Smart Brings Micro-Car to America
I recently drove the Smart Fortwo, and I predict it will be the automotive sensation of 2008. Smart car mania is already building. According to David Schembri, president of Smart USA, over 50,000 people have taken test drives of the Smart Fortwo. during a nationwide tour. Over 30,000 have paid $99 to make a reservation for a Smart car as well. All this without any conventional media advertising.
Smart, which is a division of Daimler-Benz, has sold over 770,000 cars in Europe and around the world since 1998. Now, the automaker thinks that America is ready for its diminutive two-seater. To give you an idea how small this car is, it’s over two feet shorter (at 8.8 ft.) than a MINI Cooper. It tips the scales at only 1808 lbs.
When I went to drive this car, I was skeptical. Sure, it looks as cute as a bug, but what about the rest of it? When I got in the Fortwo, I was favorably impressed. The doors are wide, and getting in was no problem. The interior was appealing, with a lively red fabric in my test car. The instruments were straightforward and easy to read. An optional clock and tachometer sat prominently on top of the dash. Leg and headroom were abundant for an over six-footer. The floor of the Smart is well off the ground, so passengers sit at near eye level with other drivers. Because the cabin was spacious, I felt like I was driving a bigger car.
However, outside the cabin, there isn’t much car in front, or behind you. This raises concerns about safety. Smart engineers showed journalists videos of crash tests conducted in Germany demonstrating that the Smart Fortwo holds up well in front, side and rear collisions. However, the results of U.S. government testing remain to be seen. The Smart Fortwo comes standard with front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and an anti-skid system.
Smart powers the Fortwo with a three-cylinder, 1.0-liter engine that it gets from Mitsubishi. It is a willing, and not excessively noisy little motor. It is happiest when it is revving at 3000 rpm or higher. A clutchless 5-speed manual transmission completes the power train. You can drive it like an automatic, but it feels a little different, since there is a noticeable pause between shifts. You can also change gears for yourself, by pressing paddles on the back of the steering wheel.
Acceleration in the Smart isn’t bad, considering that you’re working with a one-liter engine. Getting to sixty will take 12.8 seconds, according to the people at Smart. The Fortwo did not feel sluggish. I had a chance to drive on a variety of roads, including freeways. The Smart had no trouble keeping up with traffic. In fact, it will go up to 90 miles per hour. Although it did well on the open road, I wondered about its hill-climbing ability. I decided to give it a good test on one of the steepest hills in San Francisco. The Smart pulled away strongly, and maintained a constant speed, without laboring, all the way to the top.
The ride quality in the Smart is decent, considering it has a very short (73.5-inch) wheelbase. As you might expect, it is smoothest on the freeway. On local streets it bounced around a lot, but overall, it wasn’t uncomfortable. As far as handling is concerned, my test route did not provide me sufficient opportunity to evaluate this as much as I would like. But the one thing I can say is that it has amazing maneuverability in tight spaces.
If you need to haul a lot of stuff around the Smart is not for you. Although the front passenger seat will fold flat, the space behind the seats is really limited. The Smart folks say it will hold up to 7.8 cu-ft. of cargo. To me, it looked like it would be best used for stowing a few bags of groceries.
One of the attractions of the Smart Fortwo at this time is its fuel efficiency. For 2008 its EPA rating is 33 mpg in the city—40 on the highway. This may seem less than some might expect, but the revised EPA ratings are down for all 2008 cars.
The Fortwo will be available in three models. The base car, called the Pure (really) will probably not appeal to most buyers. Although it has a base price of only $11,590, it comes without radio, AC or power widows. The model most people are likely to buy is the Passion coupe. It goes for $13,590, and gets what the Pure lacks and more, including a fixed glass roof. The top-of-the line goes to the Foretwo convertible with a power roof. It sells for $16,590.
The Smart Fortwo started arriving in a limited number of showrooms in January. The Fortwo may be hard to find for a while, but Smart hopes to have 74 dealers selling their cars across the country by the end of the year.
Crash Worthiness a Question Mark