EXPERT REVIEW

The Detroit Newspapers's view


I wanted to like the 2008 smart fortwo.

This cute and cuddly deux-seater from Mercedes-Benz has charisma and a certain kind of charm.

It looks like it drove out of a cartoon with its Lego block colours. It’s so darn cute; the pixie of putt-putts.

I’m sorry, Mr. Penske, the man who has done more for Detroit without facing felony charges and the mastermind behind bringing the smart car to America; truth be known, the fortwo may look like a micro-champ, but it performs like a XXL chump. Please don’t cancel the Grand Prix at Belle Isle.

This quirky space saver with a name that looks like a Web site address will undoubtedly live well in a diminutive niche of eco-narcissists unable to afford a hybrid and people who find parking in tight spots more exhilarating than driving. But there are just too many other tiny cars for the same price that provide more utility, more space and significantly better performance on the road than the smart fortwo.

Now, I know hordes of people are lining up, putting down $99 and waiting a year for their own little bundle of joy to arrive from Hambach, France. But that waiting list will dissipate quickly — as more drivers realize that the fortwo was built to fit into most Dumpsters for a reason. This is not a car, it’s a fashion accessory, and will go the way of flared jeans and puffy skirts. Hopefully sooner, rather than later.

Don’t misunderstand me; there are some very endearing qualities about this car — as long as it’s not running.

First of all, its looks. Everybody seems to like it. It looks like car caricature, something you’d pay $8 for at the state fair then find it months later crumpled under the passenger’s seat.

When I parked it at Eastern Market, neatly in a space too small for many golf carts, people ran up to me and asked about the car. No one is bashful when it comes to the smart fortwo. They look at its front end, the smiling air intake, and its headlights that resemble twinkling eyes and think they’re best friends. It attracts cheerfully inquisitive people, who don’t hear anything you say.

Their eyes glaze over when you mention the 1-liter, three-cylinder engine and the poor steering feedback at highway speeds. “It’s so pretty,” they say. “Where’d you get one?”

What they see are the big windows and little body. The full-size doors give the smart fortwo unique proportions. The 15-inch wheels look small on its boxy body. The tale of the tape measure: 106.1 inches long, 61.4 inches wide, 60.7 inches tall. An entire smart fortwo can rest inside the Chevy Malibu’s wheelbase with 6 inches to spare.

Pushing the wheels to the very edges does create an impressive amount of space inside, perhaps the one saving grace for this vehicle.

Two adults can sit comfortably with ample shoulder room.

The tiny dash includes a normal speedometer behind the wheel, and the tachometer and clock stick out of the top of the two-tone dash like solar-powered lawn lights. But the materials look cheap. The heating and cooling controls at the top of the dash move vertically and feel like they’ll snap off if you push them too hard. A little shelf goes across the bottom of the dash and a little glove box stores a little registration slip and a little owner’s manual. The ignition key is inserted in a spot on the center console between the seats. How very European.

My $15,000 test model included heated seats, dash-mounted electric door locks and a respectable six CD stereo. The polycarbonate panoramic roof, aka see-through plastic, is fantastic.

It’s joyless to drive

When I first sat inside the smart car, I warmed up to it quickly.

“Hey, maybe this micromajig ain’t so bad,” I was starting to think.

That instantly changed as I sputtered away from smart’s Bloomfield Hills headquarters.

After a few days of driving it, I found myself dreading the walk to my garage. The smart fortwo made me yearn for the Toyota Yaris, which is not a compliment.

The smart’s performance is so bad, dealers have a complete spiel ready for prospective buyers, telling them it takes a special touch to drive correctly. Translated: This is a joyless car to drive but strangers will smile at you when they pass you in school zones.

The culprit for my disdain is smart’s five-speed automatic transmission. Technically, it’s still a manual tranny, with some electric motor inside to engage the clutch and shift gears. Engineers couldn’t install a proper clutch without making the car’s front end bigger. What this automatic manual does is lurch through gears willy-nilly, deciding to shift at some of the worse moments.

Imagine you want to take a left on Fort Street as a semi a few hundred feet away approaches. Halfway across the street, the gremlin residing inside the gearbox decides to engage the clutch, pause, pause, pause, OK, shift.

Three seconds feels a lot longer while an International steaming to the Ambassador Bridge barrels closer and closer. The shift points make little sense, upshifting too early and downshifting too late. If this 70-horsepower engine even has a power band, the transmission does everything possible to avoid it.

I even followed the salesman’s advice, since I wrongly assumed pressing the accelerator hard would tell the car to go faster. He suggested I take my foot off the gas as the car began to shift. The performance improved from god-awful to just horrible.

The terrible transmission does produce good mileage numbers. However, many people look at it and think it gets insanely great mileage. It doesn’t. According to the EPA, it gets 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg in the highway. I averaged 30 mpg, but admit I drove it hard and shifted with the manual override. The four-door Honda Fit hits 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway — and it’s fun to drive. Assuming the numbers are correct, the fortwo’s 8.7-gallon tank limits its range to 350 miles on the highway.

Three hundred and fifty very rough miles.

Ride is loose, loud

The ride is bumpy and loud. Both models I tested hit 80 mph, and smart says the car’s top speed is 90 mph, but that must require a strong tail wind, a steep downhill run and earplugs. Wind noise and rattling drowns out the stereo the faster you go.

The car’s handling was a little loose at higher speeds, as the steering felt disconnected from the highway. But on city streets the fortwo felt nimble and precise. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive gave it a little slip-and-slide action that was enjoyable, and the standard electronic stability control worked perfectly. Its light weight (1,808 pounds), however, made it unsure in the snow. Coming home one night, I got stuck entering my driveway as I tried to clear the small pile of snow left from the plow. That’s just embarrassing.

Now comes the safety issue. The assumption is something this small is inherently not safe. I have faith in Mercedes and its tridion safety cell. Mercedes, a safety leader, has developed a system that helps send collision forces through the car’s body and around the passengers. Additionally, the higher-riding position gives the driver a feeling of confidence. The only time you feel awkward is when you look over your shoulder and realize half of the car is missing.

The one area the smart fortwo excels is parking. Two smart car owners can fit both of their vehicles in one typical parking space. Good for them.

This machine may attract a lot of attention while parked, but don’t be fooled. If you enjoy driving, the smart fortwo is not an intelligent choice.

Report Card

Overall: *

Exterior: Fair. It will definitely get you looks and the silhouette is unique.

Interior: Fair. Well laid out as a two seater with a little room behind the seats for bags. Cheap materials deflect from the vehicle’s overall quality.

Performance: Poor. Horrible. It rides like a lawn mower without the benefit of being able to cut your grass.

Safety: Good. I never felt unsafe in the smart fortwo. Full complement of airbags and steel cage around the driver and passenger will protect the driver and passenger.

Pros: Pint-sized cruiser fits almost anywhere but still feels big.

Cons: Car lurches during acceleration and saps any fun out of the driving experience.

Grading Scale

Excellent: **** Good: *** Fair: ** Poor: *

2008 smart fortwo

Price: $12,235

Trims: Pure, Passion, convertible

Engine: 1-liter, 3-cylinders

Power: 70 hp; 68-pound-feet torque

Transmission 5-speed automatic

EPA mileage 33 mpg / 40 mpg

Dimensions: 73.5, 106.1 x 61.4 x 60.7 (wheelbase, length x width, height)

Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at sburgess@detnews.com.

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