A craze is defined as a product or cultural phenomenon that gains popularity among a small niche group before it bursts into the mainstream. All of a sudden, everyone's doing the Macarena or talking about Snooki. Eventually, though, a craze dies out. The Smart Fortwo is certainly a product that has achieved niche popularity, but it has yet to become mainstream. It's also struggling to find buyers as it enters its third year on the U.S. market, so the Smart craze may be dying out before it even begins.
But let's take a look at why that niche is attracted to the Smart car. For one, it's cute, and as puppies and Taylor Swift prove, people like cute things. Second, it can fit in parking spaces that nothing else could possibly squeeze into. Third, it defies your expectations. You may expect it to offer all the interior space of one of those Japanese drawer hotels, yet there's ample room for tall adults. You may expect it to be a tiny death trap, but it scores well in crash tests.
However, there are reasons why the Smart hasn't turned into an all-out Snuggie-like craze. For one, fuel economy is indeed frugal, but it requires premium, and that fuel economy isn't that much better than that of the larger Honda Fit or Mini Cooper. Second, its narrow track and bubble-like profile conspire with gusty crosswinds to blow the Smart around like a tumbleweed on the highway. Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, the automated manual transmission is slow to respond and produces herky-jerky shifts. 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.
So given these pros and cons, would we buy into the Smart craze? Well, we actually had one for a year in our long-term fleet, and the consensus was that the Smart is ultimately poorly executed even if there was a minority who enjoyed its quirky nature. There's also the matter of price and value. Sure, a Smart Pure starts at less than $12,000, but that's without air-conditioning, power steering or a radio. Would you really want that car? Make a Smart livable and the price rises into the same stratus as the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit, just to name a few. The tiny Mini Cooper and fuel-sipping Honda Insight are also in that price ballpark. You'd have to routinely deal with some awfully tiny parking spots to make purchasing a 2010 Smart Fortwo a wise choice.
The 2010 Smart Fortwo is a two-seat subcompact available as a hatchback coupe or a convertible (Cabriolet). There are three trim levels: Pure (coupe only), Passion and the limited-edition Brabus.
The Pure lives up to its name, as it is unfettered with features. Standard equipment includes 15-inch steel wheels, keyless entry and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Options include air-conditioning, power windows and a two-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Passion Coupe adds the Pure's options, plus 15-inch alloy wheels, transmission paddle shifters, a glass roof, power and heated mirrors and a "sport" steering wheel. The Passion Cabriolet further adds a power convertible top, a glass rear window and a five-speaker premium stereo with a six-CD changer. Options on the Pure and Passion include power steering, heated seats, an alarm system and the Cabriolet's upgraded stereo. The Passion can be equipped with foglights, additional gauges and the Comfort package, which includes power steering, heated seats, leather upholstery and automatic lights and wipers.
The Brabus limited edition is equipped like a Passion, but adds special alloy wheels (15-inch front, 17-inch rear), a lower ride height, sport suspension, sport exhaust, a Brabus body kit, sport pedals, heated leather seats and Brabus velour floor mats. It has the same options as the Passion.
You'd think the Smart would be a cramped tin can better suited to sardines than humans, but you'd be wrong. It's a tad narrow, but there's abundant headroom and ample legroom even for those taller than 6 feet. The passenger seat provides an extra 6 inches of sprawl space and it 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 -- a radio and air-conditioning are optional.
Every 2010 Smart Fortwo is powered by a rear-mounted 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that squeezes out 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque. This is sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed automated manual transmission, which can be controlled with the console-mounted stick on all models or steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters on the Passion and Brabus.
In our testing, a Smart Fortwo went from zero to 60 mph in a glacial 14.1 seconds on its way to its 90-mph top speed. The Smart nevertheless feels quicker around town as it runs out of steam only as speed increases. 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 combined. Premium fuel is required.
With its extraordinarily short wheelbase, one would expect the 2010 Smart Fortwo to feel like a shopping cart on the road. Surprisingly, the suspension manages to reduce everyday bumps and potholes to acceptable levels. Highway-speed stability is adequate, but a decent crosswind or truck gust can toss the Smart about like that plastic bag in "American Beauty." It's not the most beautiful thing in the world, though.
On city streets, the Fortwo is much more enjoyable to drive, and it could even be described as sporty. The engine that quickly runs out of sauce while charging onto the highway actually feels quite potent when pulling away from a traffic light. As long as you don't mind laying into the throttle, there should be no problem keeping up with the normal flow of traffic.
The Smart's transmission, though, is dismal regardless of where you're driving. The car lurches back and forth between the slow upshifts. Drivers can work around this by shifting manually and lifting off the throttle momentarily, but you shouldn't have to with a supposed automatic. The slow-to-engage automated clutch also prevents the car from rolling forward normally. Parking can get a tad hair-raising when the Smart suddenly darts 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 2010 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. In Edmunds brake testing, the Fortwo Passion came to a stop from 60 mph in 124 feet -- a better-than-average distance for a subcompact. The Brabus is no better.
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.
There are only minor equipment changes for the 2010 Smart Fortwo. New options include leather upholstery and automatic lights and wipers.