New & Used Smart Fortwo: In Depth
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The Smart ForTwo is a two-seat hatchback that, to date, is the smallest highway-legal car sold in the U.S. Even though it’s been on the market in the U.S. since 2008, it hasn’t caught on nearly as much as it has in Europe. A new model is due for arrival in 2015, but for now, it mainly competes with the Scion iQ, a slightly more expensive alternative.
For more information, including options, prices, and specifications, see our full review of the 2014 Smart ForTwo.
Launched into the teeth of the gas crisis, the Smart ForTwo sold like gangbusters in its first two years--and then sales fell away drastically. Outside of the small number of buyers for whom on-street parking is the paramount concern, and the growing number of urban car-sharing programs, the Smart exacts many penalties in its minimal length. The base model is inexpensive but surprisingly basic. Once you start to add options, a number of vehicles offer a better mix of features and practicality--from the Honda Fit to the MINI Cooper, and especially Chevrolet's new Spark minicar, a five-door hatchback that can actually carry four adults.
The U.S. model of the Smart ForTwo is powered by a 70-hp, 1.0-liter Mitsubishi three-cylinder engine and five-speed automated manual. Dimensions were slightly different, along with various changes in materials, trims, and switchgear, but U.S. Smarts kept the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. When you're gently driving and not zipping, though, the transmission can be obstinate, lurching between gears in indecision. Performance isn't that impressive, though, if you go by the specs: 0-to-60-mph times are a leisurely 13 seconds or so.
Originally a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and the watch company Swatch--yes, truly--the European version of the Smart ForTwo offered a wider array of powerplants, including a tiny turbocharged three-cylinder diesel engine. (That car was sold in Canada for a few years, but never in the U.S.)
For 2013, the mildest of upgrades included mildly updated front and rear styling, and moving the Smart badge from the hood to the center of the grille. A comprehensive interior freshening came in 2011, with a few new features added to the stark cabin decor--at the request, Smart said, of buyers.
The U.S. Smart feel pretty much the same as the European version behind the wheel. In town—especially in a tight urban environment such as Manhattan—piloting the Fortwo is a joy. The powertrain is reasonably responsive, almost downright zippy at low speeds; quick, stable steering allows impressive opportunities to dart through gaps in traffic when time is of the essence, and the high seating position afford a great view around.
The attributes that make the Fortwo so appealing in the city conspire to make it less so—and in some cases even a little scary—on the highway. Engine and road noise are excessive at freeway speeds, and while the Smart will cruise at 70 or even 80 mph, you won't want to stay there for long. The short wheelbase and rather tight suspension calibration that helps make it feel so responsive, albeit a little jittery, in the city make it bouncy and busy at higher speeds—and you especially feel crosswinds and tramlines. Moreover, one surprise is that fuel economy, at an EPA 33 mpg city, 41 highway, isn't much better than other larger small cars.
Packaging in the Smart is a little odd at first, but you'll soon likely agree that this is a brilliantly space-efficient car. The driver's footwell goes basically all the way to the nose of the car, there's cargo stowage under the seats, and just behind the seats is more cargo space, large enough for several large grocery bags. The engine itself is hidden away under the cargo floor, under the panel where you'd find the spare tire in most cars and right up next to the rear wheels.
Overall, you feel like you're sitting in a small, exceptionally narrow pickup cab, though a quick look ahead and behind can evoke a sense of vulnerability, the Fortwo has actually done quite well in crash tests—for its size—and comes with stability control, side airbags, and ABS.
Buyers can choose from two different models of the Fortwo: the standard Coupe, and the Cabrio, which is actually more of a targa, offering a removable roof panel.
Various appearance features can be ordered as dealer-installed options, drawn from the Brabus performance model of the Smart that was offered for a few years. They include a sportier-sounding exhaust, along with leather trim for the steering wheel, shift knob, and handbrake lever.
Another new entry for 2013 is the Smart Electric Drive with an all-new powertrain. At roughly double the price of the cheapest gasoline Smart ForTwo, it's the least expensive plug-in electric car sold in the U.S. It's also much nicer to drive than the gasoline version, because its single-speed transmission dispenses with the lurching, thudding automatic shifts that make the gasoline car such an amusement-park ride.
The electric Smart performs as well as the gasoline version--its acceleration is actually slightly quicker--and qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit and a $2,500 California purchase rebate--meaning an effective price after incentives of only about $15,000. In some ways, it's the car that the Smart ForTwo should have been all along.
A handful of cars also called Smart Electric Drive were offered for lease in 2011, with a less powerful electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack provided by startup electric-car maker Tesla Motors. They were expensive to lease and offered just 63 miles of EPA-rated range. Many of them ended up assigned to the Car2Go car-sharing service.
Since 2011, the Smart brand has undergone management changes, and is now wholly operated by Daimler AG. In the U.S., it's sold through Mercedes-Benz dealers.
A new generation of the Smart has been confirmed by Daimler, along with a four-passenger model. It's likely the brand will also expand to include a crossover-style hatchback when the new generation of vehicles emerges.