The Smart Fortwo has been around since the late 1990s, and although you could argue that the very small car has achieved an iconic status (sort of), it’s not exactly a widely praised or beloved machine. The core problem has always been that to have a diminutive city vehicle, easy to park just about anywhere, many compromises over what people expect in a modern car have to be made.
The Smart (which is manufactured by Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes, and was originally co-branded with Swatch) is a lot like the teeny tiny cars of the immediate postwar period, but with a bunch of creature comforts added. That said, the Smart still evokes an era of anemic engines, crude suspensions, and a casual if not dismissive attitude about how long it takes, speed-wise, to get from point A to point B.
In return, you get the smallest car on the road, with two seats and a rinkydink amount of cargo space. Driving one is zippy fun, but also a constant reminder that you’re being born down on by semis, full-size sedans, and SUVs. Even large motorcycles are threatening.
The experience of sitting behind the wheel of a Smart has often been described as “novel.” And to be sure, if you do live in a big, congested city where parallel parking is a contact sport, or if you need a simple runabout for a suburbs, the Smart could be a good choice.
To be sure, the Smart induces a definite “Hey, cool!’ reaction no matter how you think about it. The question is, Does that impression last?
We got to test this out recently when were borrowed a well-equipped Smart Fortwo Cabrio, the convertible version of the car. It tipped the price scales at $ 23,650, but the base vehicle costs less than $ 19,000.
Here’s what we thought:
When you get right down to it, the Smart Fortwo is made for city living. If you step down in the transportation hierarchy, you’re looking at a motorcycle. With the Smart, you’ve got two seats and the option to park just about anywhere you can squeeze in.
Those are normal-size NYC garbage bags, heaped in a normal-size NYC pile …
… just to give you a sense of how easy it is for the Smart to hide in plain sight!
Later, we escaped together to the rather less garbage-bag-strewn New Jersey suburbs.
But as you can see, the new environment didn’t make the Smart seem any less compact.
For such a small vehicle, the Smart actually has pretty solid look. It was engineered for safety, which puts a dent in its fuel economy: 35 mpg combined, not exactly awesome for a car this small. The very abstract Smart badge is front-and-center on the diminutive grille, while …
… the actually name of the brand is on the back.
Up close. The paint job on our Fortwo Cabrio was quite nice, a sort of shimmering bronze called “hazel metallic” (I love brown cars).
All lowercase letters, of course!
I did drop the top on the Smart, although the weather while I was testing the car wasn’t really ideal (I contended with a major downpour that actually made me worry that the car might wash away). That operation is easy and mechanized and can reportedly be executed at any speed.
Top stowed. As you can see, parking the Smart in the ‘burbs makes you realize just how gigantic shopping-mall parking spaces have become.
This compartment is adequate for a few items but …
… if you have serious shopping needs, you’re going to need to let some stuff ride shotgun.
The cabin is obviously tiny, but not severely uncomfortable. Large humans probably shouldn’t apply.
The Smart has rear drum brakes, which can take some getting used to.
So, what’s the verdict?
The Smart Fortwo has a punchy little motor, a three-cylinder powerplant displacing just under a liter, with a turbocharger that enables 89 horsepower, managed by a twin-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission. It’s a hoot to drive, although I felt a lot better on suburban streets that I did on the highway. To its credit, the Smart Cabrio doesn’t shake you to death, and the road-and-wind noise with the top up aren’t too bad.
Versatility is non-existent: even a modest excursion to the grocery store will test the Smart’s meager cargo capacity. Gas mileage isn’t great — it’s substantially lower than, say, a Toyota Prius. Yes, the turning radius is downright silly and you can park the car anywhere, as I discovered when I squeezed the Smart in and out of my driveway on a weekend when there were four cars in it.
Technology is what you’d expect on any modern car. It has an adequate infotainment interface, Bluetooth connectivity, USB and AUX ports, and a halfway decent sounding audio system (a JBL six-speaker setup). The seats on our tester were heated, but just so you know, the steering wheel is fixed, so you have to fiddle with the driver’s seat to create a comfortable piloting position.
The Smart is one of those cars that I first saw in Europe and thought might be worth thinking about if you wanted a vehicle and lived in a big US city. But now that its been in the US for a while, I think there are better choices. The Smart isn’t a particularly good getaway car — any of a number of compact or sub-compact crossovers handle that duty better. It is adorable, but until the 2017 model year, that adorableness came with all manner of performance compromises.
Those have been rectified, somewhat. But objectively speaking, the Smart isn’t a very good car. It is a a cute car, especially with the ragtop. And if you simply must have a rear/mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive two seater that gets blown around on the highway by crosswinds, then you could be a potential Smart owner.
In the end, I didn’t dislike the Smart Cabrio. I enjoyed it for what it is, an odd car that’s gotten less odd over the years. But while the case for owning a Smart made some sense for urbanites a decade ago, it doesn’t anymore. If you want a unique vehicle, go for it. If you’re obsessed with parallel parking, it’s your ride.
Otherwise, look elsewhere.