After years of on-again, off-again false starts, the smart fortwo is finally headed to the land of the free and the home of the Escalade. If you’ve traveled anywhere exotic in the past few years, to places such as Europe or Canada, you’ve likely seen the original Smarts scooting around and dicing up traffic like motorized pygmies on speed. Depending on your point of view, you’ve either thought, “Those things would never work in America,” or “Golly, I wish we had those in America.” Well, soon enough we’re going to find out which camp is right, because Roger Penske is bringing the second-generation Smart two-seater – in coupe and ragtop forms – to his vast dealer network, and he’s promising that a $99 deposit will get you a Smart of your own within six months. So far, 30,000 people have signed up for that deal, so it appears that the Age of the Microcar is off to a good start.
But what about the rest of us, those who haven’t plunked down a deposit? This is undoubtedly an intriguing car, but does it really live up to its name? Is it, in fact, a smart alternative to more conventional compact cars like the Chevy Aveo or the Honda Fit? We headed to Phoenix, one of the two initial launch cities (San Francisco being the other) to find out.
Now, Smart’s U.S. Web site includes a “frequently asked questions” section, but it’s somewhat lacking in answers for the real questions that run through your head when you climb behind the wheel of a car that measures 40 inches less from nose to tail than a MINI Cooper. Questions such as, “Will passing an eighteen-wheeler on the highway cause me to wet my pants?” and “Will girls laugh at me?” After 655.7 miles, we think we’ve got some answers.
Is it scary on the highway?
This is my first question, since the Smart dealership in Phoenix is immediately off I-10. Less than a mile into my ForTwo initiation, I’m buzzing along in the fast lane, headed for the Grand Canyon (I’ve never been there, and I’m always up for a good dichotomy). Route 17 out of Phoenix features a 75-mph speed limit and climbs to elevations that make Denver look like the Dead Sea. If the Smart can cut it here, it’ll probably handle the highway portion of your morning commute without making you feel like you got the slow car at the go-kart track.
With a 70-hp three-cylinder hanging over the rear wheels, the ForTwo doesn’t have a surfeit of power, but it will climb to an electronically limited 90 mph (which our test car’s apparently optimistic speedometer reads as 95 mph). The problem is, at Western highway speeds, you’re constantly at the edge of the performance envelope. It’s a little bit like driving a race car in that you’re always looking far down the road and planning how to exploit every last drop of performance at your disposal. For instance, if you’re approaching a hill, you click the left paddle and drop the five-speed sequential manual transmission from fifth down to fourth to spike the revs before you hit the incline, because if you wait until you’re already there, it’s too late – momentum is a precious commodity in the Smart ForTwo.
Choosing your line is also important in the Smart, because at 80 mph, you don’t want to make a lot of steering corrections. Occasionally I’ll pass an eighteen-wheeler and get buffeted with a crosswind, which sets up a white-knuckle seesawing at the wheel – the Smart’s short wheelbase equates to agility around town, but on sweeping interstate bends, it’s easy to find the chassis corkscrewing down the road as you try to get back on line.
That said, I find a perverse enjoyment in driving the Smart on the highway. In most modern cars, doing 80 mph on the interstate is an exercise in tedium – set the cruise control and try not to fall asleep. In the Smart, you’re constantly involved in the driving experience. For instance, there’s a detent at the bottom of the accelerator’s travel, and pushing through it triggers a downshift, sort of the Smart’s version of kicking in the secondaries on a four-barrel carb. Once you’ve downshifted, you can leave your foot on the floor and upshift back into fifth using the paddles, thus dropping revs a bit while allowing full throttle. Using this technique, I can sail up hills without pegging the tach at redline, provided I pull in tight behind our Dodge Nitro support vehicle. That’s right, I’m a Dodge-drafter. I see a line of Smarts and they’re all painted black.
All told, the Smart will handle any reasonable highway situation you throw at it, but you need to maintain situational awareness at a higher level than in most other cars. You may not be relaxed, but you’re never bored, either.
How does this save the earth?
A guy at a rest stop actually asks me this question. Alternate queries along this theme include, “Is it electric?” “How many miles per gallon does it get?” and “Is that a reservation cart?” (I’m not even sure what a reservation cart is, but that’s what the guy at the Grand Canyon ticket booth asks as I buy my pass.)
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.
There’s only one problem: I observe the Smart for a cumulative two and a half hours and don’t see one meter maid. Several cops drive by, as do a few tow trucks, but nobody pays a glance at the tiny car wedged in front of the meters. So the qualified answer is that the ForTwo is an ally in the war to find a parking spots.
The ForTwo doesn’t get otherworldly fuel mileage, and, at a base price of $12,235, it’s not especially cheap. Also, as I pull away from a stoplight in Tempe, I see two girls in an adjacent car laughing at me. But I’ll bet they wouldn’t be laughing if they knew they were looking at the Ferrari Enzo of parallel parking. OK. Maybe they would.
Is it Smart?
If you name yourself L. L. Cool J, you’d better make sure the Ladies Love Cool James. If you name your aircraft carrier Invincible, you make damn sure the bloody Argentineans don’t make a liar of you in the Falklands. And if you name your car Smart, it’d better be a four-wheeled Ken Jennings.
After putting the ForTwo through its paces in both urban and rural situations, I’d have to say that the Smart lives up to its name, but only in the city. If you commute to work and park in a lot, then you’re probably better served by a more conventional car. But if your commute includes regular battle in the trenches of metered parking, the Smart really might be the best option on the market.
For instance, I used to live in Beacon Hill in Boston, a place so dense and bereft of parking that I’d sometimes drive past literally every spot in the entire neighborhood, and there wouldn’t be one single place to park. I’ve since foregone that misery and moved to a different part of town, but the day after I return from my Smart adventure, I find myself driving to dinner in Beacon Hill behind the wheel of a hulking Lexus LS460L. I luck out and find someone climbing into a minivan and getting ready to vacate a precious spot, so I pull ahead and put on my blinker. As the minivan pulls out, I see another car has pulled up behind the space, its blinker also flashing, and a standoff straight out of Seinfeld ensues. I don’t back down, because I was here first – clearly, you don’t drive forward into a parallel-parking spot-and the irate woman at the wheel of the other car eventually concedes this point, although not before giving me the finger. When I return to the Lexus after dinner, there’s a note on the windshield that reads, “What goes around comes around, you sorry excuse for a human being.”
Sounds like somebody could use a hug. And a Smart.