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2008 smart ForTwo Review

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2008 smart

SEE ALSO:smart Crash Video and Story

Quirky and Cool
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

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So, we’re out in San Jose, CA driving and evaluating the new smart car (please forgive the lack of a capital ‘S’ since, for some reason, the smart folks who named the car insist on lower case – perhaps because of the diminutive size and demeanor of the little city car) and I pull a little too far into an intersection before I see a pickup truck with the right-of-way coming from my acute right to turn in front of me.

I say to my codriver, veteran radio and TV guy Rob Marr, “oops, I’ve left the car’s nose too far out into the intersection.” Then I thought again and said, “Oh. I forgot. This car has no nose.”

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It has no tail either. The nearly vertical rear begins just a couple of inches behind the rear tire and culminates at the top just a few inches further ahead of where it started. The front slopes barely rearward beginning just a couple inches ahead of the front tires to a gently sloping windshield. The space in between, outlined by a stylish arch of black or silver, defines the neat little cockpit built for two. In fact that’s its name: “smart fortwo”.

The profile is unlike anything else you’ll see in the US, though a few similar shaped little cars populate European roads and some wonderfully outlandish concepts of this ‘one-box’ formula can be seen at all the Asian auto shows. In fact, if you’ve been to Europe or seen the new Pink Panther movie you’ll recognize the smart instantly.

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This new second generation smart looks little different from the original that has been so popular in Europe and Canada since its introduction in October of ’98 by parent company Daimler-Benz. More than -million of the originals found their way into the hands of owners with the largest market being Rome where smart is nearly ubiquitous.

The Daimler-Benz gurus originally thought it would be too small for US tastes. A few years ago, though, they decided to give it a try in the US and brought some examples to the Detroit auto show to test reaction. A little SUV version, a roadster and a four-place sedan enhanced the potential offerings. In spite of positive buzz M-B backed out of that plan deciding that, because their smart division was struggling financially, even facing a possible demise, it was not a good time to spend the money necessary to federalize the little squirt, set up a dealer network and do all the other things necessary to bring it here. “Bummer,” many of us thought.

After all, I had done a four-day stint and evaluation of the smart in Toronto and Stratford, Ontario a couple of years ago and I was enamored with the jumpy little car. In spite of rather rough and crude dynamics, I found its overall personality quirky and endearing and its aesthetics quite charming. Where ever we went it garnered a great deal of positive comment and attention. And, of course, I like that.

Enter upon the scene Roger Penske, racer, savior of struggling business, trucking magnate, mega car dealer and businessman with a golden touch who loves a great project. Penske, who has dealerships in Brittan selling the smart as well as long established connections with Daimler-Benz, envisions a substantial market for smart here and is the US distributor.

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Rob and I are both rather portly fellows and together we’re about fifty pounds more than the rated capacity (463 lbs for the cabriolet, 507 for the coupe) of the smart fortwo cabrio. Nevertheless we squeeze into the red cabriolet with the power convertible top. The partly sunny skies and mid-60s temps in San Francisco lure us into putting the top down, or perhaps we should say back.
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We push and hold the button on the center console and the soft top retreats to the top of the roll bar just behind our heads and another push folds it down on top of the tail gate. With the power windows down it is almost a convertible. In spite of our girth we have enough room to ride and drive comfortably. Regular sized people will find it downright roomy in there.

Out on the road headed south the first thing we both notice, and the brunt of most criticism from the other journalists here, is the slowness and crudeness of the transmission - a tightly-packaged five-speed manual with electric shift. That means we have no clutch at our disposal. The clutch is within the transmission and is actuated electrically either through the programmed automatic mode or the result of our input through the shifter on the console or the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. It is not a traditional automatic because it does not use a torque converter. The smart engineers insist, when teased about the leisurely shifts, that we could not shift any faster if we were doing it ourselves with a foot clutch. I don’t think they convinced any of us.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to get a smooth shift. Letting the car do it for you is not initially conducive to smoothness. And, even after a couple good long drives I couldn’t tell you how to do it. Once I’ve had a week with the car I might be able to. While most of my colleagues thought it was annoying and unconscionable, I thought it was part of the charm and quirkiness of the car.

Unless you keep the revs up it can feel rather anemic. Powered by a little one-liter, 3-cylinder, 70-hp, normally-aspirated, gasoline engine, smart will do zero-to-60 in just less than 13-seconds with a top speed of 90-mph. The engine is mounted transversely, slanted at a 45-degree angle just ahead of the rear axle and drives the rear wheels.

This is an economy car, after all. Fuel economy in 2008 methodology is rated at 33/40 which equates to 40/45 by 2007 standards. With an 8.7-gallon fuel tank we expect only about a 300-mile-plus range if we allow for the listed 1.3-gallon reserve. A turbo-diesel is available in Europe (and some of the other 36 countries where it is sold) and an electric version is under development.

“Yes. But is it safe?” you ask. Certainly, there are rules of physics that a tiny car can’t transcend. But think about a race car that can crash at 150 mph with the driver climbing out the window unhurt. The structural integrity of the smart is amazing. A display at the California launch showed the “tridion safety cell” that is the essence of the structure defined by that horizontal arch so apparent from the side view. The cockpit acts much like the shell of a walnut protecting the nuts within. Crash dynamics are designed so that rear and front crash forces are guided downward and side impacts are mitigated by reinforcements in the doors and B-pilars and the exaggeratedly short wheelbase, which allows the wheels and axles to absorb part of the energy. Four air bags, two in front and two on the sides, protect the nuts as well.

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In order to illustrate these principals the smart team provided some videos showing the car rolling down the road like a soccer ball with negligible deformation and they showed a car that had experienced a 50-mph rear-ender. The crumple did not encroach on the passenger compartment and the doors would still open and close like new. Impressive.

Chassis dynamics are just as important in preventing an accident. The smart comes standard with electronic stability program, ABS, traction control, brake assist, differential lock and hill assist control. Suspension design features a lower wishbone McPherson strut with anti-roll bar in front and a DeDion axle with coil springs and telescopic shocks in the rear. Damping is just about right to keep it firmly planted without being too stiff. Handling is agile and quick on its 15-inch tires but putting our foot down on the go pedal does not illicit a particularly immediate response.

Smart fortwo is produced in an eco-friendly plant in Hambach, France. Water-soluble paints are used for smart’s three basic colors - black, white and yellow. And, smart is close to 100% recyclable, they contend.

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Our test drive routes took us around San Jose, Silicone Valley and the Stanford University campus – all places where very smart people hang out. At a busy coffee shop near the Stanford campus we paused for a little caffeine and a snack parking the smarts side-by-side perpendicular to the curb. They stuck out barely farther than the cars parked horizontally nearby. Two of these stubby rides will fit lengthwise into any standard parking place. In spite of the colorful, cute and unique cars parked at the curb we barely got a rise out of the dozens of smart people engrossed on their computers.

Later that evening, just before dinner, we were assembled in a small theater for the formal engineering and marketing talks. Just as Smart America’s president, began talking about the tridion roll cage there was an intense rumble outside, like a fleet of semis on a cobblestone street. The entire theater began to shake, rattle and roll. He stopped talking waiting for the noise and movement to abate. What was that? A fellow a few seats down from me declared, “That was about a 5.3.”

He was close. After a wonderful dinner I turned on the news to find that it was a 5.6, largest since the big one in 1984 that reeked havoc with the Oakland Bay Bridge. Fortunately there were no injuries and little property damage, but it was big enough to get my attention and give me an adrenalin rush. I’ll not forget how that feels.

Prices begin for the smart fortwo ‘pure’ at $11,950. The ‘passion coupe’ starts at $13,950. And the ‘passion cabriolet’ starts at $16,590. They’ll begin being delivered to customers from dealers in fifty major cities in the US in January 2008. Reservations have been flowing in since June when the car was being paraded around the country for test drives. You may have seen them in your area. If you want to get on the list go to . More dealers are being added and you’ll find the list at that Web site as well.

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In spite of – or perhaps because of – smart’s quirkiness and aesthetics I loved it. Certainly, not everyone will. Many will have a problem with the driving dynamics. I can’t wait to get into one for a full week-long road test.

If I were to look into my crystal ball I would see smart becoming an immediate success in trendy urban markets. Young trendsetters will be clamoring to get their hands on one. Whether this cute little city car will have staying power in US markets is another matter. Only time will tell.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved