Pros: Easy to maneuver and park; fuel efficient; low base price
Cons: Limited use beyond the city; pricey with desirable options
What's New: Unchanged for 2013
Our landscapes are changing. More people than ever live in dense urban areas, and automakers are keen to respond to the changes. Visit a major international auto show and you'll see concepts specifically designed for city life - small, nimble and efficient. Smart may be ahead of the game. Its little fortwo has been available in the U.S. since 2008. But the 2013 smart fortwo now faces competition from other brands keen to take a bite out of its small-but-growing city-focused market.
An all-electric version of the fortwo is reportedly on its way, set to hit smart showrooms in the U.S. next spring. Until then, the conventionally powered fortwo, which received updates for the 2012 model year, returns unchanged. It's available in two forms and with a choice of several trim configurations. The coupe has a fixed roof while the cabriolet features a retractable fabric soft-top. The fortwo coupe comes in base Pure trim or up-level Passion trim. The cabriolet is offered solely with the better equipped Passion setup.
Smart also offers a pair of special editions including the Iceshine and Sharpred models. Smart's Brabus package adds some performance-minded upgrades.
Comfort & Utility
With an overall length of 106.1 inches, utility isn't the first priority of the smart. But despite its small size, the fortwo's cabin is rather spacious, easily fitting six-foot-plus passengers in its two seats. In fact, if your gaze is purely fixed out the windshield 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 do its tiny proportions snap into focus. 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. The bags from an average grocery run fits just fine, and the fortwo can even handle one golf bag - as long as it'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. But once you start adding options, you can get a decent amount of equipment. The optional sound system sports modern amenities such as satellite radio. And for those that would rather deejay themselves, there is still an auxiliary hookup on the face of the radio to input from anything with a headphone jack.
Our only qualm with the smart's amenities is that they push the fortwo's price up to around $14,000. Other cars in this price range come with all those features as standard, so if you want the extras, the smart doesn't effectively compete with other vehicles on price alone.
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. But the fortwo is a bit disappointing in city driving, too, and that's supposed to be its forte.
But Smart shoppers are likely seeking efficiency more than performance. With a small engine and a scant, 1,800-lb weight, the fortwo delivers good fuel economy. The EPA estimates 34 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, and our time with the car proved the estimates to be nearly spot-on.
Despite its small size, the smart fortwo gets high marks for safety. In every Insurance Institute for Highway Safety test, it received a Good rating, the highest possible result. 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 is indecisive, switching gears early and often. Furthermore, gear changes are remarkably slow. The result is an extremely jerky ride in a majority of driving conditions. We've praised some automated manual transmissions for quick, precise upshifts and downshifts. The Smart's is not one of the better ones.
In fact, the fortwo's lack of performance can be downright scary. 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. 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 duration of the gap, it's not that much of a problem. And to be fair, the slow and ill-timed gear change never actually resulted in other drivers braking or swerving to avoid us. But until you get used to the awkward five-speed automatic, dashing across traffic in the fortwo can be a harrowing experience.
Otherwise, the ride can be a bit harsh due to the fortwo's short wheelbase, but it's rarely uncomfortable in low-speed city driving.
Other Cars to Consider
Scion iQ - We 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 that of the fortwo, as is its list of standard equipment. And although it's tiny and suitable only in a jam, the iQ actually has a back seat. City fuel economy is better by a couple ticks, too. The base iQ is pricier than the Fortwo, starting at $16,020 including destination charge.
FIAT 500 - The 500 is also bigger and more expensive than the fortwo, starting at $15,500. But the FIAT is very maneuverable in the city, and the drive experience is much more satisfying. Plus, the 500 has a usable back seat (or more cargo space with the rear seat folded) and is rated at 40 mpg on the highway.
We respect smart for being first in the microcar game. But although it had the monopoly for quite some time, some newcomers do it better. For city use, we recommend the Scion iQ over the 2013 smart fortwo. Scion's clever packaging yields considerably better functionality than you'll find in the Smart. And the iQ is not too much more expensive than a comparably equipped fortwo.