2008 Smart ForTwo: Flawed but Fun

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After years of reasonable success in Europe, the Smart ForTwo is finally here in the US. At least on the surface of things, the ForTwo’s arrival couldn’t be better timed. After all, in this era of $4 per gallon (and likely rising) gasoline, a fashion-forward and fuel-efficient commuter makes all the sense in the world.

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Smart’s entry to the US market is a venture by Roger Penske, auto dealer extraordinaire. Though Smart is a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, the three-pointed star’s US distributor isn’t directly involved (at least not yet) in the Smart brand’s arrival in the US, though some US Mercedes-Benz dealerships have added Smart showroom areas to their dealerships. Penske knows a thing or two about smart (no pun intended) business decisions, and he obviously saw a place in the market for this chic and efficient little runabout.
So what is the ForTwo? In a nutshell, it’s a diminutive two-seater that was designed for the tight streets of European urban environments. Visit Berlin, Paris, or Rome, and you’re sure to see them everywhere. It packs a tiny rear-mounted 1.0 liter 3-cylinder turbo engine (with a rip-roaring 70hp) and has an overall length that is shorter than many cars’ wheelbases. So, does it translate here in a $4 per gallon America, or does the ForTwo remain an unintelligible foreign tongue?


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The 5’7″ author looks positively huge in the Smart

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Let’s start with its size. As you can see above in two different perspectives, the ForTwo really is tiny. In the photo directly above, the Smart is parked with its rear bumper parallel to the rear bumper of the author’s MINI Cooper – itself one of the smallest cars sold in the US…until the Smart’s arrival, that is. Looks can deceive though. For the Smart’s two occupants, the interior is positively cavernous. Credit the high and chair-like seating position, high roof, and staggered seating (the passenger side is set back to ensure that shoulders don’t touch). The space inside is certainly unexpected given the tiny exterior. It’s also quite a work of art inside too with fascinating shapes and contours, creative use of colors, and even a fabric-wrapped dashboard. No doubt, the interior is a great place to pass the time away.
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But how does it drive? That’s definitely a mixed bag. The car has a solidity that belies its size, and it handles with unexpected alacrity. As an aural bonus, the little 3-cylinder engine almost sounds like a Porsche 911’s flat-six when it’s wound out. Those are the good parts. The bad? Let’s see…it’s slow enough that merging onto the highway is a dicey proposition, and more worryingly, the transmission is awful to the point that it’ll likely be a deal killer for many prospective Smart buyers. The transmission is a 5-speed robotized manual that can be set to shift automatically. Wait, doesn’t that mean it’s an automatic transmission? Not exactly. Think of it as a manual transmission with a robot operating the clutch and shifting the gears for you. No, make that a robot that has just learned how to drive a stick. The car is constantly bucking and jerking along as it shifts through the gears. It’s not just annoying, it’s really uncomfortable and actually affects the car’s acceleration since each shift takes what seems like an eternity to take place.
To be completely fair to the car, however, we did take it into its natural environment – the urban center. Long Beach’s urban center, to be precise. In this environment, the car truly did shine. It fit into tiny parking spaces, and its size allowed it to duck and weave through traffic in a most deft manner. In this context, it was an absolute joy to drive.
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The Smart ForTwo in its natural environment

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Here in the city, the Smart comes into its own

So does the Smart make sense for the urban dweller? In our opinion, not if this is to be your only vehicle. With only two seats and a tiny cargo area, the ForTwo just doesn’t cut it for the variety of uses one is likely to subject an only vehicle to. It can’t carry friends. It can’t carry cargo. And with an EPA fuel economy rating of 33 city and 41 highway, its fuel economy isn’t even all that great for all the sacrifices you have to make. A Corolla or Focus provides fuel economy nearly as good, and you get a “real” car with no compromises. Granted, neither of those cars possess the style of panache of the Smart.
Rather, we envision fashion-forward buyers who lean towards the affluent to embrace these cars as fun commuters. These are buyers who have several vehicles in their family fleet, so the Smart’s lack of practicality isn’t such an issue.
For all its warts, the ForTwo is a novel, innovative, and unique offering in the marketplace that has no real rivals. In this day and age of look-alike cookie cutter vehicles, it’s refreshing to see something that’s so wacky – especially at its low price point (base MSRP is under $12,000). It’s certainly not for everyone, but perhaps that’s its appeal. We say, viva la difference!

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