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.

Smart Fortwo. Click image to expand.
Daimler's Smart Fortwo car

In some ways, Daimler could not have picked a better moment to introduce its Smart car to America. The Smart Fortwo—a Lilliputian, sub-sub-subcompact that fits two adults and almost nothing else—made its debut on these shores in January, and since then, gas prices and demand for small cars have skyrocketed in tandem. American auto-buyers seem to be saying: Shrimp my ride.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Smart recently let me borrow a Fortwo for a couple of days. I took long drives on the city streets and surrounding highways of Washington, D.C. I went on errands, picked up friends, and parallel-parked in the eensiest spaces I could find. I had a blast with this little imp, and I even wished I could have kept it longer. In the end, however, I can't imagine buying one. Nor can I envision it catching on with the American public.

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Which is really no knock on the car's design. Performancewise, this thing's a small wonder. At only 70 horsepower—a degree of engine muscle more commonly found in the outboard motor of a small watercraft—you might expect the Fortwo to putter along like a sluggish moped. Instead (thanks no doubt to its feathery weight), it leaps forward from a standing start and offers some decent thrills getting from 0 to 45 mph. The secret is in the transmission: According to Smart, the Fortwo's first gear is tuned a bit more aggressively than on Smart's European models, allowing the car to "better demonstrate its spirited nature when pulling away at traffic lights."

The Fortwo model I tried featured Smart's "automated manual transmission." This is a sort of hybrid of a stick shift and an automatic. If you wish, the car can do all the shifting for you. Or you can choose to change gears on your own, not with a clutch but with paddles mounted on either side of the steering wheel. This semimanual option bestows a greater measure of control and allows for a slightly sportier shifting pattern. But it's also a tease: If you redline the tachometer in low gear for more than a few seconds, the car will seize back its authority and upshift without asking. (Which may be for the best. At 6,500 rpm, the motor begins to sound like a Cuisinart chopping a crunchy clump of walnuts.) Likewise, the car's computer will disallow any manual shifting—up or down—that it deems illogical.

You sit way up high in the Fortwo, and you'll find yourself looking down on the drivers of sedans and hatchbacks. This makes it easy to forget you're in a vehicle approximately half their length. Your reminder comes on the turns: 1) As you swing around, you notice there's no hood out in front of you, leading the way, and 2) the turning radius is so tight that you can bang a smooth U-eey on a narrow street—a maneuver that would occasion a five-point turn in many larger cars.

If there's a drawback to the Fortwo's ride, it's the bumpy suspension. You can feel every jolt—to the point that you'll start grimacing in anticipation of the potholes up ahead. Perhaps this is a consequence of the car's small wheelbase. Or it may be part of the trade-off involved in engineering the Fortwo's responsive steering. (With its teeny footprint, zippy handling, and quick acceleration, the Fortwo may be the greatest car ever for slaloming recklessly between the cement pillars of an empty underground parking garage. I'm just guessing.)

Everyone asks about highway driving. "Weren't you terrified to go over 50? And all those 18-wheelers ... Yikes!" I ventured out on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway one sunny afternoon to see what would happen, and it turned out the Fortwo acquitted itself like an itty-bitty champ. I gunned it up to 75 mph, and at no time did I feel like various parts might start flying off the chassis. (Not the case with several other cars I've driven.) It felt pretty solid on the road, save for a few moments when it got hit by heavy winds. (The disproportionate height of the car makes it prone to sudden—but small—sideways shudders when a gust catches its broadside just right.) Another weakness: high-speed passing. The Fortwo has trouble going quickly from 45 to 65 mph, making it difficult to put long trucks in your rearview mirror.

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.

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.