2008 smart fortwo cabrioletPosted on August 4th, 2008
Germany’s pint-sized commuter car makes its debut in America
By Nina Russin
Ten years ago, Mercedes-Benz introduced a two-passenger commuter car called smart. The smart fortwo looks like the front half of a sedan, and that’s basically what it is. With a 73.5-inch wheelbase and 54-inch track, a smart fortwo can fit in half a parallel parking space, if the driver parks nose in.
The smart car made its debut in the United States last January, just in time for this country’s biggest fuel crisis since the 1970s. Drivers who wouldn’t have considered a small car two years ago are finding a lot to love in the smart: average highway fuel economy is 41 miles-per-gallon.
I recently had the chance to drive the smart fortwo cabriolet. Base price on the open-air smart is $16,590, not including a $645 delivery charge. Power steering, a tachometer/clock gauge set and other options bring the sticker on the test car to $18,585.
I can put my arms around it
In twenty years of writing about automobiles, the smart fortwo is the first car I could put my arms around: literally. There’s something comforting in that, and also something unnerving
With my arms wrapped around the smart, I looked at the cars parked in neighboring driveways: Nissan Titan, Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Silverado. Phoenix is truck country. For a week, I’d be sharing the roads with cars three times as big as the one I was driving.
The one-liter engine was another big question mark. Here in Phoenix, the speed limit on most highways is 65 miles-per-hour, but drivers rarely travel under 70. Seventy is pretty close to the smart fortwo’s top speed: ninety miles-per-hour. I would have to get the smart up to cruising speeds on the entrance ramp, and have something in reserve if I needed to make an evasive maneuver in traffic.
Day one: testing the waters
To begin, I decided to run a few errands around the neighborhood. Entering the car, I was surprised by the amount of space in the passenger cabin.
The PR guys claim that a six foot tall adult can sit inside. To test their claim, I asked my six-foot tall husband to sit in the passenger seat. He fit just fine, with a couple inches of headroom to spare.
Then I took the smart to the running shop. One of the managers, who is about six-foot-three, got in the driver’s side. By pushing the seat back, he was also able to fit comfortably inside.
The driver’s seat is mounted forward of the passenger seat, to give both seating positions the most hip and shoulder room. Standard cloth seats are attractive and comfortable. There are two cupholders in front of the shift lever on the floor console, both big enough to hold my Phoenix-size water bottles.
A display screen in the center stack shows audio settings. Two levers near the top of the center stack control temperature and fan settings. An optional gauge set on top of the center stack includes a clock and tachometer. I would highly recommend buying the gauges, since anyone driving on the highway will be pushing the engine close to red line.
Stalks on the steering wheel operate the lights and windshield wipers,, while paddles in back offer one method of shifting the transmission manually. A large dished shelf beneath the steering wheel holds paperwork or small electronic devices. A 12-volt powerpoint at the base of the center stack recharges those devices on the go.
The ignition lock is in the floor console: an idea borrowed from Saab. The idea is to keep the key away from the driver’s knee, where it could cause injury in the event of a collision. Relocating the ignition lock also enabled engineers to install kneepads as part of the car’s safety system.
A toggle switch on the floor console opens the cabriolet top, while a button in back of the car opens the rear glass window.
Keeping the revs up
The smart car has an automated manual transmission: basically, a manual gearbox with no clutch. A dedicated on-board computer applies shift logic, and can shift the car automatically. The problem is that shifting is rough, and the computer applies shift points for maximum fuel economy rather than power.
The best way to drive the car is to shift it manually, using the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel. It takes some getting used to, but it’s the only way to keep up with traffic, on or off the highway.
Although the gearbox has five speeds, I rarely took the car out of fourth. The overdrive gear is fine outside of town, but in the city, it robs the car of power necessary to make evasive maneuvers.
Day two: hitting the highway
I’ll admit that I was pretty apprehensive about taking an 1800-pound car with a one-liter engine on the interstate. I’ll also admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the smart car’s performance.
I took the car up to seventy-five miles-per-hour on the highway, which put me at the speed of traffic. In fourth gear, that’s about 4500 rpm; 1500 rpm below redline. It’s the point at which the engine reaches peak torque, and I felt comfortable with the car’s ability to maneuver around drivers in high-profile vehicles who might not see me.
I was pleasantly surprised by how stable the smart car feels at speed. A careful look at the back off the car explains why. Engineers pushed the wheels as far to the corners as possible.
Not only does widening the track enhance the car’s cornering ability: it also allows engineers to use the biggest wheels possible. Small as it is, the smart fortwo rides on fifteen-inch rims: the same size wheels as many compact cars.
Visibility around the car is pretty good, although the cabriolet’s rear glass is rather small. To my surprise, road noise was not excessive.
Since I was pushing fourth gear to maintain power, my fuel economy was not as good as the EPA figures. Average for highway and city driving was about 33 miles-per-gallon.
Though the smart has enough room inside for groceries or small duffle bags, there is no way to fit a bicycle in. US distributors will carry a dealer-installed bike rack, that will retail for about $600.
Knowing that their car would share the road with much bigger vehicles, engineers spent a lot of time designing active and passive safety systems to protect smart occupants.
Much of the metal in the vehicle is high-strength steel: a material which is as light, but much more robust than regular steel. Bumpers in the US models have larger crashboxes than the European cars, to absorb impacts at higher speeds.
A safety cage that surrounds the passengers is designed to trigger crumple zones on the cars it comes into contact with, so the larger vehicle will absorb more of the crash energy. The engine, battery and fuel tank are located in impact-resistant locations, and are protected by high-strength steel components.
All models come standard with front, side and knee airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability program and traction control. Hill start assist keeps the car from rolling backwards when accelerating from a stop on a steep hill.
A smart choice for active lifestyles?
The smart fortwo makes a good second car for families who commute through traffic on a daily basis. It’s environmentally friendly, has excellent fuel economy, and can fit in parking spots that normal cars cannot.
As a driver’s only car, the smart is not the best choice. Extended road trips would be difficult, due to the limited engine power and lack of cargo space. If two people go on a weekend holiday, the luggage has to go on the roof. Buyers who want an inexpensive compact car are better served with a small hatchback.
Likes: A unique car with extremely compact dimensions, excellent gas mileage, and a high level of standard safety. The smart is an excellent choice for drivers who spend most of their time in urban traffic.
Dislikes: Engine lacks the power for extended road trips. Cargo space is extremely limited, especially with two people in the car.
Make: smart: a division of Mercedes-Benz
Model: smart fortwo passion cabriolet
Base price: $16,500
As tested: $18,585
Horsepower: 70 Hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 68 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 12.8 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: N/A
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 33/41 mpg
Comments: The manufacturer recommends the use of premium unleaded fuel.
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