Over 25 years ago, the seeds were planted for the smart fortwo. Back then, Mercedes-Benz tabled a design that they didn’t feel could meet their stringent safety requirements with 1972 technology.
Ten years ago, technology caught up, and a creative and technical collaboration between Mercedes-Benz and Swatch brought the smart fortwo to the world. Since then, almost 800,000 of the iconic little car have been sold worldwide.
Now, the second generation smart fortwo is arriving on U.S. shores. It is sure to turn heads in this land of super-size everything. Will it succeed amid a sea of Hummers and Expeditions? More importantly, will it survive?
When we were invited to have some seat time in the smart fortwo before it was available to the general public, we heard it all from our friends and family: “It looks too small to be comfortable.” “Just wait until you get in a wreck!” “Do you have to rub it on the carpet to make it go?”
All jokes aside, we were pleasantly surprised at this little miracle of engineering. Before we go further, let us emphasize that we were amazed at how safe the smart fortwo is. In fact, we would feel safer in it than in some larger cars we have driven. We’ll talk more about the safety aspect later. Be prepared to throw away your preconceived ideas of what a car this size must be like. You are almost certainly wrong. We know; we were wrong and had no choice but to revamp our own opinion after driving it and seeing its capabilities.
First though, let’s get some basics out of the way. The smart fortwo is only 8.8 feet long (106.1 inches). This means that you could fit two of them in a typical parking space end to end! It is available in three models: the smart fortwo pure at $11,590, a nicely-equipped smart fortwo passion at $13,590, and a convertible smart fortwo passion cabriolet at $16,590. The optional ‘Comfort Package’ with heated leather seats and power steering is something which we think most people will choose to get.
A striking feature on the exterior of the fortwo is the sharp black (optionally metallic silver) line that runs along the bottom of the sides and flares up behind the rear doors over the top of the car. This is a fantastic example of form following function: this is the smart’s tridion safety cell. The other body panels (available in six colors: black, yellow, white, blue, red, and silver) are actually changeable should an owner wish to mix and match (no word on the cost, however).
Inside, the fortwo is spartan and purposeful, but it doesn’t feel cheap. In fact, everything feels solid, from the way the doors close to the buttons on the dash.
The smart fortwo is 5.1 feet wide, and also 5.1 feet tall. By comparison, a Mercedes S-Class is a foot wider, but the smart is actually 3 inches taller! That translates into a cabin which can comfortably seat two adults that are well over 6 feet. smart claims that a 6’5″ adult can sit comfortably; we’re not that tall, but based on the amount of headroom we had, we believe them.
The instrument cluster features a large speedometer mounted in the traditional location, with all controls for the mp3-CD capable radio and A/C system within easy reach of the driver and very intuitive. Our smart was equipped with an optional TomTom navigation system; a nice touch.
The fortwo has a surprising amount of cargo room: 7.8 cubic feet up to the beltline; 12 cubic feet if you fill it to the roof. That’s enough for golf clubs! An optional fold-flat passenger seat provides even more carrying capacity.
We said that we were surprised to find out just how safe the smart fortwo is. Its tridion safety cell wraps the occupants and protects the integrity of the cabin much as a roll cage in a race car would. The short length of the car, and its wheelbase being almost as long as the car itself, aids the tridion cell in protecting the occupants. Most crashes will actually have to involve one of the wheelbases, with tires acting as extra bumpers and axles helping to dissipate energy.
We saw a smart which had been rear-ended at 50 mph; the doors could still be opened and the seating area was unscathed! This is part of why the smart fortwo has earned a 4-star crash rating in the U.S.
Powertrain & Performance
The fortwo is rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, and is powered by a 3-cylinder 1.0 liter engine. The transmission is a automated manual (think BMW SMG or Ferrari F1) 5-speed transmission. This was one of our only two complaints about the car. When we left the car in automatic mode, as we think most U.S. drivers will do, the time between shifts seemed excessive. It is possible that this was just our pre-production model, however.
The smart isn’t going to win any races: 0-60 mph comes in 12.8 seconds. However, acceleration is adequate for highway merging, and we found the car to be quite stable even at speeds of 80 mph.
Where the fortwo really shines is fuel economy. It is rated at 40 highway/33 city using the EPA’s 2008 standards. Keep in mind that all 2008 models will have lower numbers that those you are accustomed to due to the new standards. By 2007 standards, the smart fortwo would have been rated at 45 highway/40 city. For those with long commutes or those who believe in global warming, the smart is, well, smart.
We drove the fortwo on a combination of busy city streets and highways. Driving in town was a pleasure, with the maneuverability and easy parking of the smart really shining. The smart was comfortable on the highway, although its short wheelbase could make for a slightly rocky ride at times.
We mentioned above our impression of the transmission. Our only other complaint was with the air conditioning in our test model. It had trouble keeping up with a humid day in the mid 70s. We hope that this was also due to it being a pre-production model. Once we get to drive one in the Texas summer, we’ll let you know what we really think.
The smart fortwo is being brought to the U.S. by Penske Automotive Group (PAG). You know Penske from motorsports, but did you know that PAG is the second largest automotive retailer in the U.S., with 165 dealerships in 19 states?
We got to sit down for dinner with Roger Penske, chairman of smart USA, Penske Automotive Group, and Penske Corporation, a transportation services company. With his company’s expertise and network of dealerships, he has been able to provide a network of service and sales support nationwide. His enthusiasm for the future of smart in the U.S. is easily evident and definitely contagious.
While there were some secrets he wouldn’t divulge, he did tell us that by the end of 2007, over 30,000 deposits in smart’s “$99 Reservation Program” had been placed. While production figures for the first year have not been released, we believe that more than the first year of smart fortwo’s in the U.S. has already been spoken for.
That is a lot of smart customers!
Base Price: $13,590
Price As Tested: $15,380
Date Available: January, 2008
Body Style: 2-door compact
Engine & Torque: 1 liter, in-line 3 cylinder, gas; 70 hp @ 5800 rpm; 68 lb ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic manual
Wheels & Tires: 175/55R15 rear; 155/60R15 front
Warranty: 2 years/24,000 miles
Fuel Economy: 33/40 MPG
0 – 60 MPH: 0-60 mph: 12.8 seconds
Top Speed: 90 mph