- Unbeatable ease of parking
- Remarkable interior space for two
- Agile in urban driving
- Electric model much nicer to drive
- Transmission jerks and piches
- Noisy, jittery ride on freeways
- Almost no passing power at speed
- Spartan interior lacks many features
The 2014 Smart ForTwo is now an old design, but it remains the easiest car to park in cities, and it's at its best in urban traffic; the electric model, new last year, is the nicest of the bunch, and now remarkably cheap.
The 2014 Smart ForTwo minicar is now a very old vehicle, with a design dating back to the 1990s. It's due for replacement, probably in the 2016 model year, with an all-new design that retains the rear-mounted engine between the rear wheels, but should otherwise bring the littlest car sold in the U.S. into the current decade and give buyers the same conveniences, features, and cabin quality as other small cars.
Until then, the current version soldiers on, providing bare-bones transportation to buyers for whom the shortest possible length trumps all other considerations. It's small, but it's also outdated and crude, and its gasoline powertrain is just as lurchy and unpleasant to drive as it was in 2008 when the car first launched in the U.S. The all-electric version introduced last year is far more pleasant, though still primitive inside--and considerably pricier than the conventional Smart, though remarkably good lease deals can cut the cost for some buyers to about $200 a month.
The ForTwo remains the shortest, least powerful car you can buy in the U.S. Here, the niche for two-seat cars less than 10 feet long is very small, and there aren't a lot of competitors. Its iconic design highlights the 'Tridion' safety cage around the passengers in a different color. External changes over seven years are limited to updated front and rear bumper shields, door sill moldings, and the brand's logo, which moved from the hood to the grille last year.
Smarts attract attention wherever they go, even on the streets of New York City and San Francisco, simply because they're so tiny--just 8 feet and 10 inches long. The Coupe version is the least expensive model; there's also a Cabrio version with a powered cloth roof that rolls back on rails above the doors, similar to that of the Fiat 500c Cabrio.
Inside the Smart, it doesn't feel as small as it actually is. The two seats will hold adults more than six feet tall comfortably, with ample headroom and legroom. There's only minimal storage space behind the seats, however, because the engine sits essentially under the high load-deck floor, just behind the passengers' backsides. Inside, the instrument panel was updated for 2011, taking the car's interior from spartan to plain. The matte trim sets off hard textured plastics, though the higher trim level at least looks modern if simple. New fabrics were introduced in 2012, along with standard net pockets on the seats.
The seating position is high, so occupants don't feel low to the ground, and outward visibility is good. It's only when reversing that it becomes obvious the car ends less than two feet behind the driver's shoulders. In urban traffic, it takes a while to get used to just how short the Smart really is--but once a driver learns the limits of the car's bodywork, it can be maneuvered and parked like no other vehicle.
No other vehicle, at any rate, except perhaps the Scion iQ--which is almost as short as the Smart, but offers more modern conveniences (along with a part-time third seat and a vestigial fourth position for a small child). The Scion is almost $3,000 more expensive than the aging Smart, and its clever design does offer more interior room, but both cars essentially fall into the same very-very-very-small-city-car category--and each sells only about 10,000 copies a year.
Starting in 2013, the Smart was offered with two powertrains: gasoline or battery electric. The 70-horsepower, 1.0-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine is mated to an automated manual gearbox in the non-electric models, and the combination is one of our least favorite powertrains. It takes a lot of training for drivers to learn when to lift on and off the accelerator to avoid jerky, slamming shifts and a lot of pitching back and forth on the ForTwo's extremely short wheelbase. The gasoline Smarts do fine in 0-to-30-mph city traffic, but they aren't much good above 50 mph, losing steam and taking a very long time to get to freeway speeds. It's capable of sustained 75-mph speeds, but you've got to be patient.
Handling around town is fun; the manual steering provides good feedback, and experienced drivers will zip around tight corners and make quick U-turns with ease. The brakes are more than adequate, and of course, parking in unparalleled.. On the highway, the ForTwo is noisy, its ride is nervous and hard, and it requires intestinal fortitude to travel at freeway speeds between two semis in a Smart.
Ask anyone what kind of gas mileage a gasoline Smart gets, and people assume wild efficiencies: 60 mpg or 75 mpg. Not even close; its combined EPA rating is 36 mpg, or far below any Toyota Prius hybrid. The other obvious issue is safety, and the Smart has four airbags and decent--though far from top-of-the-heap--crash-test ratings, along with the usual suite of electronic safety systems.
The Smart Electric Drive, actually a third-generation powertrain introduced for 2013, is really the car the Smart should have been all along. The electric motor dispenses with a transmission, removing the annoying automated shifting, and the electric motor delivers smooth power in a far quieter, less raucous way than the gasoline engine. You'll have to accelerate hard to make the electric Smart perform--it has one of the stiffest accelerator pedals we've experienced--not to mention that you'll need a place to recharge its 17.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. But its performance is decent, again best in 0-to-30-mph city driving, and its electric range of 68 miles makes it a very practical city car and much nicer to experience than the gasoline Smart.
The limited-edition Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, which weighs several hundred pounds more and has a somewhat different weight distribution than other Fortwo versions, earns four stars overall, with four stars for frontal impact and four stars for side impact in the federal test; but the federal government isn't extending those results to the gasoline Smart models. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has given the Fortwo family 'good' scores for frontal, side, and roof strength protection, but it earns 'acceptable' in rear impact and hasn't been tested in the tougher new small overlap frontal test.
The Smart ForTwo Pure entry-level gasoline model starts below $13,000, and for 2014, Smart has made air conditioning standard on even the entry-level Pure model. It also added standard floormats on both Pure and the higher Passion trim level. Cruise control and even a basic "Entryline" radio remain options, along with niceties like ambient lighting.
Then there's the high-end Passion model, which adds a radio with USB port, cruise control, aluminum wheels, a sport steering wheel, power windows and mirrors, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and a panoramic glass roof for the Coupe model. Throw in any of the many personalization options from your dealer, which now include appearance features from the discontinued Brabus sporty model, and you can reach $20,000.
The Smart Electric Drive is $25,000 with a much higher level of standard equipment (though not cruise control). The electric Smart is the least expensive plug-in electric car offered in the U.S., and it's offered with the company's Battery Assurance Plus program, which effectively leases the battery--whether the car itself is bought or leased. At a newly reduced monthly lease price of just $139 for lessees who opt into Battery Assurance (almost everyone does), it's a very low monthly payment on top of the much lower cost-per-mile of driving on grid electricity rather than gasoline.
As the current model winds down its life, Smart is offering various limited editions, both nationally and "crowd-sourced" local editions. During 2013, there were three--the Fuzz, CityFlame, and Cocoa editions, all with 300 or less offered--and starting in September 2013, there will be two new ones: the BoConcept edition, in partnership with the Scandinavian modern-design store, and the first electric limited edition, created by designer Jeremy Scott.
The Smart's sole advantage is its tiny length, which in crowded cities like New York or San Francisco will let owners park it where no other vehicle can. For a handful of buyers, that's justification enough. For everyone else, you can get more modern, more capacious subcompact or compact cars with more features and equal or better fuel efficiency for roughly the same price as a nicely-equipped Smart.