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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Joe Wiesenfelder
May 21, 2009
Considering that the leading concern about small cars is safety, I initially thought I might be the wrong person to review the Smart ForTwo, which is the only microcar sold in the U.S. Perhaps because I have a good record behind the wheel, I'm never nervous driving anything, regardless of size or style — from a featherweight 2000 Honda Insight to a medium-duty tow truck. As it turns out, this is exactly why I'm the right person for the job of reviewing the ForTwo. I've ridden motorcycles, I log many miles in my Mazda Miata and I even own a 30-year-old Fiat — and driving the Smart ForTwo scares the crap out of me.
Though there's something to be said for size and weight in an automobile collision, I've never looked at a car and deemed it unfit to drive among larger vehicles based on its size alone — though I know many people do. The Smart was no different. It was only after driving it for a few days in different circumstances that I began to question what the payoff is. The ForTwo's Fundamental Flaw The biggest complaint since the ForTwo's debut has been about its acceleration, and that's not a comment on its diminutive 70-horsepower, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. I'm probably the last reviewer you'll see calling a vehicle underpowered, and I think Americans in general have little perspective on how much power is enough. We seem to be ruled by what I call the onramp fallacy: the notion that if our car does 0-60 mph in 9 seconds instead of 8, we will surely die. The ForTwo's problem is not about power, it's about a transmission that bogs down when shifting. A so-called automated manual with a single, computer-controlled clutch, the ForTwo's five-speed changes gears the way you would if you had a conventional stick shift and clutch pedal — and second-degree burns on the soles of your feet, a trick knee and a hangover.
The transmission operates in an automatic Drive mode or can be shifted manually using the gear selector or up/down paddles on the steering wheel. Sports-car makers no less august than BMW and Lamborghini experimented with the same technology — to similar effect — before abandoning it for dual-clutch and other designs. BMW survived this period because there were always alternative transmissions. Smart has none: A regular manual transmission isn't offered, not even overseas. (The company blames the limitations on packaging, which usually means some aspect of the vehicle's platform or other components constrain the size, shape or integration of some other part.)
The earlier generation's transmission tended to slow the car's acceleration during upshifts, causing the driver to step harder on the pedal, which resulted in the car slowing down even more. By learning to finesse the pedal and back off before a shift, as one would do in a true manual, one could learn to smooth the transitions somewhat. My take was that you shouldn't have to learn a new way to drive something that's called an automatic.
Smart claims to have addressed the problem by recalibrating how the transmission works. What the Drive mode does now is hold onto gears a little longer before upshifting, which makes for smoother transitions. My impression is if you're new to the ForTwo, you'll find this new calibration more agreeable than you would have the previous generation's, but that doesn't mean the operation is fixed, or even acceptable. Further, as someone who had learned to finesse the pedal and make the previous model's gearbox operate more smoothly under light acceleration, I think it's now harder to do so.
Ultimately, the problem is that the ForTwo's acceleration is inconsistent and unpredictable.
What's ironic is that the ForTwo suffers many of the shortfalls expected of the country's previous smallest car, the Mini Cooper. In reality, the Cooper turned out to be a solid, substantial car that doesn't ride like a hobby horse and has exceptional handling and stability. The ForTwo's short wheelbase and small wheels make for some rough riding and skittishness, and the tall stature doesn't inspire confidence when cornering aggressively. I find the brakes particularly disappointing, with a binary, all-or-nothing quality that makes it difficult to come to a stop smoothly. What Are the Advantages? I consider the driving experience alone a major strike against the ForTwo. Even if you dismiss crashworthiness as a theoretical problem, there are other inherent sacrifices in a car this small: Though its seats are large enough for adults, there are only two, and cargo space is limited. Ostensibly the advantages include low price, high mileage and ease of parking. But how much advantage is there?
The base ForTwo Pure starts just under $12,000, but you can get a good subcompact like the Nissan Versa for $9,990 and the Toyota Yaris hatchback for $12,205, both of which have truly usable backseats. Want something a little more stylish? The Cooper has crept up in price to $18,550, but that's a substantial car, even when compared to the most expensive ForTwo Brabus, at $17,990.
As for mileage, the ForTwo gets an EPA-estimated 33/41 mpg city/highway. The Yaris hatchback gets 29/36 mpg, and the Cooper gets 28/37 mpg. Yes, 41 is better than 36 and 37, but is it enough better for a car with three fewer seats that's more than 3 feet shorter than the Cooper from bumper to bumper? I expect more from such a modestly powered smallfry. Then there's the fact that the ForTwo prefers premium gas; like most cars for which premium is recommended (rather than "required"), it can run on regular, but it decreases power. While I wouldn't call the ForTwo underpowered, it's definitely on the borderline, and with the wonky transmission to deal with, I say it's necessary to get as much power out of the engine as you can.
That leaves us with the parking advantage, which the ForTwo definitely has. The subcompacts are all even longer than the Cooper, and the ForTwo has the benefit of being about 5 inches narrower. It's interesting, though, that the Yaris hatchback is 3.7 feet longer than the ForTwo, yet its turning diameter is only 2 feet greater, at 30.8 feet. Safety In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the ForTwo scores Good in frontal and side-impact tests. Not all models score this well, especially in the side impact, which is comparable across all vehicle classes and sizes. (The same can't be said for the conventional frontal test, which doesn't account for size and height differences.)
IIHS recently illustrated this when it crashed the ForTwo into a compact Mercedes sedan, and the result was indeed poor, with the ForTwo taking to the air and spinning 450 degrees. Any small, light car is subject to rebound, which can lead to additional contact, as well as greater harm than a larger vehicle would experience from striking stationary objects.
According to real-world 2007 data from the Highway Loss Data Institute, the death rate in multiple-vehicle crashes was almost twice as high in minicars (one class larger than the ForTwo) as it was in large cars.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's star ratings — in which high crash-test scores are achieved so easily that we generally discount them — the ForTwo's door opened during the side impact, which the agency flags as a safety concern. It's also significant that the ForTwo is the only passenger car with a rollover rating of three stars, indicating a 21 percent chance of rollover. That puts it in league with truck-based SUVs. All other passenger cars and most car-based SUVs score four stars; in the Yaris hatchback, this represents a 14 percent chance of rollover.
The ForTwo has an inherent safety disadvantage, and what concerns me most is that the cards are further stacked against it because of how other drivers respond to it: with no respect. Other cars tailgated mercilessly, cut me off without hesitation and never failed to pull into traffic ahead of me as if I weren't there. I don't believe that they don't see the ForTwo; they just don't care. It's in situations like this where you want a car to stop on a dime, swerve confidently and accelerate out of the way of overly aggressive cross-traffic, and that's where the ForTwo's dodgy acceleration and braking go from being an annoyance to being a liability.
All small vehicles suffer the same treatment in traffic, but motorcycles provide excellent visibility for the rider and are nimble and quick to accelerate and brake. The Miata, likewise, is light on its feet and able to handle the discrimination it all too often faces. But the ForTwo's problem isn't that it's not a sports car. The Yaris isn't a sports car either, but it handles the bare essentials of driving in ways the ForTwo simply doesn't. In my examination of the Smart car, the drawbacks kept on building, leaving one advantage that's as small as the ForTwo itself: ease of parking. The Parking Paradox The problem with parkability as a raison d'être is that scant parking is a problem specific to the environment I found the most threatening for a car like this: the hustle and bustle of city life. It's logical to think of the urban setting as perfect for a small car, but it's also where it makes the least sense. If you're not in the city — in a setting free of aggressive larger vehicles — you can probably live without the ForTwo's parkability, or be happy with a so-called neighborhood electric car like a Gem or a Zenn, with no petroleum burned and potentially less money upfront. Smart ForTwo in the Market The Smart car is a novelty, but unfortunately novelties tend to lose their novelty, which in this case leaves you with no backseat, little cargo room and a safety disadvantage, wondering if ease of parking is worth the money you spent and the mileage you're getting. I suppose the ForTwo belongs somewhere, but I suspect it's in a world full of other small cars and truly narrow streets — the Old World. Car shoppers have different priorities, which is why I always point out what's good and bad about different cars, knowing that the consumer will make his or her own choice. There's usually something, on balance, that makes a car attractive to someone. This time around, though, for the first time in Cars.com history, I can't recommend this car, for anyone.