This time last year, I headed for Canada to drive a smart fortwo. This year, the Smart came to us. Smart has stopped in Ann Arbor as part of its fifty-city, cross-country road show to demonstrate its cute little two-seater. It’s obviously working, since more than 20,000 people have plunked down a $99 deposit for one of the sub-micro-compact cuties.
Stuffed in the rear of the 2008 ForTwo is Mitsubishi-built 1.0-liter three-cylinder making 71 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automated manual transmission sends power to the rear wheels. The Smart’s surprisingly large fifteen-inch wheels (tires are 155/60 front, 175/55 rear) are disc brakes in front, drums in rear. All Smarts come standard with anti-lock brakes and full stability control.
Like the previous body style Smart (which was sold in Canada but not the U.S.) the ForTwo is strictly, well, for two. Behind the seats is enough room for 7.7 cubic feet of cargo, but this is a tiny little car – it’s only 106 inches long, 61 inches wide, and 61 inches tall. To put that into perspective, the 1700-lb Smart not only weighs 900 lb less than a MINI Cooper, it’s 39.5 inches – that’s more than three feet! – shorter.
The small engine can hurtle the ForTwo down the highway at 90 mph, but obviously this car is meant for around-town use. EPA fuel economy estimates haven’t been finalized, but Smart expects to see more than 40 mpg in mixed driving.
The Smart hits the market in January of 2008, where it will be sold from by U.S. dealerships, mostly satellites of existing Mercedes dealers. The ForTwo will be available in three trim levels: The “Pure”, which will start under $12,000, includes all of the Smart’s safety features (four airbags, ABS and ESP), remote central locking, a rear defroster, and not much more. The “Passion” model will cost under $14,000, and adds a panorama glass roof, alloy wheels, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, and a CD stereo system.
The last of the models, the “Passion Cabrio” adds a convertible top and in-dash six-CD changer for another $3000.
Final pricing, equipment, and fuel economy estimates will be announced closer to the vehicle’s launch. We drove a European-specification Passion model here in Ann Arbor – go to the next page to see driving impressions from our staffers, and for links to other Smart features on our site.
Staff Driving Impressions
The 2008 ForTwo is very similar to the previous model, which is to say, miniscule. But, like last time, you aren’t aware of the teensy two-seater’s tiny size once you’re inside – there’s loads of room. The new five-speed automated manual shifts more smoothly than the old six-speed, and the 71-hp gas engine positively blows the doors off of the 40-hp diesel I drove last year. I still think there’s only a very small, niche market for the Smart – after all, the much larger Honda Fit costs only a little more – but its adorable styling and I’m-saving-the-Earth image will certainly win some fans.
Look, no one is saying this car is for cross-country drives. It is what it is, which is a very cool-looking urban runner that feels huge inside, has a very good safety story, gets respectable fuel economy, and can park in your back pocket. It responds instantly to throttle, has fairly quick paddle shifters, and handles around town errands with major style. People love-love-love it. Not a chick car. Not even a raving eco-weinermobile. Just, well, Smart.
My drive around Ann Arbor provoked a remarkable amount of public interest in the Smart ForTwo. But then, this is Ann Arbor, the People’s Republic of Michigan. That said, a Smart spokesman claimed they’d had unexpected enthusiasm for the concept in places as unlikely as Omaha. At any rate, the 2008 Smart drove very similarly to the previous generation car, which I’ve had extensive experience with in London, UK. Biggest complaint remains the slow-witted gearbox, although the Smart can be driven pretty enthusiastically in manual mode (as demonstrated by Sir Stirling Moss in his own black and white Smart on a death-wish drive through Mayfair. BTW, he calls it ‘Shamu’). So will it work here? Well, if Smart doesn’t get too ambitious with the numbers, there could well be enough urbanites to float it.
When I first spotted the new Smart ForTwo in a Detroit parking garage–amongst America’s army of towering SUVs–I found it hard to stifle schoolboy-like giggles. This thing is just plain dinky! But that’s not the feeling you get when you sit behind the wheel, since the cabin makes up so much of the car’s footprint. Heck, there’s even some luggage space on top of the rear-mounted, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. Start driving down the road, and the surprisingly tall and wide ForTwo feels pretty much like a regular car, save for its strangely squishy steering, its floor-hinged brake pedal, and its tossable, go-kart-like chassis. Until–that is–you pull up next to a dump truck, when you might feel inclined to brace for a nuclear attack. (For the record, Smart expects this car to earn four-star safety ratings, and it has a superstiff “Tridion safety cell” skeleton.) For as low as $12K ($17K for the convertible), the 40-plus-mpg ForTwo should make an affordable runabout for select urbanites–the car’s reception in the rest of America is less predictable.