2011 Smart Fortwo: Driven Page 2

June 7, 2011

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.

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