Review: 2008 smart fortwo
By Tom Wilson of MSN Autos
Drive the smart — a new, two-seater city-car from the capitalization-averse company — and you can't help agree it's a great idea. With gas prices and eco-consciousness at all-time highs, the time is definitely right, the business plan excellent and the car intelligently innovative. But, it does miss our unequivocal approval.
Why? Because of a maddeningly few rough edges in an otherwise fine package. In fact, we attended the introduction of the latest version of the smart fortwo full of hope (previous iterations have been on sale in Europe now for eight years). This bug's ear of a car is charmingly unique, and shows the U.S.'s mini-car future.
Aimed at early adopters, Penske emphasizes attitude and not age is the pivotal demographic identifying a potential smart owner, and we've no argument there. Once past the cute, the smart is about making a statement, about saying you care. It's the anti-consumption poster child, the stylish way of cutting back at the pump and saving half a parking space for the other human.
The smart fortwo is a fresh-step in packaging. Interior room for the two occupants is tremendous in all dimensions, and given the upright seating, clean interior graphics, panoramic windshield, glass roof and generous side glass, the cockpit is bright, cheery and open.
While it would take an NBA-sized adult to max-out the fortwo's interior dimensions, a single grocery cart worth of goods can overwhelm the rear storage area. Easily accessed, the behind-the-seats storage is fine for incidentals, but a week's groceries will require stacking the eggs atop the tomato sauce. And, of course, there is no rear seat or trunk to take up the excess.
Similarly, the 71 horsepower from the premium-gasoline-only three-cylinder engine residing under the seats is plenty to scoot smartly around town, and will put 90 mph on the clock given an open road. But it can't thrust the fortwo over large freeway hills without losing speed. The smart owner will want other options for visiting spotted owl territory.
The largest fortwo advantage is its Lilliputian exterior dimensions, making it a joy in urban centers. Streets are instantly wider, traffic less dense and the abbreviated wheelbase means the smart has a snake-like ability to slither around the double-parked and half-witted. That same short wheelbase gives the fortwo a rocking-horse gait, however, and the tallish center of gravity compared to its footprint means a boat-like heel on freeway ramps.
Such considerations are expected from a specialized micro-car, and give us no pause. But the fortwo's clunky transmission does. Ideal for the fortwo would be a plain-old 5-speed manual, but as gear-changing is becoming a lost art in North America, some sort of automatic shift is now deemed necessary.
Smart's solution is a manual transmission fitted with electro-mechanical servos, which are controlled by a floor-mounted shifter or steering-wheel-mounted paddles. It shifts deliberately and feels more like a robot taking Driver's Ed than a proper automatic transmission. We hated it immediately. After two days, however, we made friends after discovering there were tricks to getting along this worst combination of manual and automatic. Unfortunately, it asks more of the driver than we think reasonable.
Almost as awkward was the primitive-feeling brakes. The pedal requires a noticeable initial effort followed by a long slack period before the completely effective binders take hold. Combined with the clunky gearbox and rocking-horse pitch sensitivity, the fortwo heaves up and down the speed scale, passenger's heads bobbing like a chiropractic advertisement.
And while the smart's avant garde looks suggest 60 mpg, it is expected to returns just 33/41 city/hwy mpg using the EPA updated 2008 testing procedure. For most people, the compromises in passenger and storage capacity, price, long-distance suitability and weird factor means the smart might get a look, but won't boast the justifying mpg compared to more mainstream economy cars — new or used.
So who will buy the fortwo? Rabid early-adopters of course. If nothing else, the smart's look-at-me uniqueness makes it an extrovert's mike-in-hand karaoke-car. Fun-lovers of all ages will be drawn, as will anyone needing basic transport, just two seats and no need for speed. Look for it as primary motivation in the city, a second car in the 'burbs, or tricycle replacement in the senior's trailer park.
The real sales potential is to green commuters, as the planetary consciousness sweeping the U.S. begs for something new to drive to work. With a perceived ballet-slipper carbon footprint, the smart's statement-making social cachet will easily earn it meaningful sales in that camp.
We definitely think America's urban core is ready to see this "smart" solution on its streets, but it's not a trick we'd try down on the farm.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson’s credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.