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The 2012 Smart Fortwo two-seater is still rare enough on American roads to be a novelty--and a toylike one at that. Don't let that put you off too much; it's a real car—competent in the city, and actually fun to drive in urban traffic. But it's definitely a car with a lot of tradeoffs, and after understanding them, many shoppers would be better served by either a more conventional small car or somewhat more expensive hybrid.
As before, the 2012 Fortwo is offered in two basic models: a coupe with a fixed roof, and a Cabriolet that has two removable roof panels for a more open-air experience. With its slab sides and non-existent nose, the ForTwo looks wide for its length of less than 9 feet, and taller than some subcompacts. It still can impress, from some angles, as a roller skate on wheels, and especially from the front, it's kind of cute. Last year, the instrument panel in the Fortwo was redone, eschewing much of the early 1990s econobox dash appearance that the Fortwo had been saddled with from the start. Instead it got a mix of textured plastics and brighter matte-metallic-toned trim.
The Mitsubishi-sourced, 70-hp, 1.0-liter in-line three-cylinder engine thrums with an idle that sounds uneven but is surprisingly smooth--although it's hard to ignore that it's just behind the seat. Only in its upper ranges does it sound a little thrashy. The Fortwo's single most significant handicap remains its automated manual transmission, which unlike the smooth dual-clutch systems, involves an annoying interruption of power. The rest of the driving experience is surprisingly fun; the manual steering (no, you don't miss power steering here) is communicative, and at city speeds the rear-wheel-drive Fortwo handles with verve and can be whipped around tight corners with confidence. Brakes are consistently great, too.
On the highway, sadly, it's a completely different experience. The little Fortwo will cruise at 75 mph or higher, but at highway speeds it feels a little nervous and pitchy. It's best kept to low-speed environments like Manhattan, San Francisco, or as an inner-city commuter car. Out in the suburbs, especially when traffic thins out, the Fortwo's drawbacks—a busy, hard ride, noisy interior, lack of power, and iffy roadholding—become serious issues. Consider that real-world fuel economy also isn't all that much better than that of other four- or five-passenger subcompact models (we saw 36 mpg overall in our last test) and the 'wow' factor yields to reality.
From the moment you first open the door and get in, it's likely you'll appreciate the Fortwo a bit more. Though it's just a two-seater, it can easily accommodate those over six feet tall, with more than enough headroom for all. You sit high, and the seats invite (and are at their most comfortable in) a sort of perched-forward driving position.
What's a little more disappointing is the Fortwo's lack of cargo space. There really isn't much space behind the seats except for a modest row of grocery bags. The instrument panel also feels like a flashback to the econoboxes of the 1990s.
For 2012, Smart has bolstered the Fortwo's equipment list. Seat-net pockets have been added, and there's a new standard interior fabric. Ambient lighting and a cruise-control package are new options, as well as center-console storage, and a new smart 'entryline' radio is also available.
Seats sure don't look lavish (upholstery is new for 2012 however), but they're quite comfortable, and we like how straightforward the controls and switchgear are. While the Fortwo rides reasonably well, soaking up major bumps and potholes, this very tall, short car's tendency to pitch fore and aft can be tiresome on longer trips.
Decent—though by no means great—crash-test ratings are somewhat redemptive, as well as standard anti-lock brakes and stability control, plus side airbags and a so-called Tridion safety cell that gives the protection of a larger car.
The Fortwo's final failing is features; at a time when convenience, connectivity, and tech features are what matter most of all to some shoppers, the Fortwo is remarkably barren. The base Pure model doesn't even come with a sound system, though high-end Passion and sporty Brabus models add (pricey) extras. All said, a loaded Fortwo Passion Cabriolet can top $20k.
As of July 1, 2011, U.S. sales and marketing authority for Smart was handed over from Penske Automotive Group to Mercedes-Benz USA (an affiliate of Smart's parent company, Daimler); so far for 2012 there have been no other major changes in pricing or positioning, although smart might be offered through more dealerships.
- Nimble and responsive at city speeds
- Actually fits tall folks
- Can park nearly anywhere
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- Busy, jittery ride
- Nervous and noisy on the highway
- Short on passing power
- Bluetooth hands-free completely missing