To a country with big cities flooded with chunky SUVs comes a tiny car that packs a huge visual punch, the smart fortwo. On sale in Europe and elsewhere since 1998, the two-seat smart has captured the imagination of all those who thinks cars should make a smaller footprint in our lives. So, now it’s time to find out once and for all, is the smart a smart move for American consumers too?
There are cars that are smart buys, and then there are cars so packed with technology they seem smarter than their drivers. But for 2008 it’s the smart brand, and its fortwo two-seater, that finally, officially, arrives on U.S. streets.
smart has sold more than three-quarter of a million cars elsewhere, including in Canada, and more than 30,000 U.S. prospects have already put down a small deposit on a fortwo.
The fortwo will be available in two models, a coupe and a soft-top cabriolet. The coupe will come in the base “pure” and the more well-equipped “passion” trim, while the cabriolet will don passion trim only.
The wheelbase is an almost motorcycle-length 73.5-inches, and the overall length is only 106.1 inches. That’s half the length of a full-size pickup truck and 3 ½ feet shorter than a Toyota Yaris. So, this second generation smart fortwo is easily the smallest car sold in America.
If safety is your concern, take heart in knowing that the fortwo is built around an ultra-rigid safety structure called the tridion cell. This steel roll cage not only protects occupants by retaining its shape in a crash, it actually activates the crumple zones of other vehicles. Additional protection comes from front and side-impact airbags, a driver’s knee pad, and seat belt tensioners.
Cute is the word we think best describes the smart fortwo. The silver exterior finish of the safety cage nicely accents the dent resistant colored plastic body panels. Projector headlights add an even sporty look, with 15-inch wheels standard.
The fortwo may be tiny, but its cabin is impressively roomy. You sit high, with ample head and leg room, allowing even our tallest staff members easy entry and exit.
The instrument panel is direct and pleasantly quirky. Simple digital metering sits below an oversize speedometer. Passion adds a tachometer and clock atop the center stack.
Standard features with passion trim include automatic temperature climate control. A CD stereo with an auxiliary jack for MP3 players. And upgraded 6-disc system is optional. Also standard is a panorama clear plastic roof with sunscreen.
Cargo space was also greater than expected. Flip down the tailgate to store 7.8 cubic-feet up to the belt-line, or 12 cubic-feet stacked to the roof.
This fly-weight 1,080-pound rear-drive machine is powered by a 1.0-liter dual-cam 3-cylinder engine built by Mitsubishi with 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque.
The transmission is a 5-speed manual gearbox and automatic clutch, similar to BMW’s SMG and Ferrari’s F1 transmissions. This allows for fully automatic shifts, or manual gear changes using the shifter itself, and steering wheel paddles that come with passion trim.
Regardless, there is a lot of lag between gears, especially under full acceleration. But, at moderate throttle, and using the paddles, we were able to find an acceptable rhythm.
Still, with a lethargic 0-to-60 time of 12.2 seconds, and a quarter-mile passing at an equally relaxed pace of 18.5 seconds at 76 miles-per-hour, the smart fortwo will be much more at home in the city than in the country.
But while this ultra-compact city car may be no speed demon, it does deliver government fuel economy ratings of 33 city/40 highway. We managed 34 miles-per-gallon on a mixed driving loop using premium grade during which we experienced a ride that’s very firm and can be a bit choppy over bigger bumps.
But with its ultra-short wheelbase, the fortwo is exceptionally nimble, allowing you to bop through tight traffic with ease, and, you can park it almost anywhere.
But less you get too enthusiastic in a corner, the electronic stability control is very aggressive; all but shutting things down if you push hard. Smooth use of the optional power steering yields the best results.
Prices for the smart fortwo start at only $11,590 for the base pure model, $13,590 for the passion grade coupe, and $16,590 for the passion cabriolet.
So, is it smart to buy a smart? Well, that depends on what you expect from a small car. There are plenty of more useful four- and five-seat subcompacts for the same price. But they won’t make the same super trendy statement as the smart. We definitely think this micro car has appeal, and it is certainly competent enough to find a niche. So, while the smart fortwo is something of a fashion statement, driving it will also make you smile.
Engine: 1.0-Liter Dual-cam 3-Cylinder
Torque: 68 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 12.2 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 18.5 Seconds @ 76 MPH
EPA: 33 MPG City/ 40 MPG Highway
Mixed Loop: 34.0 MPG