Is the smart fortwo Doomed in the US?

By Chris Haak

04.16.2009

2008-smart-fortwos-intersectionDaimler AG’s minicar subsidiary, smart, has been selling its minuscule two-seat vehicles to style-conscious, city-dwelling Americans for a couple of years and has been reasonably successful.  However, much of that success is probably attributable to the car’s shockingly small stature (which makes it more of a fashion accessory than a viable automobile) and high fuel prices.  Folks assume that such a tiny, three-cylinder car surely must be extremely fuel efficient.  In reality, it isn’t nearly as efficient as you’d expect it to be.

The EPA’s fueleconomy.gov website lists six models with highway fuel economy figures above 40 mpg, although two of the six are two versions of the same car (the Jetta SportWagen/sedan (41 mpg highway) and the smart fortwo coupe/convertible (41 mpg highway)).  The other options are the Toyota Prius (45 mpg highway) and the Honda Civic Hybrid (45 mpg highway).  Not yet appearing on the EPA’s site is the already-on-sale 2010 Honda Insight, which is rated at 43 mpg on the highway.

Highway fuel economy numbers are relatively easy to achieve via gearing and aerodynamics.  The real trick is the city fuel economy, and that’s where weight and drivetrain efficiency really play a part.  The only vehicle – aside from the 2010 Insight (40 mpg city) – rated over 40 mpg in the city cycle is the Prius (48 mpg city).  The Honda Civic Hybrid is the only vehicle rated over 35 mpg city (40 mpg).  Lower the bar a little further to those rated over 30 mpg city, and the list expands to include the Altima Hybrid (35 mpg city), Escape/Tribute/Mariner (FWD) Hybrid trio (34 mpg city), smart fortwo coupe/convertible (33 mpg city), and the Toyota Camry Hybrid (also 33 mpg city).  The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid is rated at 41 city/36 highway.

So in terms of fuel economy, the smart fortwo is certainly nothing special, with its city fuel economy in the low-30s, though admittedly in line with vehicles with hybrid drivetrains.  The passenger and cargo space in the fortwo leave a lot to be desired, as do its 1.0-liter, 70-horsepower three-cylinder engine and wonky automated-manual transmission that most folks just shift themselves.  On the plus side of the ledger, the smart has a unique look, is incredibly easy to park (I could fit four in my two-car garage), and is fairly inexpensive to buy.

But really, is this car starting at $12,635 such a great idea in the face of a $10,710 base Nissan Versa (which is similarly equipped with no air conditioning or radio head unit)?  How about against a base Toyota Yaris 3-door at $12,925 (that’s before a current $1,000 rebate) or a $10,665 Hyundai Accent?  Every one of those base model economy cars comes with another (roughly) 30 horsepower and an extra (fourth) cylinder, plus at least two additional seats, better looks (at least to some), and more cargo capacity.  These cars all get within a few miles per gallon of the smart fortwo, as well.

003_2010_scion_iqNow the wildcard that Toyota is about to throw into the mix is the Scion iQ (known throughout the rest of the world at the Toyota iQ).  Not only does it capture much of the smart fortwo’s style and ease of parking, but it will improve upon the Corolla’s fuel economy, while occupying a smaller parking footprint than the Yaris (even though it’s smaller than the Yaris and Yaris-based Scion xD, the iQ will cost more than the Yaris).  The iQ’s dimensions are somewhat bigger than the fortwo’s:

Wheelbase:  73.5 inches for the fortwo and 78.7 inches for the iQ (7.1% longer)
Length:  106.1 inches for the fortwo and 126.9 inches for the iQ (19.6% longer)
Width:  61.4 inches for the fortwo and 71.4 inches for the iQ (16.2% longer)
Height:  60.7 inches for the fortwo and 56.9 inches for the iQ (6.2% shorter)

In spite of dimensions that are, on average, about 12% larger, the iQ nearly doubles the passenger-hauling capacity of the fortwo, or you could say that it allows the reasonably-comfortable transport of three plus some luggage.  The iQ also has as four cylinder engine under its stubby little hood rather than the fortwo’s three-banger.  The Toyota iQ sold in the UK offers such features as pop-up navigation (also seen in the US-focused Scion iQ concept).  Not having any specific idea about how where the Scion iQ’s pricing will shake out relative to the smart fortwo, it’s hard to say how much of an impact its launch would have on fortwo sales, but it’s probably not much of a stretch to assume that it could take a good portion of them.  The iQ also has not been subjected to the US EPA fuel economy testing yet, but the UK’s site shows a combined 65.7 mpg (imperial) figure, which converts to 54.7 mpg (US).  The fortwo, by comparison, is rated at 70.6 mpg (imperial), or 58.8 mpg (US).

I’m not a fan of the styling of many Toyota or Scion vehicles, but I think the iQ is a far better-looking car than the fortwo.  It’s cute, quirky, and an absolute masterpiece of modern vehicle packaging.  My prediction:  it will eat the smart fortwofor lunch when it hits dealers.  In spite of being a vehicle that was clearly inspired by the smart fortwo (its shape and even its name pay tribute to the diminutive Daimler AG car), the iQ appears to improve upon the original.  Personally, I can’t wait to take an iQ for a spin.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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4 Comments

  1. Please tell me that iQ picture you have is a photoshopped one. The wheels look incredibly goofy and abnormal. I kinda like it.

  2. If you’re after small, fuel efficient, easy to park and fun to drive, why not a Miata? Rock-steady 32 mpg and the roof goes down.

  3. At the New York Auto Show last week, Scion was reporting 38 mpg for the Scion, which they don’t expect to be in the US for at least 2 years. Knowing that early performance figures for concept cars which aren’t yet in production are usually optimistic, I expect that the Scion iQ will get lower fuel economy than the smart after it has been modified to meet US safety & emissions standards. Please note that they are not bringing the same version of the iQ that has been in Europe for the past few years. Rather they are condsidering a modified & larger version of the new model with the larger 1.33 liter engine that was announced for Europe at the Geneva Auto Show in February. The iQ with the old 1.0 liter engine is 50% higher priced in Europethan the smart fortwo, so it’s hard to imagine that it will be able to compete with smart’s price in the US with an even bigger engine. With Scion styling, it will be targeted at the youth market in the US, which is not who is buying the smart, so it’s hard to see why it will have a big impact on smart’s sales.

    How can you conmplain about the smart, which gets mpg comparable to a hybrid for half the price? Its mpg (36 mpg) are 10% better on EPA than the Yaris (33 mpg)& 15% better on independent testing by Consumer Reports & consumer Guide. The Versa gets only 29 mpg – not even close to the smart – & the Accent was even worse. The reliability of the smart fortwo received Consumer Reports highest rating. Neither the Versa nor the Accent received comparable ratings. Nothing wonky about the smart’s transmission. You just have to learn how to use it – just like any other acquired skill. It’s an innovative approach to reducing fuel consumption & Mercedes/smart should be commended for developing it. Ford is now introducing it on one of its models in Europe.

  4. Peg the sales to the price of gas. If the price of gas remains low, the Smart will have a short life in the US but if we see prices double from here again, people will sacrifice driving this goofy thing for higher mileage and the public perception of it being green (even though as you point out there are much better high mileage alternatives that are more practical). I’m sure for some the smallness factor is a selling point for folks who live in urban environments where squeezing into a small parking space is a nice feature, but I can’t imagine that is a big market in the US compared to many European cities that are more densely built.

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