New & Used Smart Fortwo: In Depth
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The tiny Smart Fortwo two-seat minicar is meaningful to two niche crowds in the U.S.—buyers for whom on-street parking is the paramount concern, and the handful of urban car-sharing programs. For everyone else, it will be hard to overlook the many penalties that this model enacts because of its minimal length.
After years of hesitation and false starts—and a period in which Penske Automotive Group acted as a third-party importer—Smart launched the Fortwo in the U.S. in 2008—right into the teeth of a gas crisis. It actually sold like gangbusters in its first two years, but after that, the numbers fell drastically.
The Fortwo, which is available in Coupe, Cabriolet, and Electric Drive models, 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.
The Smart Fortwo was redesigned this past year, and it's the first complete redesign given to this model since the brand was launched in 1998. The new 2016 Smart Fortwo 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 allows 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.
The profile hasn't changed much either. The 2017 Fortwo has the same snub nose, perky styling, and clearly defined passenger compartment, with wheels pushed out to the corners and side styling accented by the contrasting color. Design features carried over from the previous Smart include the prominent shoulder line, frameless door windows, and a split tailgate whose upper portion opens for access while the lower half flips down to provide a temporary surface.
The front end is definitely more defined and bulbous than before—partly a result of tougher pedestrian-safety requirements. The interior is a bit more visually interesting than in the previous models, but still fairly simple. Two eyeball vents sit on top of the dash, and a small instrument cluster behind the wheel contains the usual gauges. A touchscreen display sits slightly proud of the central console, and overall, the interior has a far more substantial feel.
The 2017 Smart Fortwo gets an 89-hp turbocharged 0.9-liter three-cylinder good for 100 pound-feet of torque. There's 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.
The basics haven’t changed much: The Fortwo family (except for the upcoming Electric Drive) has its little engine mounted on its side between the rear wheels, under the load bay, with power delivered through the rear wheels. Combined EPA fuel economy is 35 or 36 mpg for the Coupe, and the company says 0-to-60-mph acceleration is 10.1 seconds for the manual, and 10.5 seconds for the DCT. Fortwo Cabrio models add some extra weight and thus are more than a second (11.6 sec.) slower to 60.
An astoundingly small 22.8-foot curb-to-curb (or 24-foot wall-to-wall) turning circle fully delivers what people will be looking for in this model, which is phenomenally good maneuverability and parking ease. It's more maneuverable than ever, and the perfect urban warrior. But the new Smart is also far more capable on the highway than the old one was, and has a quieter and smoother ride under pretty much every circumstance. Noise is well suppressed for such a small car, and the redesigned interior and greater refinement make the new Smart a much more pleasant vehicle to drive or ride in.
Smart Cabriolet models, part of the new-generation Fortwo, are being reintroduced for 2016. They feature a special “Tritop” roof that can be configured three ways: fully open, fully closed, and partially open, as you would with a large subroof. The power roof takes just 12 seconds to retract, and it can be operated with the keyfob, although it requires that side bars be removed by hand.
The base Pure model (offered only in Coupe guise) includes power windows, central locking, LED daytime running lights, cruise control, power steering, and audio and other controls on the steering wheel. The audio system includes a CD player, Bluetooth streaming for playing music and hands-free commands. The instrument cluster includes a 3.5-inch color display, and a trip computer and an exterior temperature display are also standard. Beyond that, the Passion, Prime, and Proxy trim levels provide a mix of different features, using interior trim and fittings to give the different models distinct characters.
Infotainment options in the Fortwo lineup include smartphone integration and a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather data. The Smart Cross Connect app allows owners to access their car and other useful functions while away from the vehicle. A top-end JBL sound system with eight speakers and a 240-watt amplifier should provide substantial sound for the small cabin.
The previous Smart Fortwo
The versions of the Fortwo that are being phased out in 2016 were 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 could take some getting used to at first, but you'll soon likely agree that this is a brilliantly space-efficient car. 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.
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 Electric Drive is slated for a full redesign, to be introduced in late 2016 as a 2017 model.