Road Test: 2008 smart fortwo
By Andrew Bornhop of Road & Track
Is this some sort of cruel joke, having the largest guy on staff (all 6 ft. 4 in. of me) write the road test of the smallest production car we've ever tested? If so, it didn't work. Interior space is far from a problem in the smart fortwo; rather, it's one of the new city car's strong points. Built at a Daimler-owned factory in France, the smart fortwo is a model of packaging efficiency, able to comfortably accommodate two large adults and a couple of suitcases in a tidy overall package that's 39.5 in. shorter than a Mini. Parked nose to tail, two smarts take up less space than a Chevy Suburban. That's short, and the upright car is about as tall (60.7 in.) as it is wide (61.4 in.).
If the smart looks familiar to you, it should. It's been on sale for nearly a decade in Europe, and it has proven to be popular in places like Rome and Paris where they can be parked perpendicular to traffic on the sides of narrow city streets. That probably won't be allowed in the U.S., where the mildly restyled and slightly larger second-generation fortwo went on sale in January at approximately 70 smart centers across the nation, most in large cities and affiliated with a Mercedes dealer.
So, is the U.S. ready for the innovative smart, with its cute styling, tiny footprint and fuel-efficient 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine? Let's find out.
On the road, the smart — with its sturdy exoskeleton-style chassis, strut front suspension and semi-independent U-shaped De Dion rear axle — doesn't feel toyish or like a golf cart. It's clearly well engineered, and the high seating position and large windshield make the car seem almost conventional...provided you keep looking forward and forget about how close you are to the back bumper. The smart cruises on the freeway at 65 mph with good stability and ease, its rear-mounted Mitsubishi-built inline-3 humming along quietly at 3250 rpm and its rack-and pinion steering exhibiting a strong self-centering tendency. The ride is firm, not overly so, though lacking some compliance.
Around town, we love the tight turning radius and ability to park just about anywhere. But the urban environment also brings to light the car's main flaw — its 5-speed "automated manual" gearbox, which can shift on its own or be shifted via paddles behind the steering wheel. Like a standard automatic, some creep is built in, meaning the fortwo will inch forward when the driver lifts off the brake. That's natural, but the 1–2 shift that follows is far from that, so slow and prolonged that the driver and passenger actually tilt forward in their seats as they wait for the next gear to be engaged and acceleration to return to normal. It's a bother, to say the least.
What's more, for maximized fuel economy, the Getrag gearbox upshifts in quick succession, meaning the fortwo is frequently already in 4th gear by 30 mph, at which point the reasonably torquey engine (which puts out 70 bhp at 5800 rpm and 68 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 rpm) begins to lug and starts emitting sounds that are agricultural in character. Further, the gearbox doesn't like to downshift during mild acceleration; it takes a complete flooring of the accelerator to drop down a gear or two, an annoying trait that may negate any fuel savings in this car with such an emphasis on fuel economy. The EPA figures of 33 mpg city and 40 mpg highway may not seem that impressive at first, but they're good when compared with those of other economy cars in the tougher 2008 tests. By "old" EPA numbers, the fortwo is rated at 40 city/45 highway.
Although most drivers gradually get accustomed to the fortwo's lethargic automatic shifting, most of us settled on shifting the car manually via the paddles, and lifting off the throttle each time to make it feel more like a conventional manual gearbox, something that the fortwo sorely needs. That, or perhaps a conventional automatic.
Safety is a natural concern, and Mercedes-Benz maintains that the fortwo meets all the company's strict requirements, and that 10 years of European crash data have further proven the smart to be a safe car. The company likens the exposed "tridion" safety cell of the fortwo (the exposed silver areas on our test car) to the hard shell of a walnut, to which are bolted energy-absorbing crash boxes front and rear. A double-plate made of high-strength steel protects the driver's feet, while reinforced side skirts stretching between the front and rear wheels add protection in a side crash. U.S. cars benefit from two dual-stage frontal airbags and a head/thorax side-impact bag in each seat.
For the most part, impact loads are directed below the high passenger cabin. In a rear impact, the transverse-mounted engine and transmission slide under the cockpit to absorb energy. And in side crashes, smart says the short 73.5-in. wheelbase of the fortwo means almost all impacts will involve the striking of a wheel, again transmitting loads below and away from the passenger compartment.
On the down side, the high seating position raises the fortwo's center of gravity, the last thing you want in a tall and narrow vehicle with a short wheelbase. Hence, the fortwo has 1-in.-wider rear wheels and tires, tuned with a healthy dose of negative camber to keep the smart from oversteering at all costs. That, with Mercedes' ESP stability control as the final arbiter, means the fortwo can't do anything untoward, and the Stuttgart company likes to keep it that way by not allowing the driver to switch the system off.
Although studies have shown that stability control systems are the second biggest savers of lives (after seatbelts), ESP wreaked havoc in our tests. On our 200-ft. skidpad, the fortwo understeered its way to a 0.72g rating, our driver doing his best to keep ESP right on the cusp of intervening. In the slalom, ESP was simply too active, limiting the fortwo to a 57.6-mph weave that earns it the distinction of being the slowest slalom car in our Road Test Summary, booting the Rolls-Royce Phantom from that spot. Shifted manually right before the 6500-rpm fuel cut-off point in each gear, the smart hits 60 mph in 13.3 seconds, another performance that puts it at the bottom of the pack.
In the grand scheme of things, however, the smart fortwo is not about skidpad, slalom figures and 0–60 times; it's a new experiment in urban transportation and should be viewed in that light. We praise both its space efficiency and its fuel efficiency, and think it makes a lot of sense in tight urban areas such as New York City and San Francisco, where parking can be a nightmare. Heck, it even has a feature to prevent the car from rolling back when starting on steep hills. The fortwo also bursts with personality, enhanced by a lively interior that's of reasonably good quality but is clearly built to a price point, as the abundant hard plastics indicate. As such, it says something about its owner. That you're willing to try new things. And thanks in part to the car's SULEV rating, that you like the idea of reducing your carbon footprint without, say, buying a Prius.
So, is the U.S. ready for the smart? Definitely. In fact, 30,000 people have already plunked down $99 to get a spot in line to buy one. But do us a favor. Test drive one first. Then drive a 3-door Toyota Yaris. You might prefer a more conventional approach to economical urban transportation, even though it's not quite as fuel-efficient. Right now, we lean in that direction, but if smart equips the new fortwo with a bona fide manual transmission or a good automatic — which doesn't seem like that big of a deal for Mercedes — the scales could very easily tip the other way.