A city car is, by definition, a small vehicle with a small engine that is easy to maneuver and park in congested metropolitan environments. For the most part, the 2012 Smart Fortwo satisfies those minimum requirements, but not much else. What we found most surprising, however, is how this diminutive little car excels in areas we would least expect.
The Smart Fortwo, despite its tiny appearance, is quite spacious inside. There's enough room for full-sized adults to be pretty comfortable. It also manages to achieve commendable crash test scores. With a 36-mpg EPA rating in combined driving, the Smart car is acceptably frugal with fuel, though it does require premium gas.
Unfortunately, there are far more drawbacks that keep the 2012 Smart Fortwo from being competitive against other small cars. While we consider its humble 1.0-liter engine adequate for city crawls, the single-clutch, automated manual transmission is one of the worst transmissions on the market today. It causes unsettling lurches at any speed, complicating precise parking maneuvers and making boulevard driving thoroughly unpleasant. On the highway, the Smart Fortwo is out of its element, being easily upset by wind gusts or passing trucks.
Then there's the price. While the 2012 Smart Fortwo isn't particularly expensive upon initial consideration, you really aren't getting much for the money. We'd much sooner pick from a multitude of slightly more expensive cars to regain all of the capabilities, refinement, confidence and features that the Smart car lacks. Topping our list would be the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, 2012 Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent. And if small is really what you want, the new 2012 Scion iQ is pretty much the same size as the Fortwo but is more refined and desirable overall.
The 2012 Smart Fortwo is a two-seat subcompact available as a hatchback coupe or a convertible (Cabriolet). There are two trim levels: Pure and Passion.
The Pure includes 15-inch steel wheels, keyless entry, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and two pre-wired speakers. Options include air-conditioning and a radio with auxiliary audio/USB jack.
The Passion Coupe adds the Pure's options, plus 15-inch alloy wheels, transmission shift paddles, a glass roof, heated power mirrors, power windows and a sport steering wheel. The Passion Cabriolet further adds a power convertible top, a glass rear window and side airbags (in place of side curtain airbags).
Options on Passion models include wider tires and wheels, metallic paint, LED daytime running lights, foglights, automatic lights and wipers, power steering, cruise control, additional gauges, interior ambient lighting, heated seats, center console storage and an alarm. An optional four-speaker highline radio with touchscreen display, navigation and Bluetooth is also available, as is a six-speaker surround-sound upgrade.
Despite its comically small exterior proportions, the Smart Fortwo is remarkably roomy inside. There's enough head- and legroom for 6-foot-plus occupants, while the passenger benefits from an additional 6 inches of seat travel. The passenger seat also folds flat to provide more cargo space than the 7 cubic feet available in the cargo area behind the seats (12 cubes if you load it to the roof, blocking rear visibility).
The interior is pleasantly modern in design, with a choice of several monochromatic and two-tone color palates available. The Passion models feature cloth upholstery with bold colors and wild patterns, while the base Pure models are notably tame by comparison -- a radio and air-conditioning are optional.
Powering the 2012 Smart Fortwo is a rear-mounted 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that delivers 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque. This is sent to the rear wheels through a five-speed automated manual transmission. The transmission can be shifted manually if desired via the console-mounted stick on all models or shift paddles on the steering wheel of the Passion.
In Edmunds testing, a Smart Fortwo went from zero to 60 mph in a glacial 14.1 seconds on its way to a 90 mph top speed. Though its fuel capacity is only 8.7 gallons, the range is acceptable considering its EPA-estimated fuel economy of 34 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 36 mpg combined. Premium fuel is required, however.
Don't expect too much in the way of driving refinement with the 2012 Smart Fortwo. Ruts and bumps in the road are acceptably damped and the Fortwo can be fun to drive around town, but the tiny car is easily upset by crosswinds and gusts from passing trucks on the highway. Furthermore, the automated manual transmission is as crude a unit as you'll find in any car. Shifts are not only slow, but they're also accompanied by a significant lurch. Gearchanges can be made smoother with a well-timed throttle lift in Manual mode, but that defeats the point of having an automatic in the first place.
Pulling away from a stop, the Smart car is at least capable of accelerating with more authority than a golf cart, but quickly runs out of steam as the revs and speed increase. Compounding matters, the automated clutch is slow to react and in parking lots, the car has a tendency to dart forward or backward, rather than crawl or roll. We're also not fans of the awkward brake pedal placement and its inconsistent travel.
The 2012 Smart Fortwo is built by Mercedes-Benz, and as such, it offers ample occupant protection. Standard safety equipment includes side curtain airbags for the coupe models and side airbags for the cabriolet, knee bolster airbags, antilock brakes (front discs and rear drums), hill-hold assist, stability control and traction control.
In Edmunds brake testing, the Fortwo Passion came to a stop from 60 mph in 124 feet â€“ an average distance for a subcompact. In terms of crashworthiness, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Smart its highest rating of "Good" for both frontal- and side-impact protection.
The Smart Fortwo gains new stereo and navigation options for 2012.