There aren’t many people for whom a smart fortwo is a good purchase decision. But if parking is at an extreme premium where you live, it might be a very good option. However, you better be sure that you’re OK with a slow two-seater that gets surprisingly low fuel mileage (33/41 mpg city/highway, per the EPA), rides like a buckboard, and costs about the same as several “real cars” with a back seat, namely the Nissan Versa, the Chevy Aveo, the Kia Rio, and the Hyundai Accent.
The fancified ForTwo “Passion” that we tested stickered for a hair under $17,000, which can get you into an even greater number of solid competitors. That’s not to say that the Smart is a throwaway option. The interior features obviously cheap materials, but they’re not offensive and fit well with the car’s character. The ForTwo also offers a growly engine note, swappable body panels, and distinctive styling inside and out.
The ForTwo’s luggage space (in front of the rear window, on top of the rear-mounted engine compartment) should actually be more than sufficient for a week’s worth of grocery shopping for a two-person household, but Costco runs are definitely out of the question. Legroom is quite good — I’m five-foot-six and had to move the seat up quite a bit to reach the pedals. I love the transparent roof (standard on the Passion trim level); it makes the car feel larger and more welcoming but keeps the cabin quieter than an open convertible top. Not surprisingly, the cockpit still gets fairly loud on the highway, but it’s not as bad as I expected. The sequential-manual transmission’s constant between-gear hiccups are quite unpleasant, however, as are the touchy, strange-feeling brakes, the giant dead spot in the steering wheel’s on-center position, and the shockingly low handling limits — the stability control light flashed several times when I wasn’t even pushing the car very hard.
I’d be willing to bet that the ForTwo has the longest door-to-car ratio ever. These doors seem every bit as long as a Ford Mustang’s, making it tricky to get out of the Smart in tight side-to-side parking situations. Those folks parking Smarts nose-in amid lines of parallel-parked cars have got to be damned skinny!
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The transmission!! The transmission!! When it upshifts, the whole car dips so much, the high-beam headlights’ light beam visibly dips by several yards in front of you. That’s how much the lurching of the transmission causes the vehicle to bob up and down. It could be such a good city car if the transmission worked properly and you felt like you could zip around, but there’s no feeling of zippiness, just a feeling of fighting the powertrain. That’s what I don’t like. What I do like is the packaging, which makes the Smart a brilliant little city car. I love the feeling of being so close to the street and the absolutely superb front and side visibility, which makes it easy to spot pedestrians, children, bicycles, taxis, and other elements of the urban street scene. I also appreciate the upper visibility through the huge glass roof.
The Smart is the epitome of a niche vehicle. I’m imagining it as a second car for a couple or family who live in New York City, Chicago, Miami, or San Francisco. It’s the car you hop into to run out on Sunday morning and get bagels and the New York Times. The car you and your spouse take to dinner on Saturday night in that hip but crowded neighborhood with the latest hot restaurants. Places where parking is an absolute bear, and where you’ll be thrilled to have the Smart to wedge into a tiny spot that no one else can fit in. It’s also a car that can be used to drop one kid at school as one parent drives to work. Admittedly, these are all occasional scenarios, and most people would probably take their chances with parking and have a small car with more seating capacity and more versatility.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
As mentioned by others, the Smart’s worst weakness is its transmission. On Evan’s advice, I treated it like a paddle-shifted manual and found that the car was much more enjoyable. As for leaving it in full automatic — I’m sure those who enjoy teaching teenagers to drive a stick will love it; others will not.
Although the car looks like fun, the harsh ride is an unpleasant surprise. Still, I feel that with the right transmission the car could be a winner. It’s the perfect size for dense, urban areas, and its tidy dimensions mean that you can dart around potholes without leaving your lane; don’t take the Smart outside of the city, though, as highway stability is anything but confidence-inspiring and the itty-bitty engine makes quite the racket at high speeds.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
In the fifty years since the debut of the BMC Mini, front engine/front wheel drive has generally been accepted as the best layout for small cars. The Smart ForTwo does not seriously challenge this orthodoxy but I still appreciate the out-of-the box approach. Driving the ForTwo around town is a genuinely unique, happy experience. The 1-liter, three-cylinder engine sounds absolutely bizarre and maybe even a little sporty as it puts its all into keeping up with everyday traffic. Middle aged women smiled and waved as I pass, probably because there’s no possible way to look less threatening. Men, on the other hand, seemed unsure whether to be snidely amused or genuinely appalled. It goes without saying that the ForTwo is easy to park, but I’ll say it anyway. I amused my neighbors and myself by parallel parking in front of my garage door, and couldn’t help but giggle every time I pulled into a parking space and saw the six feet of extra room.
Flaws? There are lots of them. The transmission’s algorithm seems programmed to imitate someone driving a stick for the first time. This issue is hilariously exaggerated by the fact that the whole car rocks back and forth like a kids punching bag with each halting shift. Smart has thankfully conquered the not-so-hilarious tendency of rear-engine small cars to roll over, but its commendable safety seems to come at the cost of any real dynamic competence, as the ForTwo understeers heavily at the first sign of g-force. I decided to take the car on the highway for the fun of it, and found myself mildly terrified instead as a freak April sleet storm had me bouncing around my lane, foot nailed to the floor in vain effort to keep a safe momentum.
The biggest problem of course, is the fact that these compromises don’t really return exceptional fuel economy. The Hyundai Elantra offers a telling contrast, starting at about the same base price as the Smart and coming close to its mpg ratings (29/40 versus 33/41 city/highway) without demanding Americans sacrifice most of what they desire in a car.
So, the ForTwo doesn’t prove the viability of its unique packaging. But it’s clearly on to something, or else BMW, Volkswagen, and Toyota would not be hard at work on their own rear-engine small cars.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I remember parsing over the original MCC Smart press kit, which a family friend brought home from the 1994 Frankfurt show, and thinking Daimler-Benz had a neat idea. Here was a funky urban runabout that promised to be the last word in fuel-efficient transportation.
But it isn’t — at least not in the U.S. A number of factors may explain why Smart sales are nothing short of dismal (5927 units in 2010), but I’d wager that unless you’re moving up from a ratty Vespa PX, the Smart ForTwo simply asks drivers to sacrifice a little too much in the name of fuel economy.
Obviously, interior space is one compromise. I don’t expect a car like this to be immensely spacious, but I never found my 5-foot-11, 260-pound frame seated comfortably within. As Rusty Blackwell noted, both leg- and headroom is sufficient, but I perpetually found my knee wedged against the shifter, the armrest well below my elbow, and my shoulder slammed against that of my passenger. This isn’t just a case of “fat man in a little car;” I’ve found much more shoulder room in a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which is only an inch wider overall.
The little turbocharged I-3 is fairly peppy and emits a satisfying grunt when worked hard, but the aforementioned semi-automatic 5-speed transmission needs to be shifted like a manual for a smooth gear change. Around town, the ride is stiff (what do you expect from a 73.5-inch wheelbase and 15-inch tires?), and thanks to a fair amount of wind noise, a lack of standard cruise control, and a profile that is easily kicked about by crosswinds, long bouts on the highway aren’t much more enjoyable.
Years ago, these traits could have been brushed off as quirks necessary to achieve 40-plus mpg on the highway — but that’s no longer a case. A number of small cars, many of which offer two or three times the space of the ForTwo — manage to come awful close to hitting the Smart’s magic 41-mpg rating. Are any as neat, nimble, or innovative as the ForTwo? Perhaps not, but none require buyers to make such a radical leap from their previous automobile. That alone may be the key in selling small, fuel-sipping cars to the North American masses.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
Until now, I had somehow managed never to get behind the wheel of any of the Smart cars we’ve had here at Automobile Magazine — and quite honestly, I never felt any great desire to drive one. Intellectually, I appreciate the Smart as an economical city car, a car that is the polar opposite of SUVs that guzzle gas and take up more than their fair share of space on our roads. Still, there are lots of subcompacts on the market that cost about the same as the Smart, also have very good fuel economy numbers, and are much more practical, with room for four people and more than a few bags of groceries. Plus, the Smart looks a little ridiculous. It may be at home in the old-world urban environs of Europe, where $8 or $9 per gallon gasoline and scarce parking spots make it a viable choice, but it looks like it got lost on its way to the circus here in the heart of the middle America.
Still, the time had come for me to drive a Smart car, and I was looking forward to spending a night (but no more than a night, mind you) with it. The first thing you notice when you walk up to a Smart is how small it really is. Its short, 73.5-inch wheelbase and 106.1 inch overall length make it extremely maneuverable and easy to park. In fact, I could likely have fit two Smart cars parked nose to tail in just one stall of my two-stall garage. The interior is pretty much a no-frills place, but everything you really need — climate controls, stereo, gauges — is there and very easy to use.
Once underway, the behavior of the automatic transmission immediately grabs your attention – the shifts take so long that it’s as if the engine has been deliberately paused for two or three seconds before the next gear is selected. The first time it happened, while I was still in the parking garage, I actually stopped because I thought I’d left the parking brake engaged. Still, once you get going, the 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine is capable of cruising at 75-80 mph on the highway for long distances. The wind will buffet you around on a blustery day or when you’re passing an eighteen-wheeler, however.
The Smart has never quite fulfilled the promise that it held when it was first launched a few years back. In the month of March, only 425 Smarts were sold nationwide (down 37% from March of 2010), and year-to-date sales total less than 1300. It remains to be seen whether the rising price of gas can help Smart sales rebound or whether more mainstream subcompacts, which are increasingly returning 40 mpg, can fill the Smart’s market niche.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
2011 smart fortwo Passion Coupe
Base price (with destination): $15,440
Price as tested: $16,860
1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine
5-speed automatic transmission
15-inch alloy wheels
Tire pressure monitoring system
Front disc brakes with ABS
Electronic stability program
Hill start assist
Spare tire kit
Options on this vehicle:
Comfort package — $950
Anti-theft alarm system — $200
Ambient lighting — $190
Armrest — $80
Key options not on vehicle:
33 / 41 / 36 mpg
1.0L 12-valve I-3
Horsepower: 70 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 68 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Curb weight: 1808 lb
Wheels/tires: 15 x 4.5-inch alloy wheels
155/60R15 front; 175/55R15 rear Continental ContiProContact all-season tires
Just plain cool facts:
-The Smart car has approximately 12 cu-ft of luggage space.
-It’s the most fuel-efficient, non-hybrid, gasoline-powered vehicle in the U.S.
-You can change the color of your Smart by swapping body panels.
-95% of the car is recyclable.
-90 mph top speed.
-0-60 mph 12.8 sec.