2011 Smart Fortwo: Driven

June 7, 2011

"Wow. Can't believe you fit into that thing."

That's the first thing we heard over and over again during a recent week with the 2011 Smart Fortwo. And the well-designed cabin deserves lots of recognition; at a long-legged 6'-6," this driver had absolutely no problem fitting into the surprisingly accommodating interior.

The Fortwo is a two-seater, but it simply can't be compared to the interior of any small two-seat sports car or roadster we've ever been in. You sit high, and the seats invite (and are at their most comfortable in) a sort of perched-forward driving position, but with none of the typical knees-splayed, somewhat fetal position we've seen in some other foreign-market minis. Look ahead and you don't see any hood, really no cowl either, and the front of the car is literally right on the other side of your toes.

But just as we were about to take the compliment and move on, then would come the follow-up: "But you must get 60 or 70 miles per gallon with that, right?"

Well, no... It gets about 35 or 40 miles per gallon, we'd say. And repeatedly we'd see the expression change. Shoulders would shrug, and you could see interest fade. Several again wondered why it couldn't do better, and a couple asked why it wasn't electric. As for the electric version, they're getting to that; it's just not publicly available yet.

The buildup...and the letdown

This was the drill for the time we had the Fortwo, and we have a theory. In Europe, and in a few (just a few, really) select tight urban spaces in the U.S., the Fortwo pays dividends in space efficiency. For a vehicle that takes up less parking space than two motorcycles, you can have a reasonably safe and weatherproof transportation module for two, with the space for a typical load of groceries to boot.

Again in Europe, that might be enough to get the Fortwo on a lot of shoppers shortlists. But the responses we kept getting are pretty representative of the way Americans think: To drive a car that small, you must be crazy, or there must be a big payoff. And with most parking spaces, in most of America, sized for Hummers, parking isn't it.

Almost feels like an exotic

Another reviewer perfectly summed the initial feel of driving the Fortwo as "you sit ON the car, not IN it." When you start the engine a loud starter cranks and the Mitsubishi-sourced, 1.0-liter in-line three-cylinder engine thrums to life with an idle that's, to our ears, part original Volkswagen Beetle, part old Benz diesel in-line five—and it's under the floor, not far behind the seat. It sounds remarkably civil, maybe even a little sporty when revved, and it's only thrashy in its upper ranges.

Unfortunately to move quickly, you're using those upper ranges quite a lot. And almost any time you're accelerating, your head will be bobbing forward at unpredictable moments. See, the Fortwo is the only car in the U.S. market to use what's essentially an ordinary five-speed manual transmission that's been automated with a series of solenoids and actuators. It sounds okay in theory, but in practice, those shifts take longer than those from a normal driver, used to a manual transmission, and in Drive they don't seem to come with a lot of intelligence.

Even on a straightaway, shifts from first to second involve enough of an interruption of power to send our heads forward, as well as the entire car rocking fore and aft. And out of corners—say making a right turn on a green light, onto a slight uphill, the system would want to stay in third gear, then give us nothing for an agonizingly long moment as we completely lost momentum before it could engage second. On the highway, in fifth, you'll find yourself being careful not to press the accelerator too far; you're better off easing up in speed, as a downshift to fourth is accompanied by another one of those interruptions in momentum.

There is a workaround. Click the shift knob to the right and you can use steering-wheel paddle-shifters. Then, within boundaries of lugging the engine too much or pushing the accelerator to the floor, you can command upshifts or downshifts. But again, you have to be used to it, and anticipate the pause; unfortunately there's no true happiness here for either no-fuss automatic buyers or those who prefer the control of a manual.

The Fortwo has manual steering, which you might think would require too much muscle; in low-speed parking you definitely need both arms, but it's never a sweat. At low speeds, the lack of much interference between you and the tires is an asset; you can whip this little car around corners with a confidence you probably wouldn't have guessed, and dynamically on tight 20- or 30-mph hairpin esses, the Fortwo feels almost roadster-like. Almost.

Bob and weave

But it all falls apart at highway speeds, where suddenly the quick-ratio steering combined with its susceptibility to crosswinds and tramlines make this short-wheelbase mini feel nervous—and yes, vulnerable. Cruising smoothly at 70 mph demands a lot more concentration than your typical car, but it can be done. Factor in the combination of engine and road noise and it's enough to scare away all but a particularly determined set from a highway commute. The Smart's brakes are great, though; and in neat, stable panic stops it can feel a bit like you're on a tall racing bike and about to go over the handlebars.

One other caution: The Fortwo isn't at all speed-bump-friendly. taking some 25-mph ones in our neighborhood at the proper speed felt punishing for us and the car—again a factor of the very short spacing between front and rear wheels.

For 2011, the instrument panel has been redone; it eschews the early 1990s econobox dash appearance that it had up until last year and brings a mix of textured plastics and brighter matte-metallic-toned trim. It's more stylized, especially around to the doors, and much better-looking—and in all fairness, the dash trims feel a step ahead of those in many other sub-$18k vehicles. Seats themselves are surfaces in a meshy, foamy material that doesn't look very lavish but seems to be very comfortable and breathable. This isn't a car you'll in which you'll be spending hours on end, after all.

Finally, this year the Fortwo gets a proper Daimler stereo. It has just two speakers and its sound quality is no better than in the sound systems of econoboxes out of the 1990s, but the interface adds just a hint of Mercedes-Benz to this appliance.

Mileage, price tag a belly-flop into the market

After a week and about 140 miles—topping off the gas tank very carefully each time, as there's no trip odometer—we averaged about 36 miles per gallon in a mix of about half city streets and half suburban freeways and boulevards. That about matches the EPA ratings, but again, feels a little disappointing given it's not too much larger or more extravagant than a golf cart. Its mileage is just a few mpg better than a number of roomy compact sedans like the Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, and Ford Focus while doing about the same on the highway.

To that again, most Americans are going to ask: What's the point? You only have to test out a few cars to realize that a larger exterior doesn't reliably correspond with more interior space; and the Fortwo is a good example of that. Our Fortwo Passion Coupe came with quite a bit more than the base Pure trim, including air conditioning, heated power side mirrors, power windows, an upgraded steering wheel and the potential for cruise control and premium sound-system options. But considering its $16,300 total, you have lots of other choices that are better suited for the driving needs of most American commuters.

The Fortwo is a good example of, "In another time, another place, it could have been love." Indeed. 

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