2009 smart fortwo Expert Review:Autoblog
The Smart ForTwo isn't for shy people. Even though Smart USA has sold about 30,000 of these tiny two-seaters in the U.S., the little rollerskate attracts a lot of attention. On the road or in America's parking lots, the ForTwo is a conversation piece, and people don't hesitate to come up and talk to you. Some will tell you about the Smart they saw in Europe. Others will ask if it has the guts to make it onto the highway. Most will assume it gets great gas mileage (it doesn't). But one thing's for certain, during our week with the ForTwo, there was a 100-percent conversation rate wherever we went. Anthropophobes, be warned.
Follow the jump to see what it's like to spend wheel time with a Smart ForTwo Cabriolet.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
Among the myriad of questions we received, the most common area of concern centered around how safe it is. That's a fair question, considering the bigger-is-better message we've heard for years. But when you're in the Smart, you don't question its safety, you just drive. Granted, there's a slight feeling of vulnerability on the road – particularly when caught in the wind wake of semi trucks – but thanks to a deep dashboard and a distant leading edge to the windshield, the ForTwo feels bigger than it is, and about as solid as anything else on the road the majority of the time. It's only when you stop and think about the tiny narrow box you're cruising in that things get worrisome.
Still, the ForTwo has a full compliment of airbags and other active and passive safety features, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the ForTwo a four-star crash rating for the driver (three stars for the passenger), so it's hardly a death trap. Instead, it's a fun but flawed little ride, at home neither in the city nor on the highway.
It's easy (and maybe justifiable) to criticize the ForTwo. "It's only half a car," one friend joked, and the love-it-or-hate-it styling and size is the most obvious hurdle to ownership. But after driving the Smart ForTwo Passion cabrio in a variety of environments, the fog of novelty wears off and the truth is revealed: there's no ideal environment for this ultracompact runabout.
If you're a commuter in an urban area and only plan to use the ForTwo as a means to get to and from work, you could make a case for the Smart. And yes, the ForTwo could serve as a road trip machine – in a pinch. And yes, its eight cubic feet. of cargo space (12 if you fill it to the roof) is enough for a light grocery run – just don't put your ice cream at the bottom of the bags, because the ForTwo's adequate 70-hp, 1.0-liter three-cylinder sits between the rear wheels and quickly heats up the rear cargo area for insta-milkshakes. But as an everyday vehicle, the Smart ForTwo fails to stack up. And it begins with the transmission.
Although the ForTwo's automated manual gearbox has been "improved" from the 2008 model, it's still an unforgivable mess. There are two shifting options: a full automatic mode and a manual option that allows the driver to use either the steering wheel-mounted paddles or the floor-mounted shifter to change gears sans clutch. In automatic mode, the changes are inexcusably jerky, especially between first and second. Using the paddles allows for a slightly smoother shift when deftly manipulating the throttle, but manual shifting doesn't feel particularly useful, as it only allows you to choose when the hiccups happen and does little to alleviate the (neck) pain.
As you'd expect, this puts a serious chink in the ForTwo's urban armor. While its size is great for parking and the little car zips in and out of traffic with ease, in city driving, where the transmission is most active, the constant shifting makes low- to mid-speed maneuvers a torturous affair. While it might be possible to learn to live with the lurches, our week with the ForTwo wasn't enough – and we doubt any amount of time could dull the discomfort.
After answering the most common queries (What is it? Who makes it? Is it electric?), the next inevitable and justifiable question is about fuel economy. Again, the ForTwo has a surprisingly hard time justifying itself here. We averaged 35.7 mpg during our week with the car, just under the EPA's official 36 mpg combined rating. Initially, we left shifting duties to the ForTwo's computer-controlled tranny, resulting in a 32.7 mpg average. When we decided to stick the Smart Cab into the manual mode and use the paddle shifters, we managed 38.8 mpg. Maybe they're not so useless after all?
From the driver's seat, the ForTwo does its best imitation of a sleek, modern desk in some hipper-than-thou graphic designer's office. The top of the dash is expansive, and the designers completely nailed a chic, Euro-feel with the colors and layout. Virtually unchanged since the 2008 model, the gauges are stylish yet easy to read. The mid-mounted tachometer is a necessity in manual mode, since it's difficult to hear the engine crying for a change if the radio is on. The tachometer works better than the built-in indicator that flashes an "up" or "down" arrow below the speedometer when it's time to shift, as the LCD indicator is the same color and shape as the gear display and blends in. A separate colored icon, similar to what's found in modern VWs, would have been a better choice.
Other usability issues? While the visors provide an acceptable amount of shading through the windshield, they're practically useless when the glare comes in at anything beyond 11 and one o'clock. Rear visibility provided by the inside mirror isn't great, but works – except when the top is down. Two buttons by the shifter allow you to automatically fit or retract the Passion Cabriolet's top at any speed, eliminating any feeling of separation between the occupant and the environment. But when your enjoying the open-air experience, it's best to perform multiple checks when backing up or doing a lane change, as visibility becomes a finite resource. Thankfully, the ForTwo's squat footprint allows you to slide into spaces with a minimum of butt-puckering.
It's also easy to enjoy the Passion's standard audio system, which comes with a six-disc changer and an auxiliary jack in hidden in the glove box. The location of the input jack is great when you're on the road, as the iPod remains safely tucked away, but it's not so hot when stopping and starting. More than once, we left the player running because we forgot it was in the lockable glove box.
The sticker of our tester came in at $16,990, but the line ranges from $11,990 for the Pure Coupe to $20,990 for the BRABUS Cabriolet. Low sales in 2009 have prompted Smart USA to offer its first ever incentive for buyers, but even with a lower sticker, the ForTwo is difficult for us to recommend. Although some of its drawbacks disappear when you're enjoying the "ForTwo Experience", its abysmal transmission, general lack of utility and fuel economy that comes off as unimpressive for its size doesn't make a compelling case for the ForTwo. That is, unless you're a casual city driver who values fashion over function, or someone who really likes to meet new people.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
|2009 Smart ForTwo|
|Engine||1.0-liter inline three||Front Brakes||11-inch ventilated discs (ABS)|
|Configuration/Valvetrain||SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder||Rear Brakes||8-inch drums|
|Max Horsepower @ RPM||70 hp @ 5,800 RPM||Wheels (front)||15x4.5-inches|
|Max Torque @ RPM||68 lb-ft @ 4,500 RPM||Wheels (rear)||15x5.5-inches|
|Drive Type||Rear-wheel drive||Tires (front)||155/60 R15|
|Transmission||Five-speed automated manual||Tires (rear)||175/55 R15|
|Compression Ratio||11.4:1||Exterior Dimensions|
|Recommended Fuel||91 octane||Length||106.1 inches|
|Fuel Capacity||8.7 gallons (incl. 1.3 gal reserve)||Width||61.4 inches|
|EPA Fuel Economy (city/hwy)||33/41||Height||60.7 inches|
|0-60 mph time (MFR est.)||12.8 seconds||Wheelbase||73.5 inches|
|Top Speed||90 mph||Curb Weight||1,808 pounds|
|Front||MacPherson, with anti-roll bar||Maximum Seating||2|
|Rear||DeDion axle||Luggage Capacity||7.8 cu-ft|
|Steering||Rack-and-pinion||Head Room (Front/Rear)||39.7 / 0 inches|
|Turns Lock-to-Lock||3.4||Shoulder Room (Front/Rear)||48 / 0 inches|
|Turning Circle (feet)||28.7||Leg Room (Front/Rear)||41.2 / 0 inches|
New Car Test Drive
The Smart Fortwo is the smallest car sold in the United States. Stretching less than nine feet in overall length, it can be parked in the smallest of spots. Some have famously parked it 90 degrees to curbside without impeding passing traffic and we think it does indeed make for a smart city car.
As its name suggests, the Smart fortwo is a two-seater, designed to transport two people and not much else. The Smart fortwo comes in coupe and convertible versions, both two-door models. It's powered by a tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed automated manual and rear-wheel drive. Meant for use in the city, it's capable of speeds of up to 90 mph.
The Smart Fortwo enters the 2009 model year with a few minor refinements and a couple of new options. First launched in the United States in January 2008, the current Smart Fortwo is actually a second-generation version of this product. The first-generation Smart Fortwo has been available in Europe since late 1998.
The Smart is produced by the Mercedes Car Group and sold through stand-alone Smart dealerships and Mercedes-Benz dealers in the U.S. It is imported by Smart USA Distributor LLC, a division of Roger Penske's Penske Automotive Group. Smart USA markets its name in fashionable lower case: smart fortwo.
We think it's best used as a city car. Its small size makes it easy to park and allows it to easily dart in and out of traffic. Designed to offer a low cost of ownership, it's meant to get drivers from A to B without frills. With fuel mileage of 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, the Smart car will appeal to commuters who make short trips by themselves. Its fuel economy numbers aren't as good as the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid, but they're better than any other economy car.
At the same time, this car has its compromises. Its small engine wants for power, the transmission shifts awkwardly, the ride is busy, and it lacks a rear seat and cargo carrying capacity. Its owners are often okay with all of that, and in fact are often enthusiastic about it.
On the inside, the Fortwo has a spartan cabin dominated by economy-grade plastics. It is surprisingly roomy, with enough head clearance and leg room for very tall passengers. Shoulder room, however, will be tight for two large occupants. Cubby storage is minimal.
The rear of the cabin is an open hatch area. There isn't as much room as in most trunks and certainly not as much as what you'll find in a compact hatchback, but it has enough space for a trip to the grocery store.
The Smart Fortwo is available in two trim levels and two body styles. All Fortwo models are powered by a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine that makes 70-horsepower at 5800 rpm and 68 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. The transmission is a five-speed automated manual that can be set to shift like an automatic or can be controlled manually via the gearshift or available steering wheel paddles.
The Smart Fortwo Pure coupe ($11,990) comes standard with cloth upholstery, fold-flat passenger seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, outside temperature indicator, rear window defroster and wiper, power locks, remote keyless entry, and P155/60R15 front and P175/55R15 rear all-season tires on steel wheels. The Pure does not have a radio, does have provisions for radio installation; two radios are offered as options, both with two speakers. The Smart radio option is an AM/FM/CD unit ($350), while the premium radio ($495) is an AM/FM unit with an MP3-compatible six-disc CD changer. Other options include air conditioning with automatic temperature control and a pollen filter ($600), alarm ($160), power steering ($450), heated seats ($220), metallic paint ($225), and silver metallic paint for the tridion safety cell ($175). Daytime running lamps ($50) are a new option for 2009.
The Passion coupe ($13,590) adds a panorama roof with a sun shade, air conditioning with automatic climate control, steering wheel shift paddles, power windows, heated power exterior mirrors, an AM/FM radio with CD player, and alloy wheels. In addition to the Pure's options, the Passion offers fog lamps ($110), a dash-mounted clock and tachometer ($120), MP3-compatible six-disc CD changer ($150), and the Smart premium sound system ($350), which includes six-disc CD changer and replaces the standard two speakers with two tweeters, two midrange speakers and a subwoofer. Also offered is a Comfort Package ($850) with power steering, heated leather seats, automatic headlights, and a rain and light sensor. New for 2009, a conventional solid roof may be substituted for the panorama roof for no charge.
The Passion cabrio ($16,990) has a power soft top with heated glass rear window and the five-speaker premium sound system with in-dash six-disc CD changer. The Passion cabrio is also offered with the Comfort Package, as well as the various separate options available on the other models.
Safety features on all Fortwo models include dual-stage front air bags with passenger side occupant sensor, head- and torso-protecting side air bags, tire-pressure monitor, traction control, electronic stability control with Hill Start Assist, and antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. The Fortwo also has cornering brake control, which applies less braking force to the inner wheels when braking in a turn to help prevent a skid or spin.
The Smart Fortwo has plastic body panels around a tridion safety cell that is made of steel, half of which is of the high-strength variety.
According to Smart, this structure has longitudinal and transverse beams that displace impact forces over a large area of the car to protect occupants in a crash. The tridion safety cell is available in black or silver, as elements of it, including the front pillars, are visible from the outside. Smart says that slip tubes up front and a steel rear structure will prevent front and rear crashes of up to 10 mph from affecting the tridion cell. Smart also says the wheels and tires, as well as side braces, will help dissipate energy in a side crash.
The Smart design features wheels pushed outward to the corners of the car. Up front, the Fortwo seems to be grinning, with its high-set headlights, central grille and open lower fascia that is also home to the optional fog lights. The short hood leads to a tall windshield. Along the sides, the exterior portions of the tridion safety cell trace the shape of each door. The car ends shortly behind the seats, leaving a small hatchback opening at the back and giving both the coupe and convertible an egglike shape.
At only 106.1 inches overall, 61.4 inches wide, 60.7 inches tall and 1808 pounds, the Fortwo is the smallest car offered in the United States. By comparison, a Mini Cooper is nearly 40 inches longer and more than 750 pounds heavier. While the length and width are quite small, the Fortwo is slightly taller than a Honda Fit, which gives it plenty of interior headroom.
The convertible's top is power operated and has a heated glass rear window. It has no latches to work and can be operated at any speed. With the top down, a pair of structural beams can be removed from the roof above each door, creating an even freer open air feeling. The up-level Passion coupe is available with a fixed glass roof with a manual sunshade.
Hop in the Fortwo, grip the small steering wheel, and you are confronted with a minimalist interior. There are no luxury amenities, and the materials are largely plastic.
Behind the steering wheel is the speedometer, printed on a white background with black numbers. Below it in the same bezel is a digital readout that displays the current gear, odometer, trip odometer, outside temperature and time. An analog clock and a tachometer are available as separate gauges that sprout from the top of the dash in their own pods. There are no water temperature or oil pressure gauges in this spartan interior. For 2009, there is a separate warning light to indicate a loose gas filler cap.
The dash is made of reasonably well assembled plastic, some of which is dressed in cloth that matches the seat upholstery. The climate controls are located at the top of the dash, with sliders for the fan speed and available automatic temperature control. A radio is optional in the Pure model, but is standard in the Passion. It is located below the climate controls and has large, easy to operate buttons and a central volume knob. The radio and climate controls move easily enough, but they are light to the touch and lack a quality feel.
Interior small items storage space is minimal. It consists of two cupholders in front of the gearshift, a small glovebox, and new-for-2009 expandable storage nets in each door, which replace the rigid map pockets used previously. There is no center console. Small trays are also found on the dash on either side of the steering column. These areas lack rubber mats to hold items in place, so items can slide around rather easily. We would recommend against using these areas for storage.
Though the Fortwo is a small car, there is a lot of room for occupants. Head room and leg room are plentiful. I drove with a 6-foot 6-inch friend who had just enough room in both dimensions. The one dimension that is lacking is shoulder room. The Fortwo isn't very wide, so two linebackers will have a tough time sitting next to each other.
The seats are fairly comfortable, with built-in headrests, but they lack the contour for best long-trip comfort. Visibility from the driver's seat is generally good in both models. The convertible has a smaller rear window and the driver's view to the rear is partially blocked at the bottom when the top is down.
Out back, the coupe's rear glass opens separately and both body styles have a tailgate that folds down to allow for a low liftover height. The tailgate itself opens to reveal a shallow storage tray. Behind the seats there is 7.8 cubic feet of cargo room, which leaves enough space for groceries or a couple of gym bags. Smart says that cargo room expands to 12 cubic feet if the rear hatch area is filled to the roof, and it expands further with an available fold flat passenger seat. You won't be able to haul around TVs in your Fortwo, but it should have enough room for most weekend errands.
The small stature of the Smart Fortwo is both a benefit and a curse. Given the short wheelbase, Smart engineers have had to work to make the Fortwo safe and stable. On that count, they've done a good job. By making electronic stability control and cornering brake control standard, Smart has electronically lengthened the wheelbase. While the handling doesn't feel sporty, the Fortwo never feels like it's going to tip over, even if you charge into a turn. And while it's not best suited for the highway, it feels planted at highway speeds.
The Fortwo is most at home in the city, where its small size allows it to pop in and out of traffic, make tight turns, and fit in parking spots other drivers can't even consider.
While the Fortwo is generally fun to drive, it's not nearly as sporty as, say, a Mini Cooper. The steering feels direct and reacts quickly upon initial turn in, then seems to slow. The car leans very little in turns, and recovers quickly to allow for quick changes of direction. With a turning circle of only 28.7 feet, the Fortwo can turn around in the middle of a city street to get to that parking spot in the opposite direction. The brake pedal feels a bit stiff, but we found that the brakes were easy to modulate and provided quick, confident stops.
As might be expected given the short wheelbase, the Fortwo's ride is firm and busy. Most road imperfections can be felt, and the car is prone to lots of up and down motions on broken pavement. However, we were never jarred or jolted, and we wouldn't call ride quality a deal breaker if we were considering this car.
The Fortwo is one of the slowest cars on the road today, but it's still not a moving traffic jam. Smart quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 12.8 seconds, which is quite slow, but the three-cylinder engine delivers sufficient thrust for the car to keep up with the flow of traffic. It can even hold its own on the highway. It gets up to highway speeds reasonably well, and feels stable, though darty and jittery, at 65 mph.
The five-speed automated manual transmission works like an automatic in that the driver has no clutch, but it feels like a manual, with pauses between gears. It can be set to shift automatically or the driver can choose the shifts via the gearshift or a pair of steering wheel paddles. We preferred to use the manual mode because it allowed for greater control. The pauses between shifts in automatic mode are annoying, mostly because you don't know when they're coming. The pauses are still there in manual mode, but you control them.
When we drove the Fortwo on the highway, we found the transmission only wanted to downshift one gear when power was needed, which made it hard to keep up with traffic. Switching to manual allowed us to downshift to lower gears, but with only 70 horses on tap, the Fortwo struggled on long slopes. And any passing maneuvers required lots of room and enough time to build up speed.
While power isn't the Fortwo's forte, fuel economy is. According to 2009 EPA estimates, the Fortwo gets 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway. That's better than other economy cars and close to hybrid performance without the expense of a hybrid powertrain. By comparison, the Honda Civic Hybrid gets 40 mpg city and 45 highway, and the 1.5-liter Toyota Yaris gets 29/36. However, Smart recommends premium-grade fuel.
The Smart Fortwo will not be the best choice for drivers that need an all-around vehicle to haul people and cargo, but it will work as a second car or city vehicle. It's generally fun to drive. The pricing doesn't make it an outstanding deal off the showroom floor, but the Smart Fortwo should be inexpensive to operate and help owners leave a smaller carbon footprint.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report from Chicago.
Smart Fortwo Pure coupe ($11,990); Passion coupe ($13,990); Passion convertible ($16,990).
Options As Tested
fog lamps ($110), clock and tachometer ($120), mp3-compatible six-disc CD changer ($150), power steering ($450), silver metallic paint on tridion safety cell ($175).
Smart ForTwo Passion coupe ($13,990).
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