You don’t really want to know how bad the first Smart was. What counts today is that its replacement–which will be sold by Roger Penske’s UnitedAuto Group when it arrives in the States in early 2008–is dynamically superior in almost all respects. It rides well, it holds the road, it maneuvers as if it’s controlled by a video-game joystick, and its performance is quite respectable. The U.S.-spec model we drove in Madrid is powered by a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that produces 70 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque. That’s enough to push the 1654-pound featherweight from 0 to 60 mph in about 13 seconds and on to a governed top speed of 90 mph. Smart expects the car to earn EPA combined fuel-economy ratings of about 40 mpg.
Smart significantly increased the ForTwo’s trunk space, widened the rear track by 1.2 inches, stretched the wheelbase by more than two inches, and replaced approximately 90 percent of the vehicle’s parts. But when you first encounter the 2008 ForTwo in the flesh, you still need to park a 2006 model alongside to spot the differences. The ForTwo has grown some 7.7 inches in length, but its proportions are as gawky as ever: this street-legal Tonka toy is again very tall, very narrow, and very short. In some European cities, it can be parked nose-in, which is a good thing until the day your fellow parkers don’t leave enough space for you to open the Smart’s extralong doors. Theoretically, two Smarts can share one parking spot, but that scenario rarely occurs in real life.
It doesn’t take very long to get used to this hypercompact weasel on wheels. The brakes and the handling benefit from the fatter 155/60TR-15 front tires, and the five-speed semiautomatic transmission shifts much more smoothly than the previous six-speed unit. Potholes, broken pavement, and longitudinal grooves still irritate the car’s front end, but unless you encounter merciless crosswinds, the directional stability has improved from frightening to acceptable. Because of its awkward layout (engine in the back, higher than normal center of gravity), the ForTwo doesn’t turn in with the same spontaneity as a MINI Cooper or a Volkswagen GTI. It is nonetheless quite chuckable, and it hangs on like a slot car.
The decently equipped coupe will, Smart USA promises, cost less than $15,000, plus destination charges. We would spend a few grand extra on the cabriolet, which has a clever power-operated top that stows away neatly and can be operated at any speed. The first Smarts to land in the United States will be drafted into a six-month-long, forty-four-city tour that’ll kick off this May.
Does it make sense for America? If you live in Manhattan, maybe. If you live in Manhattan, Kansas, probably not.