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First Drive: 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio

Small car, Big Apple

Chris Chinwriter, photographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

Smart launched the third-generation Fortwo in 2015 with a full list of revisions and improvements. However, because Smart is competing for customers in a country known for big, wide, open spaces and cheap gas, that alone isn't enough to move the volume needle. To try and bait more buyers into the Smart way of life, engineers cut the roof off, giving us the 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio.

The Fortwo's biggest selling point is it's designed specifically for crowded and dense places like New York City. Its pod-like size and turning radius that's almost half that of a Chevrolet Suburban's—at 22.8 feet versus the Suburban's 43 feet—theoretically make the Fortwo an intelligent choice for city-dwelling car ownership.

However, the Fortwo's footprint didn't prove any more helpful in New York's relentless gridlock. Instead sitting in traffic jams meant more eyes met the cabrio's quirky and head-turning looks. But these weren't a response to poor aesthetics. The new car looks remarkably better than the previous model. As John Lamm said in his review of the Fortwo Coupe, the Fortwo actually looks like "a real car."

The cabriolet accentuates the Fortwo's high-strength steel Tridion safety cell that gives the car its shape. Plastic outer body panels cover the sensitive parts and comprise the doors. They can be color-coded to match the interior in more than 400 combinations.

Stepping inside the Fortwo feels like nestling into a Nike sneaker enlarged by Wayne Szalinski for the next installment of "Honey, I Blew Up the Kids." Except it comes with four wheels and a motor. Our tester's Midnight Blue Metallic paint and top-spec proxy blue and white interior didn't help to change that perception either. And you know that aerated polyester lining your athletic footwear? It trims the interior of the Fortwo, along with a mix of flat vinyl paneling and glossy plastics.

It is different, but we quite like it. On top of being unique, the materials seem to be of high quality, and the interior exudes a sense of durability. The buckets are decently comfortable for short city sprints, a six-speaker JBL-based audio system bumps the latest from New York's pop stations, and automatic climate control kicks on when the roof is up. Without mentioning power windows, locks, and driver's seat, that's about it.

Removing the roof off a vehicle tends to boost its fun factor. For the Fortwo cabriolet, the fun ranks up in 12 seconds at the touch of a center-console-mounted button. That retractable fabric roof functions at any speed, offering quick access to the sky. With the roof fully retracted, the side rails can be removed with some manual click-and-lift labor to create a "full-blown cabrio experience," as Smart touts. The extra parts stow away in a compartment integrated into the trunk door.

The fun pretty much stops there. Going for the "full cabrio experience" means you're exposed to the Fortwo's unpleasant exhaust note, if you can even call it that. Anytime the engine hit the upper end of its rev range, something resembling an overworked, asthmatic hamster emanated greatly from the rear.

That noise is made by the Fortwo's 0.9-liter turbocharged I-3, which is the same engine that's found in the hardtop, as is the laggy 89 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque. Transmission options are also the same: a five-speed manual and an all-new six-speed Twinamic dual-clutch automatic. The tester featured the latter, which served slow but seamless shifts.

The Fortwo gets around Brooklyn adequately. Merging onto the Belt Parkway was as trouble free as weaving in and out of the maze of double-parked Ubers in Crown Heights. The suspension absorbs potholes and bumps sufficiently. Dips, hops, and speed bumps accentuate the drawbacks of its short wheelbase, however, and the Fortwo jostles you around quite a bit on its pitch axis when the road gets rough. By the end of the six-hour media crawl, the Fortwo left us longing for a stiff, supportive bucket seat and a yearning to feel respected on the road again.

Is the Smart Fortwo Cabrio an intelligent choice for the city dweller niche after all? With the tester ringing up at $23,660, including destination, it certainly doesn't seem so. The cabriolet might be an affordable entrance into the realm of drop-tops at its base price of $18,900, but there is also the Fiat 500C and its targa-like roof to consider at $20,395. If your budget has elasticity around the fully loaded cabrio's price, a new Mazda Miata, which starts at $24,915, might be within reach. Both are similarly small and maneuverable, economical, but are way more of a car than the Fortwo wants to be.

The 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio tries hard, but living in a city like New York requires smart choices. Size, it seems, is the only advantage to the Fortwo for the sake of parking and avoiding careless garbage trucks. But for that annual holiday pilgrimage to the in-laws' outside the city proper, you're going to wish you just bought a regular car or went with a rental.

2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $18,900/$19,890 (manual/twinamic DCT auto)
Engine: 0.9L turbo DOHC 12-valve I-3/89 hp, 100 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual, 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD convertible
EPA Mileage: 31-33/38 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 106.1 x 65.5 x 61.1 in
Wheelbase: 73.7 in
Weight: 2,094-2,150 lb
0-60 MPH: 10.7/11.6 sec (manual/automatic)
Top Speed: 94 mph