Image: A Smart car drives through New York City
The smart fortwo is inexpensive, flexible and fuel efficient, but not the most frugal choice available to those that want to save on gasoline costs.
By contributor
updated 7/10/2008 2:02:37 PM ET 2008-07-10T18:02:37

Since its U.S. introduction earlier this year, the tiny 2008 smart fortwo has grabbed America’s imagination as one more way to deal with traffic and save on gas prices. And like the eco-friendly Toyota Prius, it makes an unambiguous statement about its driver.

But a question remains: Are you smart to drive one? The answer, as ever, depends. While the smart is inexpensive, flexible and fuel-efficient, it’s not the most frugal choice available to those car buyers who have their Excel spreadsheet at the ready for financial calculations.

When it comes to fuel efficiency, the smart is good, but it isn’t a world-beater. With an Environmental Protection Agency fuel rating of 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway, the fortwo falls short of the astonishing scores onlookers anticipate. It’s unlikely to break anyone’s fuel budget, but the fact is there are conventional five-seat cars available that score similarly and have abundant space for passengers and luggage.

Gas price-conscious shoppers who need to move more than one passenger — or who commute long distances and would appreciate some additional comfort — would do well to contemplate the comparatively plush-riding Honda Fit, or the Nissan Versa. Eventually, Ford will offer the Fiesta in this segment, but for now we have to wait.

So even if the fortwo’s gas mileage isn’t shockingly good, it’s good nonetheless and that’s plenty appealing these days. Even more appealing for drivers who speed home mid-Saturday afternoon to beat the race for scarce street parking is the fortwo’s size.

At 8.8 feet long and 5.1 feet wide, the fortwo makes a solid case for those who want to be able to squeeze their car into spaces overlooked as unusable by other competitors for resources in the urban jungle.

It isn’t legal in many places, but the car is short enough to be parked nose-in to the curb in spaces meant for parallel parking. Even if we can’t exercise this option without risking a parking ticket, it still illustrates the car’s short length and the ease of parallel parking.

Image: Interior of Smart Car
Smart  /  Smart
The fortwo’s cockpit features unmistakably avant-garde European style, which can either seem amusingly whimsical or laughably reminiscent of a kiddie car ride at Wally World.

In fact, the fortwo’s Lilliputian proportions defy expectations in many ways. For starters, the cabin is not cramped. And the view through the windshield is deceptively conventional, letting the occupants forget how small the smart really is (until they look behind their seats and realize there isn’t much of anything behind them.)

And while the fortwo would probably not be anyone’s first choice of vehicle in which to suffer a collision, the little car is actually much safer than its dimensions would suggest. That’s a result of exhaustive effort on the part of Mercedes-Benz, which developed the car alongside Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch, to maximize the safety of a minimalist car. As a company with deserved safety credentials, Mercedes’ claims that it has succeeded in designing a tiny car that can protect its occupants in the event of a crash merits some respect.

The fortwo’s engineers “did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a small package,” notes Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a not-for-profit organization funded by automobile insurers that measures vehicle safety. So tooling around town in your smart is certainly not a death-defying stunt.

Open the unexpectedly broad door and the fortwo reveals a commodious cabin with abundant headroom. Elbow room in this narrow car is helped by the fact that the passenger’s seat is mounted six inches farther back in the car than the driver’s seat, preventing the shoulder-to-shoulder claustrophobia found in similarly tiny cars, such as the Lotus Elise sports car.

The cockpit features an unmistakably avant-garde European style that can either seem amusingly whimsical or laughably reminiscent of a kiddie car ride at Wally World. A pair of optional instruments sprouts out of the center of the dashboard, making it look like a goggle-eyed Pixar film hero and reminding drivers that cars, even practical thrifty ones, can be fun.

A convertible top doesn’t hurt either, although it does run up the fortwo’s price pretty dramatically. A console-mounted switch activates the canvas power roof, which peels back as far as the silver roll bar-like roof pillar. Press it again and the canvas section behind the pillar retracts, leaving just the roof brace, which is behind the occupants and out of sight.

Even cooler — because of the roof’s structure, drivers can open or close it at any speed, without having to stop. Because the top portion of the roof slides back (rather than flipping upward and then folding down like regular convertible tops), it doesn’t stick up and catch the wind when it’s opened.

Behind the wheel, the fortwo is so easy to maneuver through traffic and to park that you’ll want to back up and do it again. This is both a function of its small size and its communicative steering, which tells the driver exactly what’s going on. The only way it might be improved would be to eliminate the power steering (pretty unnecessary in a 1,800-pound car).

The 1.0-liter, 70-horsepower, three-cylinder engine hums unobtrusively beneath the rear cargo floor (yes, there’s a 6.1- cubic-foot “trunklet” out back). That engine is matched to an automated manual transmission that spares urban drivers the left leg-tiring clutch pedal.

This is not a regular automatic transmission, and it doesn’t feel like one. An automated manual is more fuel efficient, but it also gives the feel of a manual; there’s a pause in acceleration on gear changes as the clutch is disengaged and the next gear is selected.

Some drivers positively hate all the lurching through the gears, and there is nothing that will change it. You can ease off the gas when the transmission is shifting and then ease back on the gas when the shift is complete. It smoothes shifts somewhat and perhaps also contributes to a sense that a driver is actually making the gear shift, but it doesn’t eliminate the jerking.

Only a change to a conventional automatic or an advanced dual-clutch manual with its continuous power flow will eliminate the lurches associated with gear shifts. Until then, if you can’t live with it, it’s probably a deal breaker for fortwo ownership. Otherwise, it’s just another idiosyncrasy of an odd little car.

Idiosyncrasies aside, more than 10,000 customers have snapped up this odd little car since its U.S. introduction in January. Smart isn’t releasing sales projections, but Roger Penske, whose company is importing and distributing the cars, says there’s demand for more cars and that he’s pressing Daimler AG, the manufacturer, to give him more. 

Perhaps today’s record-high gas prices have sparked a new sensibility that has more Americans feeling smart.

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