Revolution, dud or something in between? The 2008 Smart Fortwo could be any of these, but which one depends on how Americans respond to this long-awaited city car as it starts to trickle into dealerships around the country. The previous generation has sold more than 770,000 units in other parts of the world since 1998, appealing to urban customers who gravitated to its sky-high fuel economy and park-anywhere size. While most Americans have probably seen a Smart car, only time will tell how many pick one as their daily commuting partner.
Not that it comes as a news flash, but the Mercedes-built Smart is small. Really small. It's more than 3 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper and only a foot longer than an E-Z-GO golf cart. It seats only two people, with a fair-sized trunk above the rear-mounted engine. Yet that silver or black strip that loops around the Fortwo's side is what differentiates this minicar from the E-Z-GO.
Known as the Tridion safety cell, this cage of high-strength steel allows the Smart car to withstand impacts as well as or better than much larger cars. An impressive array of other safety systems -- side airbags, antilock brakes, brake assist, stability control and traction control -- add to its ability to thwart occupant injury. Plus, axles placed close to the passenger compartment provide additional protection in side impacts.
Other markets get diesel and turbocharged gasoline engines, but the America-bound Fortwo will only come with a 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine. Saddled with 71 horsepower, this powertrain will be able to motivate the 1,804-pound Smart from zero to 60 mph in 14.1 seconds. The wonky five-speed automanual transmission found in the last Smart car has been replaced by an allegedly improved one, which makes us wonder how awful the predecessor was, considering the new car's herky-jerky motions and extreme shift lag. After a quick drive, it will leave you wondering how it's in any way superior to a traditional automatic or clutch-pedal manual.
In total, the Smart has just enough pep around town, but it feels woefully lackluster (and a little worrisome) on the highway. But that's a pretty good way to sum up the entire Smart Fortwo experience. For those who spend 90 percent of their driving time by themselves in traffic or meandering through congested city streets, the Fortwo makes sense (as long as they can put up with the wonky transmission). Its tiny dimensions make finding a parallel parking spot a relatively simple exercise -- although the new model is now too long to be parked perpendicularly on the street. Also, speeds in the city should rarely get so high that the mere sight of a Navigator makes you pack the dashboard with statues of St. Christopher.
But for those who routinely drive on the highway, the Fortwo just doesn't make sense -- even if it gets excellent gas mileage. A similarly priced subcompact will handle high speeds better; ditto the more expensive but greener Prius. The 2008 Smart Fortwo isn't a good choice for most consumers, but for certain urban-based drivers, it's most definitely worth consideration.
The 2008 Smart Fortwo is a two-seat, subcompact city car available in two body styles. The hatchback Coupe is offered in Pure and Passion trim levels, while the convertible Cabrio only comes in Passion. The base Pure comes with 15-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, leather steering wheel and electric rear window defroster. Power steering, air-conditioning, radio, power windows and alloy wheels are optional on the Pure. The Passion gets all those basic features, plus a panorama glass roof, sport steering wheel with shift paddles, power heated side mirrors and a CD player. The Passion Cabrio adds an upgraded stereo with MP3-compatible in-dash six-CD changer, along with a manually operated canvas roof. Passion options include partial leather upholstery and additional gauges.
Although certainly snug, the Smart Fortwo offers a surprising amount of space for two people (as the name would suggest). In particular, the driver seat is friendly for taller drivers, unlike subcompacts like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. The passenger seat is also offset 6 inches to the rear to increase legroom, and it can fold flat to increase cargo space. The trunk can hold 12 cubic feet of cargo when packed to its roof line, or a more realistic 7 cubes when packed to the waistline. Interior design is simple yet handsome, resembling something that could have been penned by Ikea. There are a number of monochromatic and two-tone interior options available to liven things up, while the standard cloth upholstery features whimsical patterns. The Pure is extremely bare-bones, so we'd suggest springing for the much better-equipped Passion.
The 2008 Smart Fortwo is powered by a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that produces 71 hp and 68 pound-feet of torque. Surprisingly, it requires premium fuel. The maximum speed is 90 mph, with a 0-60-mph time of 14.1 seconds. A five-speed automanual transmission drives the Fortwo's rear wheels and is shifted without a clutch pedal via a simple console-mounted stick (and column-mounted paddles on Passion models), and there is a fully automatic mode as well. With its 8.7-gallon tank, the Fortwo will return 33 mpg city, 41 mpg highway and 36 mpg combined.
A car with a wheelbase as short as many vehicles' widths shouldn't be expected to glide down the road like a Mercedes S-Class, but the new 2008 Smart Fortwo manages to deal well with bumps and thumps. High-speed stability is also pretty good, although strong crosswinds can wreak havoc on its boxy shape. Handling largely depends on how one equips the Smart Fortwo. A base Pure model with manual steering and narrow 15-inch front tires feels ponderous and the front tires give up quickly in corners. Upgrading to power steering and wider tires provides a more adept driving experience, and actually makes zipping through city streets fun.
Unfortunately, the Smart's wonky automanual transmission is its most significant drawback and a potential deal-breaker. The shift lag (particularly between 1st and 2nd) borders on the absurd, requiring you, when in manual mode, to lift off the gas during shifts to prevent the car from lurching forward and your neck from snapping back when the gear finally engages. In automatic mode, it's hard to prevent the lurching at all. Another drawback is the floor-mounted brake pedal, which can require an awkward foot and leg motion for some drivers.
The Smart Fortwo comes standard with side airbags, antilock brakes, stability control, traction control and the trademark Tridion safety cell with front and rear crush zones. In government frontal crash testing, the 2008 Smart Fortwo coupe achieved four out of five stars for driver protection and three stars for passenger protection. It achieved a perfect five-star rating for side crash protection. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Fortwo earned a perfect rating of "Good" for both frontal-offset and side-impact safety.
The Smart Fortwo is an all-new brand and model in the United States for 2008, sold at a select number of United Auto Group and Mercedes-Benz dealerships across the country.