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