By Michael Karesh
The original smart was a tiny, two-seat car developed by a partnership of Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, maker of whimsically styled, affordable Swiss watches. Powered by a rear-mounted 600cc engine and only 98 inches long, the fortwo was designed for Europe’s congested cities, where it could be parked nose to the curb. Swappable plastic body bits gave the microcar some of the character of a Swatch watch. Figuring there wasn’t a market for such a car in the less densely populated, long commute-loving U.S., the manufacturer never offered it here.
The second-generation fortwo is eight inches longer–but still tiny–with a larger–but still tiny—engine. Combine the size increases with (until recently) higher gas prices, and we get the second-gen fortwo. And, what do you know, the waiting list is over a year long.
Even though the North American HQ is 15 minutes from my house, I wasn’t immediately able to drive the new Americanized fortwo and see what all the fuss is about. You see, you have to make an appointment first. After playing a bit of email tag, I gave up. Then one day I dropped by the HQ/dealer and said, “Well, I tried to make an appointment.” They graciously bent the rules and granted me a test drive.
The fortwo, only 106 inches long and only 61 inches wide yet nearly 61 inches tall, has the proportions and appearance of a cartoon car. The plastic body panels are one color, while the steel “safety cage” is silver. The resulting appearance, at once stylish and cute, is among the major selling points of the car.
Unlike its exterior, the interior of the car I drove was oppressively dark and dour. There are a few bits of silver plastic, but they fail to either lighten the place up or make it seem less cheap. Some interior surfaces have a fabric covering to them that already looked worn and dirty in the demo I drove.
As its name and size suggest, the smart fortwo seats only two. A high seating position helps the car feel larger than it is from the driver’s seat. The view forward is very open. As in a minivan, the hood is not visible from the driver’s seat. On the other hand, rearward visibility is in limited supply in the convertible–and that’s with the top up. With the top down, the view directly rearward is almost entirely obstructed. Still, the car is easy to park. The rear window not far behind your head is also the back end of the car—there’s no trunk to allow for.
The convertible isn’t a full convertible, as the entire safety cage remains up when the top goes down. So it’s more like a full-length sunroof. As with a sunroof, you can open and close the soft top while driving.
The seats didn’t suit me well. Just a few miles into the test drive I had a sore spot in my lower back. They also cannot recline much because of the package shelf immediately behind them. Behind the seats you’ll find just enough room to squeeze in a row of grocery bags.
The upside of driving a smart fortwo is that it drives like nothing else. But there’s also a reason nothing else drives this way.
With a 70-horsepower 1.0-liter three-cylinder to motivate 1,800 pounds (plus occupants), acceleration isn’t strong. But it’s not entirely inadequate, either. For getting around town, it’ll do. There’s even something resembling grunt in first gear. Highway driving, on the other hand, is clearly not this city car’s strong suit.
I was surprised to find that the engine doesn’t feel rough, as I expected a three to, and that it sounds like a larger engine when revved. How high did I rev it? I can’t say, as the fortwo I drove lacked a tach.
The transmission is an automated five-speed manual with no clutch pedal. It can be left in fully automatic mode. But shifts in this mode are very slow, and the computer works the throttle much like someone just learning to use a manual. We’re talking long pauses between when the throttle is relaxed–tipping occupants forward in their seats–and when it is reapplied. Also, the transmission when left to its own devices runs through the gears quickly, lugging the engine in fifth by 35.
So put it in manual mode, and use either the shifter or the paddles attached to the steering wheel to shift. Work the throttle like you would with a conventional manual, and shifts are reasonably quick and smooth. Like most shift paddles, the fortwo’s are attached to the steering wheel, and move with it in turns. I much prefer paddles attached to the steering column, because I always know where to find them.
Many people will think “excellent fuel economy” when the see the smart. So, how good does it do? Respondents to TrueDelta’s Fuel Economy Survey report high 30s in mixed driving. So, very good, but not much better than a larger, more powerful, and more comfortable Civic or Corolla.
The optional power steering is fairly firm and sufficiently responsive. It doesn’t feel overly light at low speeds. The fortwo feels agile, but not as much as I expected it to given its diminutive size. This is probably intentional, to discourage abrupt steering inputs, since a car of these proportions is inherently unstable. (Standard electronic stability control keeps the fortwo on four wheels.) To the same end, even moderately hard cornering produces an unsettling amount of body lean. I never felt the car was unsafe, but I clearly wasn’t supposed to push it hard.
The ride is somewhat choppy–no surprise given the ultra-short wheelbase–and more than somewhat noisy. Still, fine for around town, just not for extended drives on the highway.
Prices for the fortwo aren’t high, but are higher than might be expected. This is a car with three quarters the mass and parts of a conventional compact, but for about the same price. With the coupe, at least. The convertible, though $3,000 more than the coupe, is arguably the better value. Where else can you get a convertible with leather seats for $18,000?
The closest competitor to the smart fortwo convertible is perhaps the MINI Cooper. Even after a $1,600 adjustment for its extra features (based on TrueDelta’s Vehicle Price Comparison Tool, the MINI Cabrio is about $7,200 more than the smart.
Compared to a Volkswagen New Beetle, the price gap starts out about the same, but the feature adjustment cuts the “apples to apples” difference to about $5,500.
So, the fortwo Cabriolet costs much less than other small convertibles. But it’s also much less car.
So, the driving experience sounds mostly bad, right? By just about any objective measure, yes. But in these days of hyper-refined automobiles, it’s refreshing to drive something so clearly mechanical and chock full of character. Driving the smart, you’re constantly aware that you’re not driving a normal, run of the mill transportation appliance. And the price is much lower than most cars bought as toys. So, despite all of the drawbacks, I can see why the waiting list is so long.
Michael Karesh is the founder and owner of TrueDelta, an automotive research company.
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