Versus the competiton:
When the Smart ForTwo hits showrooms in January 2008, there won’t be anything quite like it on the market. It’s nearly one-third shorter, bumper-to-bumper, than the next smallest car around, the Mini Cooper, and it comes nicely equipped for around $13,500. For people with extra cash to burn, it could very well become a hot impulse purchase.
Before you rush out to buy one, consider some inherent limitations. The ForTwo is no substitute for a subcompact Toyota or Hyundai — it’s a two-seat runabout that’s groomed for urban driving, and in the city it should stay. U.S. testing agencies haven’t yet conducted crash tests, and the mid-30s gas mileage estimate carries an asterisk: Smart recommends premium fuel.
Got all that? Still want one? Get in line — the waiting list is months long.
The ForTwo coupe comes in Pure and Passion trim levels. A convertible Passion Cabriolet is also available. All ForTwos have a standard automated-manual transmission that operates much like an automatic. The sub-$12,000 Pure comes pretty stripped, charging extra for things like power steering and a radio.
Smart is a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz. I logged two days in a Passion hardtop and convertible at a media event in San Francisco, and checked out a not-yet-for-sale Pure hardtop on display at a dealership along the way.
Tiny cars like the ForTwo have thrived in Europe and Asia, where 600- or 700-cc engines (.6 or .7 liters) deliver sky-high gas mileage. The ForTwo’s 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine is hefty by those standards, though it still sounds dwarfish in the 1.5-liter-and-up U.S. market.
The engine delivers 70 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, and it makes for modest acceleration starting out. Power builds much like it would in a Honda Civic or Mitsubishi Lancer, though, and by the time the tachometer tops 3,000 rpm, the ForTwo feels downright peppy. The engine gets fairly raucous up near its 6,000-rpm redline, but there’s no sense that power is tailing off before then.
Getting the power to the rear drive wheels is another story. A five-speed automated-manual is the sole transmission; from the driver’s standpoint it operates like an automatic, but really it’s swapping gears like a conventional manual, complete with an electronically operated clutch.
What that means is that you drive the ForTwo like you would a regular automatic, but the transmission lurches through gear changes with the awkwardness of a 15-year-old learning stick on his brother’s Corolla. The transmission has a single clutch, so it has to disengage one gear, pause momentarily, and then engage the next. Prod the gas pedal while the process is happening and you’ll experience pronounced hesitation. I found it especially apparent in the first-gear-to-second shift, which is right when I most needed a swift transition.
Fortunately, many journalists are smarter than one. After a couple hours swapping stories at each stop, we’d come upon a solution: Let off the gas slightly at each shift, like you would while driving a stick, and the gear changes are much smoother (though still not very fast). It’s hard to tell when the shifts will occur with the transmission in Drive, so smooth acceleration requires using the gearshift’s manual mode. There’s a plus/minus gate on the shifter, while the Passion adds shift paddles on the steering wheel.
Standard antilock brakes employ discs up front and drums in back. The execution is disappointing: I found the pedal rock-hard, imprecise and never all that powerful. After two days’ driving, I still couldn’t stop the car smoothly.
Highway performance depends on your speed. Maintaining 65 mph is within the realm of long-haul plausibility, but climbing an incline at that speed — or accelerating to anything higher — is dicey. The transmission’s shifting hesitations are less pronounced out on the open road, but you’ll still want to shift gears for yourself — or get used to flooring the pedal to induce a downshift. Acceleration at this speed takes time, so look for a long gap before you enter the passing lane.
At 80 mph — the preferred highway speed of many Bay Area drivers, I noticed — the ForTwo screams, “Uncle!” The engine howls, the steering quivers and the wheels come unglued at the slightest bump. You won’t want to drive that fast for long.
Using the EPA’s more stringent 2008 regulations, gas mileage is estimated at 33/40 mpg city/highway. Those figures beat the most frugal subcompacts, though they trail hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Premium fuel is recommended. Smart president Dave Schembri said the ForTwo can run on regular if necessary, but often an engine that can technically run on a lower grade of gas does so with less power, and I’m not sure the ForTwo has much power to spare.
Under guidelines in California and several northeastern states, the ForTwo earns an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle rating, which puts it one rung above the LEV-rated Mini Cooper. Don’t expect a thumbs-up from Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid owners — their cars are even cleaner.
The ForTwo’s suspension is fully independent up front and semi-independent in back, with a stabilizer bar connecting the front wheels. The ride can be harsh over rough pavement, but it’s well-mannered on smoother roads. Credit the tires — P155/60R15 front and P175/55R15 rear — which are plenty thick for such a small car. They help keep road noise down at higher speeds and yield respectable grip in turns.
The engine sits over the rear wheels, which contributes to the car’s 45/55 (front/rear) weight distribution. Both the hardtop and convertible retain a solid feel over rapid elevation changes, with minimal body roll. That doesn’t mean the ForTwo is an all-out go-cart — the center of gravity feels a little too high to throw it into corners at will. Indeed, the car’s footprint is about two-thirds the size of a Mini Cooper’s, yet it is more than 5 inches taller.
Both cars I tested had the optional power steering. The wheel turns with ease, which makes for easy low-speed maneuvers, but it could use a bit more turn-in precision while cornering. On the highway, things feel just the opposite: The wheel firms up, transmitting inputs a bit too quickly for my tastes. Let it wander at all and before you know it the ForTwo will start drifting toward the next lane.
The original ForTwo has sold overseas since 1998, part of a micro-car segment built for dense urban environments. The car hitting our shores is the second-generation model, sold in Europe since last spring, and it’s nominally larger than its predecessor.
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The ForTwo’s tiny dimensions befit its styling, which fuses wraparound panels and extended fenders in an extroverted, ultra-chic package. Elements of the car’s steel crash structure wrap around the doors and roof, and they’re painted to match the side mirrors. Plastic side panels wear a contrasting color. Fifteen-inch steel wheels are standard, while Passion models have 15-inch alloys.
No doubt about it: This car generates more interest among observers than some that cost 10 times as much. A woman in a Jeep stopped at an intersection to ask what kind of car it was. A crowd of first-graders stared, pointed and tugged at their chaperones. A jogger stopped to inspect the car up close. (He asked about gas mileage, and when I told him Smart recommended premium fuel, his expression sank.)
Smart goes to great lengths to emphasize the ForTwo’s roominess, and I can see why. The doors are full-size — each dominates an entire side of the car — and the seats are positioned high off the ground. Getting in and out is a breeze, easier even than in some compact cars I’ve tested. Headroom and legroom are entirely adequate. I’m about 6 feet tall, and I had the driver’s seat a few clicks forward of its rearmost position.
Credit all those space-saving measures: The dashboard curves away as it descends, leaving large footwells on either side. The gearshift sits on its own island, well behind the dashboard, preserving room under the stereo controls for your knees to spill into. The passenger seat’s track sits 6 inches behind the driver’s seat track, making it easier to adjust the seats to minimize shoulder-rubbing. To be sure, the cabin is not cavernous — the side and rear windows sit right up against you — but it’s certainly enough. That comes as a surprise in a car so small.
Cargo room in back measures just 7.8 cubic feet, less than a third the space the Cooper offers behind its front seats. Should you need to haul longer items, the front passenger seat folds flat. Unfortunately, neither seat offers a height adjustment and the steering wheel sits in a fixed position. It was a bit too high for my tastes, but I grew accustomed to it.
The cabin has a cartoonish look, with dimpled upholstery on the dashboard and kitschy plastic air conditioning controls. The seats are padded well enough for a two- or three-hour trip, and the scribbled fabric pattern looks like a snapshot from Windows’ 3D-Pipes screensaver. The materials rarely feel cheap, though, and build quality is respectable. Smart deserves kudos for the steering wheel — it has a hefty, serious grip.
All cars have skeletal frames that surround the passenger compartment. Smart brands its the Tridion Safety Cell and says its numerous cross-members and extruding crush zones — including the wheel axles themselves — leave little room for another car to strike a soft spot. Standard safety features include front and side-impact airbags — the latter extending upward to protect occupants’ heads — as well as antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system. An engineer told me the side-impact airbags only deploy when the ForTwo is struck in the side. They will not deploy in a rollover, as some do.
I can’t predict the results of a large SUV colliding with the ForTwo, but physics are physics. Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has crash-tested the car. I spoke with IIHS spokesman Russ Rader last January, and he expressed skepticism about the crashworthiness of something this small. Read more about it here. Naturally, Smart representatives disagreed with Rader’s take, and they say they welcome a full crash test from IIHS.
The ForTwo Pure starts at $11,590. Standard features include remote keyless entry, the full provision of safety features and a gas mileage and outside temperature display, but basic amenities like power steering and a radio are optional. Moving up to the $13,590 Passion adds a fixed glass roof, alloy wheels, power windows, air conditioning and a two-speaker CD stereo with iPod connectivity. Power steering is still optional.
The Passion Cabriolet costs $16,590. It comes with all the hardtop’s features plus a five-speaker, six-CD stereo. Options on both Passion models include heated seats, leather upholstery, fog lamps and a tachometer. Cruise control is not available.
At least initially, Smart will build the ForTwo to order on a first-come, first-served basis. The car is set to ship from its assembly plant in France to U.S. dealers in January. Around 50 dealerships will be available from the start — many of them separate showrooms within a Mercedes dealership — and most major cities should have one. Later on, expect 25 or so more dealers to join the effort, Smart says.
As of this writing, Smart has taken about 5,000 fully configured reservations. Ash Zaki, a dealer operator, told me that if all goes according to plan, Smart salespeople won’t have to sell any actual cars. Their job will be to entice walk-in customers to order a ForTwo from the factory. Zaki would not say how long it takes from order to delivery, but Smart executives told journalists the first cars to arrive in January were ordered last April.
Zaki conceded that a small number of buyers could default on their reservations, leaving a handful of cars available to walk-in shoppers; if you’re particularly shrewd, you might find one. Chances are it will be a Passion coupe or convertible, as Smart says just 3.5 percent of the initial 5,000 orders were for the Pure.
A two-year, 24,000-mile warranty covers the drivetrain and most other components. That trails most competitors by at least a year.
Smart should have no trouble selling the ForTwo, especially as it becomes an icon on the road. It doesn’t have as many practical aspects as its maker might have you believe, and crash-test results remain a mystery, but I’m not sure if any of that really matters. Like the Mini Cooper and countless Scions, the ForTwo will sell on emotional appeal — if not as basic transportation for those who live in the city, then as a third or fourth car for wealthy suburban folks to park out front. Does that make Smart a smart choice? We’ll have to wait and see.