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