2011 smart fortwo
Let’s take another look at the smart fortwo (yep, it doesn’t use capital letters), that vest-pocket two-seat city car that briefly captivated the country three years ago.
After a decade of trundling around the streets of Europe, the car’s manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz of Germany, decided in 2007 to see if it could find a niche among American buyers.
It was such a novelty that the only way to buy a smart was to go online and plunk down $99 to reserve one. Some buyers waited nine months or more for their cars to be built in a factory in France and shipped to the United States.
In 2008, its first year here, smart sales totaled 24,622 and the distributor, Roger Penske, said he could have sold many more if they had been available. But sales slipped to 14,595 in 2009 and to 5,927 in 2010. Despite Mercedes taking over the marketing, smarts in 2011 were selling at a slower rate than in 2010 and dealers had plenty of them on their lots. No longer did anyone have to order online; customers could walk into a dealership and drive out with a new smart.
Obviously, increasing prices of gasoline could help the smart out of its slump because one of its major virtues is fuel economy: 33/41 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle. That is the best mileage of any non-hybrid car sold in the United States.
No surprise, it also is the slowest in a zero to 60 miles an hour acceleration sprint, according to tests by Consumer Reports. With rear-wheel drive, it has a 70-horsepower, 1-liter three-cylinder engine and a five-speed automated manual gearbox.
The major obstacle to the smart improving its sales situation is that other manufacturers of economy cars have not been standing still. There now are at least 10 cars roughly in the smart’s price class with only slightly less fuel economy and space to carry extra passengers and cargo.
For example, the smart fortwo passion tested for this review had a base price of $15,440 and, with a few options, a bottom line sticker price of $16,350. For only a few hundred dollars more, you can get a Honda Fit with a fuel consumption rating of 28/35 miles to the gallon. The Fit seats four comfortably, five in a pinch, and has 91 cubic feet of passenger space and nearly 21 cubic feet for cargo with the rear seatbacks up.
The smart, a two-seater, has 45 cubic feet of passenger room and a cargo space of 12 cubic feet.
Competitors roughly in the smart’s price class with four and five-passenger seating, two or four doors, space for luggage and only a bit less fuel economy include the Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Mazda 2, Ford Fiesta, Scion xD, Fiat 500, Chevrolet Aveo, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. Even the compact Hyundai Elantra sedan, with nearly mid-size interior room and a $17,800 price tag, has a 40 mile per gallon highway fuel economy rating.Still, the smart does have a few things going for it. Chief among them is the capability to squeeze into small parking spaces. It measures 8 feet 10 inches long. This is important in European cities, where it seems cars park almost anywhere—on median strips, on sidewalks and in alleys.
It’s less important in the U.S., with its many shopping center parking lots. Even in American cities, many spaces are marked for meter parking so size doesn’t matter.
The smart does offer novelty and entertainment, if your definition of entertainment means paying constant close attention to driving. With only 70 horsepower available in a 1,808-pound package, you need to stay on top of things just to keep up.
The automated manual gearbox, with no clutch pedal, can be shifted manually with the shift lever or racing-style paddles on the steering wheel. But to be smooth, you should lift off on the gas when you shift, as you would with a stick and a clutch.
It also shifts automatically. But even that takes practice. You have to anticipate and lift off when you feel a bit of resistance. If you don’t, the progression through the gears, especially the lower ones, is a series of lurches.
Although the 2011 smart has undergone some interior and exterior re-design, it is much the same as the original. After complaints about the jerky automatic shifting, smart said its engineers had come up with new shift mapping to smooth things out. It doesn’t seem to have done much.
The smart does have a height advantage. It is nearly three inches taller than the Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Honda Accord. That means you sit up reasonably high in tall seats and don’t feel intimidated on the freeways. It’s only when you look over your shoulder that you know you’re in half a car.
The smart also makes its size known with its ride. Get on anything but the smoothest surfaces and it feels as if the suspension system consists of bricks mounted in hard rubber. Could the jolts loosen fillings in your molars?