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2008 smart fortwo Review

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SMART FORTWO One Small Car - One Big Grin
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

This is my third opportunity to experience and write about the smart fortwo. Three years ago a couple of colleagues and I traveled to Toronto for a road test of the fortwo since the little city car was not available here in the US. That one was a diesel. Last year I attended the media launch for the newly revised US version in sunny, earthquake-prone San Jose. We experienced a 5.6 earthquake during the tech briefing. You may have read about those experiences here on TheAutoChannel.

Smart was co-designed by teams of engineers from the Swatch watch company and Mercedes in the 90s with the first cars coming to market in ’97. The good folks at Mercedes build the smart at a new, green factory in France. It is amazingly popular in Europe. They balked at bringing it to the US so Roger Penske, racing mogul and super-smart business man, decided he’d do it. So here it is. The first cars delivered were delivered to customers in January of this year.

This week I got to spend a few days with it here at home where I can get a better feel for smart - the newest entry into the premium tiny car segment. So far it has no competitors in that genre, so I guess it’s the only entry.

Before we go further let me acknowledge that it causes me some consternation not to capitalize this car’s name. It is a proper noun, is it not? The company insists on using lower case, perhaps to symbolize the diminutive size of the cute little car, so I’ll reluctantly go along.

There is certainly nothing diminutive about its personality. It projects as happy, outgoing and bubbly an image as Richard Simmons. Not only does it bring a big grin to my face but it seems to do the same to everyone else I encounter. And, I must say, I have never had as many unsolicited, yet positive, encounters with any other vehicle, including the Hummer H1 which drew much attention but not all of it positive.

We picked the car up in Troy on the way to a press conference in downtown Detroit. Having a few extra minutes we drove out to Belle Isle where an IRL race has resulted in a long-needed revitalization of the park. When we stopped to take a photo two older women pulled up beside us in a big Lincoln and could hardly contain their curiosity and enthusiasm. They wanted to know all about the smart fortwo and finally pulled away still praising the little thing. The doorman at the press conference facility, the booth girl at the parking structure, fellow motorists, the old guy in the parking lot who has a BMW Isetta in his eclectic collection, photographers at a seminar that evening . . . everyone loves this car. It’s nearly impossible to stop anywhere without curiosity seekers or car enthusiasts fawning over the smart.

Just look at the thing. It literally grins like a friendly puppy. The grill (black on some, silver on others) and slanty-eyed headlights look like a big cartoon smiling face. The short wheel base, wide (for its size) track and wheels way out to the corners suggest tremendous agility, like a puppy ready to play. At least in the US there is nothing even close to being like it. It’s so short we could park two of the in the standard parking space.

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From the side we can’t help but notice the shape of the silver three-angled bar from the rocker to the top (again, silver on some, black on others) that outlines the reason for smart’s structural integrity and the reason it earned top ratings in both IIHS and NHTSA tests recently. They call it the Tridion safety cell. “How safe is it,” is one of the first questions people ask about the smart fortwo. The Tridion safety cell, fabricated from three layers of high-strength steel, surrounds the cockpit protecting occupants like a race car’s structural cage. Both front and rear are designed to dissipate impact forces underneath the car. Side impact is mitigated by not only impact beams in the doors but wheels that are so close together (73.5-inches on-center) that in most side crashes one or both axles come into play to absorb forces. Four full-size airbags and full-width knee pads are standard, as are seat belt pretensioners, ABS and electronic stability program.

“But how does it drive?” you ask.

“Quirky,” I say. “But quirky in a good way.”

Stick the key in the ignition slot between the seats, sort of Saab style, and turn. About a second later the starter will engage and crank the buzzy little motor to life. Also, deep between the seats, along side your leg if you’re as big as me, is a short little shifter with a distinctly sporty feel, which controls the automated stick shift, as do the two paddle shifters (optional) attached to the steering wheel. We can shift it ourselves or just keep it in automatic mode.

That transmission is the element of the car that has drawn the most criticism from other journalists. The transmission was chosen for its amazingly compact design, efficiency and its amenability to city driving conditions. It is a five-speed manual with an automatic clutch - a single-plate dry clutch, they tell me. It has almost the feel of a centrifugal clutch, but that would be an inaccurate way to describe it, I’m assured. In any event it takes some getting used to. At idle it tends to creep and surge roughly, perhaps partly because of the hill-start feature. But the biggest criticism is the time that trans takes to shift. I contend that you could write your memoirs in the amount of time it takes between shifts – I estimate a second-and-a-half each. Of course the short-wheel-base results in a rocking motion during those leisurely shifts as well. While many find that annoying, I think it just adds to the charming quirkiness of the smart. Once we get used to it and can anticipate the rhythm I think it just adds to the fun.

And the rest of the driving dynamics are much better than you might expect. I found it not the least disconcerting keeping up with traffic at 80-mph between the big rigs. Sure, we feel a bit of buffeting from crosswinds and the wakes of those trucks, but nothing that would make us nervous. We must pay attention, though. The steering is quick leaving little margin for error at highway speeds.

But with the smart fortwo we needn’t be in a hurry anyway. The 1-liter, 3-cylinder gasoline engine, drives the rear wheels, is mounted just ahead of the rear axle and is slanted 45-degrees aft. Making about 70 horsepower she’ll do zero to 60-mph in a tad less than 13 seconds and max out at 90-mph. Not bad really for this 1,850-pound car. Remember a few of those seconds are taken up in just the shifting. I found the acceleration quite reasonable during most maneuvers, though we had to put our foot down firmly to coax the maximum out of her. I did struggle to get up to speed on our cloverleaf freeway entrance ramp.

Premium fuel is recommended, though not required. EPA rates smart at 35-mpg on the highway and 41 in the city. An 8.7-gallon fuel tank will get you in the neighborhood of 300 miles on a tank. We won’t get the diesel version on this side of the pond in the foreseeable future, though that one gets about 50-mpg.

Smart’s suspension is stiff making for a rather harsh ride on our chronically pot-holed spring roads in Michigan. Of course, that stiffness also makes for quick directional changes. If we wanted to we could jerk from lane to lane with aplomb. It can also turn on a dime, so to speak, with a 28-foot turning circle. As you might guess smart’s agility is amazing. I’d love to autocross it sometime.

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Inside we’re in sort of a cartoon environment as well. I love the two, optional frog-eye gauges sticking up from the middle of the dash – clock and tach. Fabrics are unusual with sort of a classic 50s feel. Seating is upright and comfortable – for two of course. Controls are logical and easily managed. And there is plenty of room. Behind the seats we can fit a couple of big soft bags for traveling, or a half-dozen grocery bags if running our errands. During the California launch last fall I shared the ride with colleague Rob Marr, a fellow at least as big as I. Together we were about 50 pounds over the car’s rated capacity of 507 pounds. We were both quite comfortable and the smart performed admirably, even on hills.

The smart fortwo comes in three models, the entry-level Pure, the more premium Passion and the Cabriolet (convertible). The Pure can be had for as little as $11,590 (without AC, power windows and a few other features) and our loaded Cabriolet starts out at $16,590.

The power retracting canvas top is slick on the Cabriolet. The push of a button rolls the whole thing back in two motions finally seating atop the stubby tailgate. The support panels above each door detach and lift out to be stored inside the tailgate. It magically converts into a sort of Targa retaining its structural integrity.

Sure it’s cool,” you say, “but can I get one?”

Certainly - if you’re patient. They have a $99 reservation system under which you order your smart just the way you want it, either on-line ( or at a showroom. Right now you might wait 12 to 18 months, depending on where you are. If your car arrives and you decide you don’t want it for any reason you get your $99 back and the car is sold to another customer via the “orphan list.” So, if you’re on the orphan wait list you might get a car in as little as six months but won’t get to choose your model or color. Many of the cars that end up on the orphan list are from southern climates were buyers didn’t realize that the lesser range of car doesn’t come with AC. The vast majority of those who order the car, however, are taking it home.

Sure, there are small cars out there that get as good mileage, have more room and cost about the same – think Nissan Versa or Honda Fit – but none do it with more personality than the smart fortwo.

It’s better than a puppy in the park for meeting people.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved