In the current crop of concepts, there's one theme that predominates: small city cars. Between Volkswagen's Up! and Toyota's FT-Bh concept, everyone is looking ahead, thinking that small cars are where the market is going. But let's not forget that Smart has the head start, bringing the quintessential small city car to the U.S. in 2008 and overseas for 10 years before that. Because of this recent influx into a segment that Smart has had all to itself until now, we thought it would be a good idea to take the 2012 model out and see if Smart got it right the first time around.
Comfort & Utility
With an overall length of 106.1 inches, utility isn't the first priority of the Smart. But you'd be surprised where that utility is lost. Inside the cabin, the Fortwo is rather spacious, easily fitting six-foot-plus passengers in its two seats. All the amenities one would expect in a car are there as well, giving this car a more serious demeanor on the inside despite how it looks on the outside. In fact, if your gaze is purely fixed out the front windscreen or side windows, it's easy to get into the mindset that you're sitting in a full-size car. Only when you look backward in the cabin or through the rear-view mirror does the fact that you're in such a small car snap into focus. And it is an arresting realization.
With the diminutive engine tucked under the floor compartment in the trunk, trunk space isn't one of the Smart's big selling points. An average grocery run would fit just fine, as well as one golf bag - as long as that's the only thing in the trunk and it's standing upright. For trips, two carry-on bags will fit fine, again standing upright, but that's about it.
The entry-level Fortwo costs only $12,490, but to get prices that low, Smart had to cut a lot of corners. Creature comforts that are mostly expected in cars these days are missing. So to get the Smart at that price, expect to live without air conditioning, power windows and even a radio. However, once you start adding options, you can get a decent amount of equipment. The optional sound system sports modern amenities such as AM/FM radio and satellite radio. And for those that would rather deejay themselves, there is still an auxiliary hookup on the face of the radio for input from anything with a headphone jack.
Our only qualm with the Smart's amenities is that once they're all part of the package again, the Fortwo's price jumps back up to around $14,000. Other cars in this space come with all those features as standard, and still have a starting price in the $13,000 range.
Performance & Fuel Economy
If we were to pick the most disappointing aspect of the Smart, it would have to be the performance. Looking at the tiny engine compartment, it's not surprising that the Smart isn't fast. There's only enough space to fit a 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine capable of 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. So all things considered, you wouldn't expect it to be the best highway cruiser. Where it's disappointing is the city driving, supposedly the Fortwo's forte. But more on that later.
Fuel economy is a big selling point of such a paltry engine, especially considering the car only weighs about 1,800 pounds. The EPA lists the Fortwo's mileage as 34 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, and our time with the car proved the EPA got was pretty spot-on.
Despite its small size, the Smart Fortwo gets credit for being incredibly safe. In every Insurance Institute for Highway Safety test, it received a Good rating, and it has four airbags in the cabin, two in front and two side curtain airbags. The entire interior has been designed with passenger safety in mind, and the Tridion cell-the exposed metal beam just aft of the passenger doors-is so strong that it needs to be cut into sections before being put in a crusher.
The Fortwo's small engine isn't anything to write home about, but no one expects it to be. The real issue, though, is the transmission. The five-speed automated-manual transmission seems to be in a constant argument with itself. At the low speeds that are typical of city driving, the transmission has a hard time deciding what gear it needs to be in, which is even more maddening because each shift takes a lifetime to complete. The result is an extremely jerky ride for a majority of the car's duty. Where this is best seen is in a pretty standard maneuver, the left-hand turn.
When turning left onto a main road, the transmission always tries to make its shift to second gear exactly when it is crossing the near lane. This makes trying to turn through a narrow gap a scary ordeal. Directly in the path of incoming traffic, the transmission seemingly takes eons to shift, stranding the driver in harm's way. Once you get used to the size of the gap, it's not that much of a problem, and to be fair the engine has never actually caused a problem in our time with the car, but until you reach that point, it can be a harrowing experience. Otherwise, the ride can be a bit harsh, but in the city you never get going fast enough for it to be too much of a problem.
Other Cars to Consider
Scion iQ - AutoTrader really liked the iQ when we reviewed it last November, recognizing it as one of the best values in the segment. The ride is better than the Fortwo, as is the standard equipment, and it has a back seat. Yes, the iQ is a few thousand dollars more expensive, starting at $15, 995. But if you prefer not having to check an options box for some of the features you're used to seeing in a car, it runs about the same as the Smart would with all the equipment fitted.
FIAT 500 - The FIAT 500 is a bit bigger than the Fortwo and considerably more expensive, starting at around $15,000. But the FIAT is very maneuverable in the city, and the drive experience is much more satisfying.
We respect Smart for being first in the microcar game. But although it had the monopoly for quite some time, some newcomers have just gotten it more right. We'd go with the Toyota iQ, as it's one of the cleverest-packaged cars on the market and is priced comparably to the Smart when outfitted with the same equipment, while having a much better fit and finish.