Save money, get smart: the Smart Fortwo
I recently picked up a nice hobby: road-testing cars with some friends. I started on
something small… really small. With a total length of 106.1 inches, the Smart Fortwo is
the smallest mass-produced car on the US market. So far, there are 3 different models
available to us: the Pure, the Passion, and the Passion Cabriolet. All models are powered
by a rear mounted 1-liter inline-3 engine made by Mitsubishi Motors. The engine
produces a staggering 70 horsepower and 68 lb*ft of torque at 4500 rpm. Let’s get back
to this later and talk about the interior.
The Pure model really is pure! Nothing inside the car, except the dashboard, runs
on electricity. So you guessed it, the windows, side mirrors, and seats runs on whatever
gave you energy in the morning. I was surprised not to see a radio with knobs and a
needle. Going through the list of options for the Pure would give you a shock as well,
because one of the options is air conditioning with automated control. We can over look
all that is missing because the base price is only a little over $12G, making it one of the
cheapest cars in the US market. The Passion starts at a little less than $15G and the
standards list is worth the $3G. You might think there are other cars as cheap that also
provide what the Passion has as standards, but don’t forget, the Smart is German and it’s
made by Mercedes-Benz.
The Smart has German blood running within its body, but it’s still missing
something. I was excited to drive the Smart for the first time, since I only got to sit in it at
the New York Auto Show. It was spacious inside even though it’s only a 2-seater and 61
inches wide by 60.7 inches tall. Front visibility is very nice, but the triangular looking
rear view mirror was very small, and for a good reason, because any bigger and it will be
bigger than the rear window. The five-speed transmission is said to be automated manual
with a single-plate dry clutch. You can pop the shifter into manual position and change
gears when you like.
I did everything I can think of to thoroughly test this out. Both my friend and I
concluded was that the automated manual gearbox in the Smart is completely and utterly
rubbish. I had never driven a car with a gearbox where I can count the seconds it takes to
chuck in a gear. This one changed gears almost 2 seconds after either pressing the paddle
shifters behind the steering wheel or pushing the shifter. The engine was fun and
cheerful, going smoothly up bends, but it was let down by a gearbox that didn’t know
what to do. I tried thrashing it to see if it would change up faster, I even tried easing the
accelerator in the hopes of getting a smooth change, but what I got was shifting that
would break your neck with recoils. Hey, it’s a cheap small car so that’s alright, but what
about its handling? I can say that it was jaw dropping. Though the rear suspension is a
type of “dead axle” suspension called a de Dion axle, the rear wheel drive Smart is quite
nimble and absorbs bumps quite nicely. If you push the car to the limit of your bravery,
and have a safe place to chug it into a turn, it is very tail happy. Even if the road is a little
slippery and you forgot to slow down, you will either perform the most stylish stunt
you’ll ever do or crash spectacularly.
Now most would think it is not safe to be in a plastic box, but the frame of the
Smart is modeled after a racecar roll cage. There are also 8 airbags surrounding both
passengers in case of crashes. The car is so small that you can squeeze through the smallest of gaps to avoid collisions. And if you still manage to scratch the car when parking (you had to be blind and driving with your mouth), the recyclable
interchangeable body panels can be swapped out like seasonal clothing.
The Smart Fortwo is a car that gets you from point A to point B – not quickly, but
you can park faster and will be richer than the others when you get there.