As the diminutive Smart Fortwo enters its second year stateside, it benefits from being in the right place at the right time. Capitalizing on instabilities in the economy and fluctuating fuel prices, the Smart has enjoyed a successful introduction into the American market. While initially the Smart may have been thought of more as a novelty, its solid sales and growing, cultlike following suggest the Smart is here to stay.
For one thing, many people find the Smart car adorably cute. The charming exterior is unlike anything on the road, defying most preconceptions. With its golf-cartlike proportions, people often expect it to be as roomy as a straitjacket, suitable for city driving only and as safe as a soapbox racer. On the contrary, the Smart has enough room to comfortably seat tall adults, is highway legal and protects occupants surprisingly well in crashes.
Unfortunately, the 2009 Smart Fortwo is beset by a host of other problems. Power output is OK when pulling away from traffic lights, but the rear-mounted engine quickly loses steam as the revs rise, and its fuel economy isn't that much better than what you'd get from many other larger and more practical vehicles. Meanwhile, its narrow track combined with a tall profile serves to blow the Smart about like a tumbleweed in gusty conditions, and the automated manual transmission is slow and produces herky-jerky shifts between gears. This is not only irritating on the move, but it can make parking in tight spaces difficult -- an area the tiny Smart should obviously excel at.
We've had a 2008 Fortwo in our long-term test fleet. Our staff's opinion about it has varied from "I never want to drive it again" to "Yeah, I actually kind of like driving it." But even those who like it admit that the Smart car is poorly executed. Subcompact choices like the Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris offer more room and practicality, while the Mini Cooper is vastly more entertaining and higher in quality. But we understand rationality isn't everything when it comes to car purchases. For those who rarely leave their city's confines, desire a car with an eco-friendly image and don't mind putting up with the vehicle's many faults, the stylish Smart Fortwo is a respectable choice.
The 2009 Smart Fortwo is a two-seat subcompact available as either a hatchback coupe or convertible (cabriolet). These cars are available in three different trim levels: Pure (coupe only), Passion and the new, higher-performing Brabus limited edition. The Pure model comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, a two-spoke leather steering wheel and an electric rear window defroster. Options include power steering, air-conditioning, a radio, power windows and alloy wheels. The Passion model includes the Pure features and options, plus a panoramic glass roof, a sport steering wheel with shift paddles, power heated side mirrors and a CD player. The Passion Cabriolet adds an upgraded stereo with an MP3-compatible in-dash six-CD changer, along with a manually operated canvas roof. Passion options include partial leather upholstery and additional gauges.
Coming out later in the year is the new limited-edition Brabus model. Developed by the renowned German tuning firm of the same name, the Brabus edition includes sporty 15-inch alloy wheels in front with 17-inch wheels in the rear, added aerodynamic side skirts, front and rear spoilers, fender flairs, halogen projector headlights, foglights, Brabus exterior and interior badging, a stiffer and lower sport suspension, a sport-tuned exhaust system, heated leather seats and ambient lighting.
Though the Fortwo's cabin is on the snug side, it is still comfortable for two tall adults. Legroom is ample, with an extra 6 inches provided for the passenger seat, which also folds flat for added cargo space. The trunk offers 12 cubic feet of space when packed to the roof -- blocking the rearward view. With the trunk loaded to the waistline, storage drops to 7 cubes.
The interior is simple but attractive, with a number of monochromatic and two-tone options available. The Passion trim level's cloth upholstery is available in several vivid colors with whimsical patterns that breathe some life into the well-designed cabin. The base Pure model lacks these accents and is quite subdued and bare bones in comparison.
The 2009 Smart Fortwo is powered by a rear-mounted 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that squeezes out 71 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque. Oddly enough, it requires premium fuel. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed automated manual transmission that can be driven as a typical automatic or with manual shift control via a console-mounted stick or column-mounted paddles on the Passion models.
In testing, we accelerated the Smart Fortwo to 60 mph in an unhurried 14.1 seconds on the way to its 90-mph top speed. Though its fuel capacity is only 8.7 gallons, the range is acceptable, considering its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 33 mpg city/41 mpg highway and 36 mpg in combined driving.
With its extraordinarily short wheelbase, one would expect the 2009 Smart Fortwo to feel like a shopping cart on the road. Surprisingly, the suspension manages to reduce everyday bumps and potholes to acceptable levels. Though it's a bit harrowing among trucks on a flowing highway, high-speed stability is adequate. A decent crosswind or truck gust can easily upset that stability, however, tossing the boxy shape side to side in its lane. On city streets, the Fortwo is much more enjoyable to drive, and it could even be described as sporty. We have yet to drive the sharper Brabus edition, but we would expect it to add even more enjoyment.
The Smart's transmission is its Achilles' heel. Between the slow upshifts, the car lurches back and forth, especially between 1st and 2nd gears. This sort of rough shifting is unacceptable in any car at any price, making it a deal breaker for some. Drivers can work around this by shifting manually and lifting off the throttle momentarily (as you would with a traditional stick shift). But there's no cure for the slow-to-engage automated clutch at low speeds, which prevents you from rolling forward as you normally would with an automatic when parallel parking. Instead, the Smart can suddenly dart forward more than you expect. Another drawback is the floor-mounted brake pedal, which is inconsistent in travel and mounted at an awkward angle relative to the driver's foot.
Since the 2009 Smart Fortwo is built by Mercedes-Benz, ample occupant protection would be expected, and the Smart delivers. Standard safety equipment includes side airbags, antilock brakes (front discs and rear drums), stability control and traction control. Despite its tiny size, the Smart car has performed well in crash testing. In government crash tests, the Smart was awarded four out of five stars for frontal crash protection of the driver and three stars for passenger protection. In side impacts, the Smart was awarded a perfect five out of five stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Smart its highest rating of "Good" for both frontal and side impact protection.
The 2009 Smart Fortwo returns with the introduction of a sportier trim level from German tuner Brabus. Minor changes to the returning models include flexible door storage nets.