Versus the competiton:
For 2016, Smart has improved the ForTwo’s biggest flaws — transmission and harsh ride — but it remains an impractical car that’s not designed for mass appeal. And it likely won’t attain it.
The Smart ForTwo was a tiny car that, at one point, some of us couldn’t recommend and others didn’t see its charm. But, like anyone given a chance to rectify his or her faults — who cared to do so — Smart has tried to tackle its major problems and keep up with the small-car market.
Smart has spruced up the interior and tweaked the design slightly, making the car wider — but not taller or longer — for 2016. The coupe goes on sale first, and a convertible version is expected to come in the early summer of 2016. You can run through most of the changes here.
We tested the two uppermost trim levels — the Prime and the Proxy — over two days in hilly Portland, Oregon, in a mix of city and highway driving, carrying two people and their luggage.
Engineers at Smart are proud and quick to point out that they kept the ForTwo’s length exactly the same as before — just shy of 9 feet long. The ForTwo is, however, now 4 inches wider, so it looks and feels more stable. (More on that later.)
Smart also altered the car’s look so there’s a more pronounced hood than before, rather than one smooth line curving down from the top of the windshield to the bottom of the front bumper. Overall, this is a significant change that makes the ForTwo look better from the outside and slightly more substantial from the inside. The hood covers various fluid reservoirs, but the engine remains in the rear.
Smart has updated the number of color combinations available for both the body panels and the “tridion” safety cell that curves down from the roof, behind the doors to the doorsill area. It’s now available in white, black and gray. The color combinations vary by trim level, so to get exactly the color you want you may have to select a specific trim level.
The Smart ForTwo’s new dual-clutch six-speed transmission solves the biggest problem I found in my time with the previous model: unpredictable shifts. In the old car, I swear I never got the same response from the car twice in a row. The 2016 does what you expect it to pretty much every time. Every once in a while during my hilly test drive I noticed an abrupt shift, but it’s a vast improvement over the old model, which used a single-clutch automatic.
However, the ForTwo remains modestly powered. The new engine is a turbocharged three-cylinder engine that makes 89 horsepower and 100 pounds-feet of torque. That’s an increase of 19 hp and 32 pounds-feet of torque, but the new ForTwo is heavier and riding on wider tires than before. None of that helps the little car accelerate.
The ForTwo doesn’t zip from light to light, but it does offer agreeable performance if you’re willing to trundle from place to place in the city.
On the highway, when you need to pass the transmission kicks down and you get a lot of engine noise, but it still doesn’t shoot the car forward. The ForTwo remains a car in which you need to anticipate when you’re going to pass. It’s no barn-burner, and it’s noisy.
For the first time, the 2016 Smart ForTwo is offered with a manual transmission, but I was unable to test that model. It’ll be interesting to see if its five-speed setup offers the ability to increase performance by holding onto gears longer before shifting. I have my doubts, though, because I tested the top-of-the-line Proxy model, whose automatic transmission has steering-wheel shift paddles. Even when holding onto gears longer in that car before shifting, power was still low.
The Smart ForTwo gets an EPA-estimated 34/39/36 mpg city/highway/combined with the automatic and 32/39/35 mpg with the manual transmission. The ForTwo requires premium fuel, just as its predecessor did. The ForTwo competes against cars such as the Chevrolet Spark (31/39/34 mpg with a manual transmission) and the Fiat 500 (31/40/34 mpg with a manual transmission and the required premium gasoline). These numbers put the ForTwo at the top of this munchkin class — albeit using premium gas that the Spark, at least, does not require.
If the new drivetrain is better but still not exceptional, the improvements to the ride just might be. Through a combination of suspension retuning, increasing the car’s width and fitting wider tires with higher sidewalls to provide more cushioning, the 2016 Smart ForTwo’s ride seemed acceptable. We tested it on smooth roads, though, so I can’t give it the full test until I get it on the crumbling streets of Chicago, but I was impressed.
Where the old model felt as if it rode more firmly than a skateboard, the new model just feels like a small car that rides firmly. You’re confident there’s a suspension and that it’s working; it better absorbs imperfections in the road so it feels more composed. It also feels more stable than the old model and better able to handle bumps that occur in the middle of turns. The old model felt like it was hopping around, while the 2016 ForTwo feels more planted.
Proxy trims are lowered 10 millimeters for what Smart calls “more dynamic” performance. I tested this version and, while I didn’t notice a particularly sporty feel, I also didn’t notice a particularly harsh ride, so it’s kind of a wash. The Proxy is the highest trim level, so if it’s got the features you’re looking for, at least you won’t be forced to suffer an unduly harsh ride to get what you want.
Still, no matter what trim level you choose — and despite these improvements — the ForTwo can still get bashed around on the biggest bumps in a way that competitors such as the Fiat 500 don’t. That said, though, it’s a definite, measurable improvement.
Finally, what’s really fun is the turning circle. Smart says it’s 22.8 feet, but to really get a sense of it you have to drive it. It’s a lot of fun to change directions in a parking lot almost as easily as you could walking. Also making this fun is the fact that power steering is now standard, so there’s not a lot of effort required to make this maneuver now, either.
I wasn’t wowed by the previous model. While the controls and interior looked OK, they fell short when it came to actually touching and using them. Smart’s done its homework here.
The dash is now covered with a mesh-like material that’s meant to emulate high-quality running shoes. It looks and feels nice. The same feeling applies to the steering wheel and gearshift. Both are a good size and, when moved, feel like they’re linked to something mechanical. It’s how a car should feel, no matter how small it is. The same sensation carries over to the window switches — power windows are newly standard — the climate controls and so on.
The dashboard design follows the trend of a floating tablet protruding from the center of the dash, and I think the oval-ish shape of that section suits the car well. The dash also features a number of glossy surfaces that I think look good in a less austere, less practical cabin like the ForTwo’s.
Another improvement is that it appears Smart has more aggressively tinted the available moonroof. I drove both the Proxy (highest trim level) and the Prime (next-highest trim) over two extremely sunny days in Portland and never felt like I was being baked.
Visibility is excellent out front but can be compromised out back because the glass is small. If someone is tailgating you, all you’re going to see is their grille. Or, as happened to me when a Cadillac Escalade pulled up tight behind me, just their badge.
Smart is jumping fully into the waters of using a smartphone as an extension of the car’s controls. It uses an app called Smart Cross Connect that offers navigation and other controls. While the app is free, the cradle that holds your phone costs $100. Interestingly, when I first got in I wondered why I’d want my phone blocking the audio controls, but it made sense when I realized the phone, using the app, controls all the functions blocked by the cradle. I still prefer physical buttons, though, and don’t like how the cradle looks. I’m not sold on it.
From an electronics/connectivity perspective, though, it’s an interesting approach that everyone from carmakers to Apple and Android are jumping on. The Cross Connect app wasn’t completed when we used it — it was “in beta,” to borrow a tech term — and everyone who drove noticed problems, mostly with the navigation. Smart said in August it had about a month to get all the kinks worked out, so hopefully the developers put that time to good use. Smart also says it’s planning on a traditional, hard-mounted center touch-screen for the future.
Smart struggles with cargo storage. My co-driver and I each had one smaller carry-on-sized bag, and to haul them both they had to be squeezed into the rear cargo hatch. I’m not sure how much luck we would have had if we were using wheeled roller bags. Also, there aren’t many spaces to put things in the cabin.
Smart’s tried to address this, putting a small shelf above the glove box and a small bin by the passenger’s legs, and there are two door pockets and three cupholders, but I still found myself searching for cubbies for my phone and camera. These are the kinds of things that aren’t a big deal over two days of driving a car, but I wonder if I’d feel the same way after living with them for a while. You can fold the passenger seat almost flat, which would help with carrying long-ish items, but having to choose between a passenger or cargo isn’t a good thing.
Other small cars — notably the Honda Fit — offer surprisingly cavernous interiors for such small packages. Put another way, people can get in some cars and be surprised by how much room there is inside. I doubt anybody is going to have that experience in the ForTwo. What you see on the outside is what you get on the inside.
The 2016 Smart ForTwo has not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
For 2016, Crosswind Assist is standard, borrowed from Mercedes-Benz (Mercedes is the parent company of Smart). The feature uses sensors to detect heavy gusts of wind and uses the brakes to “steer” the car into the center of the lane. It wasn’t windy enough to test during my time in Portland.
A forward collision warning system (which flashes a light and sounds a tone but doesn’t autonomously brake the ForTwo) and a rear parking aid that sounds a tone when needed are notable safety options. See all the ForTwo’s safety features here.
The Smart ForTwo remains an impractical car for most people. It’s modestly powered but isn’t the cheapest city car on the market; the least expensive ForTwo starts at $15,400. The automatic transmission is a $990 option. It competes with cars such as the Chevrolet Spark and Fiat 500. Compare them here.
The Chevy Spark starts at $13,485 (all prices include a destination fee) with a manual. The Fiat 500, also with a manual transmission, costs $17,940.
Still, you could argue that the numbers don’t always tell the full story when comparing cars. The Fiat 500 is designed to have retro appeal and hark back to a previous Fiat model. The Spark is a more modern take on the small hatchback. The Smart ForTwo looks like nothing else on the road.
That uniqueness always appeals to a certain segment of car buyers who are thus willing to pay more for it. So it will be with this ForTwo. But while it’s unique — and a lot of fun to weave through tight spaces, turn around in the middle of the road and fit into any parking space — it forces you to make a lot of compromises that cars such as the 500 and Spark don’t. It can’t be seen in the same light as other, more mainstream, more mass-market cars.
Now, though, thanks to the improvements for 2016, those compromises aren’t as numerous as they once were.