New & Used Smart Fortwo: In Depth
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The Smart Fortwo has the distinction of being the smallest highway-legal car ever sold in the U.S. Though the little Fortwo has been on sale in the U.S. since 2008, it hasn't sold particularly well, averaging about 10,000 units a year. Its chief rival in the U.S., the Scion iQ, is no longer available.
The main challenge for the Fortwo is that buyers can get larger, more refined vehicles with fuel economy that's just as good or better, for the same money — perhaps even less — than the Smart. An entirely new Fortwo is available for the 2016 model year, and it should address some of the old car's shortcomings. Whether its fuel economy is good enough to make new buyers take notice, however, remains to be determined.
MORE: Read our 2016 Smart Fortwo review
Launched into the teeth of a gas crisis, the Smart Fortwo sold like gangbusters in its first two years. After that, the numbers fell drastically. For all but the small number of buyers for whom on-street parking is the paramount concern and the handful 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, the price gets into the territory of a number of larger vehicles that offer a better mix of features and practicality--from the Honda Fit to the MINI Cooper, and especially Chevrolet's 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 gasoline engine that is mated exclusively to a 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, Smart is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Mercedes parent Daimler. 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 it was never brought to the U.S.) Smart has also sold other body styles overseas, including a low-slung roadster and the four-door Forfour.
The U.S. Smart feels 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 zippy at low speeds; quick, stable steering allows drivers to dart through gaps in traffic when time is of the essence, and the high seating position affords 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 at those speeds 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, while grooved pavement causes noticeable tramlining. Moreover, one surprise is that fuel economy, at an EPA 33 mpg city, 41 highway, isn't much better than other larger small cars, in part due to the unaerodynamic shape and an engine barely powerful enough for highway driving.
Packaging in the Smart can take some getting used to 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 has a fabric roof that slides back and stacks while most of the body sides remain in place. An electric model, detailed below, is also available in either body style.
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.
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. For 2013, the mildest of upgrades included updated front and rear styling, and moving the Smart badge from the hood to the center of the grille.
Smart Fortwo Electric Drive
Smart offered a handful of Electric Drive cars for lease in 2011. These versions used a low-power electric motor and lithium-ion battery packs from the then-startup Tesla Motors, of which Daimler used to be a shareholder. The Smart ED carried a hefty lease bill and had only 63 miles of range to a charge according to the EPA. Many of the original Electric Drive cars have migrated to Car2Go fleets that are stationed in large cities.
In 2013, the Smart Electric Drive arrived, with a new all-electric 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, as the small car is best suited to short trips in the city anyway.
The new Smart Fortwo
The new Smart ForTwo arrives in the autumn of 2015 as a 2016 model in the U.S. Confirmed so far only in two-seat form, the vehicle will be the first all-new Fortwo since the brand was launched in 1998.
The new Smart keeps the current length of slightly less than 9 feet long but is roughly 4 inches wider. The small proportions help the ForTwo boast the best turning radius, at 22.8 feet curb to curb. The curtailed length should allow it to continue to slot into the smallest of parallel spaces, while increased width will be welcome for full-size Americans stuffing themselves inside cheek by jowl.
U.S.-bound 2016 models will get a 90-hp turbocharged three-cylinder good for 100 pound-feet of torque. There will be a choice of a five-speed manual or a new dual-clutch automatic, both of which should be upgrades over the current herky-jerky automated manual. We expect a new Electric Drive model based on this new ForTwo, but it may lag the gasoline models by as much as a year.
The ForTwo will offer a number of new safety systems. A blind-spot monitoring system will be standard, while forward-collision warning and lane-keeping assist will be options. Even with all of these upgrades, improvements, and new features, however, it's not clear whether America will take to the Smart better than it did when the original little car went on sale.