Test-driving the Smart Fortwo.

Reviews of cars, trucks, and other autos.
Aug. 14 2008 6:58 AM

Shrimp My Ride

The Smart Fortwo is cute—but not so practical.

(Continued from Page 1)

And speaking of those trucks: What about safety? This is an understandably sensitive topic for Smart. The press materials stress that the Fortwo is "one of the safest cars in the super-mini segment"—which, now that I read it again, doesn't sound especially reassuring. The Fortwo meets all safety regulations and comes standard with front and side airbags. You're well-protected in the event of a one-car accident, a rollover, or a collision with another small car at moderate speeds. But crikey, beware those SUVs. At 1,800 pounds—little more than half the weight of a Camry—the Fortwo is less than one-third as heavy as an empty Cadillac Escalade. Simple physics tells us a head-on rendezvous is unlikely to go well for the underdog.

My biggest disappointment with the Fortwo is its gas mileage. It's very good, but I'd expected a car this light to post even more eye-popping numbers. At 33 miles per gallon in the city, and 41 mpg on the highway, its fuel efficiency isn't dramatically better than that of a Honda Fit (28 city/34 highway)—a car with far more engine power and interior capacity.

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Which highlights the major issue here: While novel and fun, ultimately the Fortwo is just too impractical to recommend over, say, the Fit. Because of its diminutive size, the Fortwo can't really be used like a regular car. Yes, it fits two average-size adults very comfortably, with good leg room. But anything more is beyond its capacity. When I drove around with a slightly beefy friend of mine sitting in the passenger seat, the Fortwo felt claustrophobic—and this 6-foot-2 pal was bumping up against the sunroof. There's no back seat at all, so forget about squeezing in a third person (even a kid). You can cram a few bags of groceries into the barely there trunk or perhaps a couple of gym bags. But you'll never get a large suitcase in there. And going camping is out of the question.

If the Fortwo cost $8,000 and got 50 mpg, it would be a terrific option as a second car. But at $13,590 for a middle-of-the-road model, it's no cheaper than the Fit (which I previously reviewed and loved), and it's far less car for the money. As I see it, there are only two reasons to buy a Fortwo.

The first is if you want an easier time finding parking. The Fortwo fits in half a space, and those leftover scraps of room on city blocks suddenly turn into viable parking opportunities. This is a godsend in crowded urban areas.

The other reason to buy a Fortwo is if you enjoy being stared at. I personally haven't been ogled this much on the road since I toured a friend's neighborhood in his restored Model T. People pointed at the Fortwo as I went by—smiling, waving, giving me the thumbs-up. At stop lights, drivers next to me would roll down their windows and ask, "What kind of car is that?" When I pulled up next to a corner filled with teen girls, one laughed and shouted, "It looks like a shopping cart!"

The prospect of this sort of attention, I suspect, is what's driving the Fortwo's sales. Smart's press materials compare owning a Fortwo to owning an iPod or an iPhone, and it's easy to see why: All three are high-design, overpriced objects of shimmery desire. Remember, the original Smart car was actually the product of a partnership between Mercedes-Benz and the inventor of the Swatch watch. Which makes a lot of sense—because the Fortwo is not so much a car as a trendy gadget.

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