be the first guy in America to find that out.

Can you park it anywhere?
This, to my mind, is the most crucial question of all, but it's one nobody asks in the three days I drive the car. So I head to downtown Tempe, near Arizona State University, in search of some congestion, a chance to figure out if meter maids will smile upon the Smart. In Europe, you're often allowed to park a Smart nose-in to the curb, a huge advantage that opens up otherwise unavailable parking spots. But it's unclear whether U.S. cities will embrace similarly Smart-friendly policies, so I pull up to the curb, directly between two parallel-parked cars, to force the issue.

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