The Smart Fortwo is an all-new entry in the U.S. car market. At less than nine feet long, it is the smallest car sold in the United States. As its name suggests, it is a two-seater. It comes in coupe and convertible versions, both two-door models. It's powered by a tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine, and the transmission is a five-speed automated manual. The Smart Fortwo is rear-wheel drive. Meant for use in the city, it's capable of speeds of up to 90 mph.
The first-generation Smart Fortwo has been available in Europe since 1998. Now in its second generation, the Fortwo is finally available in the United States as a 2008 model. The car is produced by the Mercedes Car Group and sold through stand-alone Smart dealerships and Mercedes-Benz dealers in the U.S. It is imported by Smart USA Distributor LLC, which is a division of Roger Penske's Penske Automotive Group. Smart USA markets its name in fashionable lower case: smart fortwo.
The Fortwo is best used as a city car. It's meant to get drivers from A to B without frills. Its small size makes it easy to park and allows it to easily dart in and out of traffic. With fuel mileage of 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, the Smart car will appeal to commuters who make short trips by themselves. Its fuel economy numbers aren't as good as the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid, but they're better than any other economy car.
At the same time, it has its compromises. Its small engine wants for power, the transmission shifts awkwardly, the ride is busy, and it lacks a rear seat and cargo carrying capacity.
On the inside, the Fortwo has a spartan cabin dominated by economy-grade plastics. It is surprisingly roomy, with enough head clearance and leg room for very tall passengers. Shoulder room, however, will be tight for two large occupants. Cubby storage is minimal.
The rear of the Smart Fortwo cabin is an open hatch area. There isn't as much room as in most trunks and certainly not as much as what you'll find in a compact hatchback, but it has enough space for a trip to the grocery store.
Officials from Smart say the Fortwo will have the lowest cost of ownership of any car in the U.S. That's yet to be proven, but it should certainly be one of the least expensive cars to own and operate.
Although pricing for the base Pure model starts at $11,590, most customers will opt for the $13,590 Passion model that has a radio and air conditioning. We're certainly passionate about those two features. But the Passion puts the Fortwo in the price league of larger, roomier subcompacts that can carry more passengers.
The Fortwo isn't the best car for drivers who need an all-around vehicle, but it is a good choice for city dwellers or as a second vehicle to run errands.
Smart Fortwo Pure coupe ($11,590); Passion coupe ($13,590); Passion convertible ($16,590)
Much of the success of the Smart Fortwo success will depend on how Americans will react to its cutesy styling. The Fortwo has plastic body panels around a tridion safety cell that is made of steel, half of which is of the high-strength variety.
According to Smart, this structure has longitudinal and transverse beams that displace impact forces over a large area of the car to protect occupants in a crash. The tridion safety cell is available in black or silver, as elements of it, including the front pillars, are visible from the outside. Smart says that slip tubes up front and a steel rear structure will prevent front and rear crashes of up to 10 mph from affecting the tridion cell. Smart also says the wheels and tires, as well as side braces, will help dissipate energy in a side crash.
The Fortwo's design includes wheels that are pushed to the very edge of the car both front and rear. Up front, the Fortwo seems to be grinning, with its high-set headlights, central grille and open lower fascia that is also home to the optional fog lights. The short hood leads to a tall windshield. Along the sides, the exterior portions of the tridion safety cell trace the shape of each door. The car ends shortly behind the seats, leaving a small hatchback opening at the back and giving both the coupe and convertible an egglike shape.
At only 106.1 inches overall, 61.4 inches wide, 54.5 inches tall and 1808 pounds, the Fortwo is the smallest car offered in the United States. By comparison, a Mini Cooper is almost 40 inches longer and close to 750 pounds heavier. While the length and width are quite small, the Fortwo is slightly taller than a Honda Civic coupe, which gives it plenty of interior headroom.
The convertible's top is power operated and has a heated glass rear window. It has no latches to work and can be operated at any speed. With the top down, a pair of structural beams can be removed from the roof above each door, creating an even freer open air feeling. The coupe is available with a fixed glass roof with a manual sunshade.
Hop in the Fortwo, grip the small steering wheel, and you are confronted with a minimalist interior. There are no luxury amenities, and the materials are largely plastic.
Behind the steering wheel is the speedometer, which is printed on an uninspired white background with black numbers. Below it in the same bezel is a digital readout that displays the current gear, odometer, trip odometer, outside temperature and time. An analog clock and a tachometer are available as separate gauges that sprout from the top of the dash in their own pods. There are no water temperature or oil pressure gauges in this spartan interior.
The dash is made of reasonably well assembled plastic, some of which is dressed in cloth that matches the seat upholstery. The climate controls are located at the top of the dash, with sliders for the fan speed and available automatic temperature control. A radio is optional in the Pure model, but is standard in the Passion. It is located below the climate controls and has large, easy to operate buttons and a central volume knob. The radio and climate controls move easily enough, but they are light to the touch and lack a quality feel.
Interior small items storage space is minimal. It consists of two cupholders in front of the gearshift, a small glovebox, and map pockets in each door. There is no center console. Small trays are also found on the dash on either side of the steering column. These areas lack rubber mats to hold items in place, so items can slide around rather easily. We would recommend against using these areas for storage.
Though the Fortwo is a small car, there is a lot of room for occupants. Head room and leg room are plentiful. I drove with a 6-foot 6-inch friend who had just enough room in both dimensions. The one dimension that is lacking is shoulder room. The Fortwo isn't very wide, so two linebackers will have a tough time sitting next to each other.
The seats are fairly comfortable, with built-in headrests, but they lack the contour for best long-trip comfort. Visibility from the driver's seat is generally good in both models. The convertible has a smaller rear window and the driver's view to the rear is partially blocked at the bottom when the top is down.
Out back, the coupe's rear glass opens separately and both body styles have a tailgate that folds down to allow for a low liftover height. The tailgate itself opens to reveal a shallow storage tray. Behind the seats there is 7.8 cubic feet of cargo room, which leaves enough space for groceries or a couple of gym bags. Smart says that cargo room expands to 12 cubic feet if the rear hatch area is filled to the roof, and it expands further with an available fold flat passenger seat. You won't be able to haul around TVs in your Fortwo, but it should have enough room for most weekend errands.
The Smart Fortwo's small stature is both a benefit and a curse. Given the short wheelbase, Smart engineers have had to work to make the Fortwo safe and stable. On that count, they've done a good job. By making electronic stability control and cornering brake control standard, Smart has electronically lengthened the wheelbase. While the handling doesn't feel sporty, the Fortwo never feels like it's going to tip over, even if you charge into a turn. And while it's not best suited for the highway, it feels planted at highway speeds.
The Fortwo is most at home in the city, where its small size allows it to pop in and out of traffic, make tight turns, and fit in parking spots that other drivers can't even consider.
While the Fortwo is generally fun to drive, it's not nearly as sporty as the exceptional handling Mini Cooper. The steering feels direct and reacts quickly upon initial turn in, then seems to slow. The car leans very little in turns, and recovers quickly to allow for quick changes of direction. With a turning circle of only 28.7 feet, the Fortwo can turn around in the middle of a city street to get to that parking spot in the opposite direction. The brake pedal feels a bit stiff, but we found that the brakes were easy to modulate and provided quick, confident stops.
As might be expected given the short wheelbase, the Fortwo's ride is firm and busy. Most road imperfections can be felt, and the car is prone to lots of up and down motions on broken pavement. However, we were never jarred or jolted, and we wouldn't call ride quality a deal breaker if we were considering this car.
While the Fortwo is one of the slower cars on the road today, it's not a moving traffic jam. Smart quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 12.8 seconds, but the three-cylinder engine delivers its power best from a stop, allowing the car to keep up with the flow of traffic. It can even hold its own on the highway. It gets up to highway speeds reasonably well, and feels stable, though darty and jittery, at 65 mph.
Some potential customers may be turned off by the transmission. The five-speed automated manual works like an automatic in that the driver has no clutch, but it feels like a manual, with pauses between gears. It can be set to shift automatically or the driver can choose the shifts via the gearshift or a pair of steering wheel paddles. We preferred to use the manual mode because it allowed for greater control. The pauses between shifts in automatic mode are annoying, mostly because you don't know when they're coming. The pauses are still there in manual mode, but you control them.
When we drove the Fortwo on the highway, we found the transmission only wanted to downshift one gear when power was needed, which made it hard to keep up with traffic. Switching to manual allowed us to downshift to lower gears, but with only 70 horses on tap, the Fortwo struggled on long slopes. And any passing maneuvers required lots of room and enough time to build up speed.
While power isn't the Fortwo's forte, fuel economy is. According to EPA estimates, the Fortwo gets 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. That's better than other economy cars and close to hybrid performance without the expense of a hybrid powertrain. By comparison, the Honda Civic Hybrid gets 40 mpg city and 45 highway, and the 1.5-liter Toyota Yaris gets 29/36. There is one issue, though. Oddly, Smart recommends premium-grade fuel.
The Smart Fortwo will not be the best choice for drivers that need an all-around vehicle to haul people and cargo, but it will work as a second car or city vehicle. It's generally fun to drive, and Smart has engineered it to be safe. The pricing doesn't make it an outstanding deal off the showroom floor, but the Smart Fortwo should be cheap to operate and help owners leave a smaller ecological footprint.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report from Chicago.