Smart Car not a smart choice for Americans

By Mike on 9:30 pm

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The Smart Fortwo has polarized the auto and tech worlds. It's either loved or hated.
Mercedes' stubby little "microcar" hit Europe back in 1998. The company thought it would create a revolution in North America by marketing it an ultra-fuel efficient city car. At the time, gas prices were hovering well over $1.20 a litre in Canada. As the green trend dropped off, so has Smart. Sales of of the cars have dropped 70 percent since the beginning of 2010. It's not hard to see why people are steering clear of this high mileage revolution.

I had the pleasure of taking a Fortwo out for a test drive last summer. It was the 2009 three door with a 1.0 litre gasoline engine. Similar to a full size sport motorcycle. The Smart comes in four models: coupe, cabriolet, and the same two with the Brabus tuner package. The Brabus adds better wheels, suspension, and a sportier interior. The Smart Fortwo Coupe starts at $14,990 while the Brabus cabriolet goes up to $24,900. By comparison, the Toyota Yaris three door hatchback starts at $13,620.

German tuner company Brabus has tried, and failed to make the Fortwo look sporty.

One of the first things you notice is how cramped it is. There is no storage space in its tiny trunk. While it's not uncomfortable, it's certainly not something you want to go any distance in.

The control layout is also odd for North American car. It has two shifters: paddle on the steering wheel and stick in the centre console. The ignition switch is also in the centre console, rather than the dash or wheel column.

The dash is quite sparse. Not many features here.

Driving the Smart Fortwo is like driving a go-kart. Acceleration is very sluggish. It seems to take forever to get up to 60km/h, typical city driving speed. You can forget about taking it on the highway. It will struggle to do 100km/h and can't overtake. The engine is rated at 70hp but it definitely lacks torque. Steering handles as you would expect for a car its size. It turns quick but you're not going anywhere fast. For such a small, light car, it doesn't handle like you'd expect it to.

My biggest beef with the Fortwo is the transmission. It's automatic, but lacks a torque converter. The part of an automatic transmission that allows it to always stay in gear. Instead, it opts for an automated clutch system. It has the option of a fully or semi-automatic mode. There is no fully manual option, even though that would be ideal.

The Smart's shifts are abrupt, causing it to jerk with each gear change. It's a bit like driving a standard car with someone who can't drive standard. Overall, it's just not a nice car to drive.

You might be wondering about safety. One would logically think the Fortwo would be unsafe due to its weight and compact design. I must tip my hat to Mercedes. It's a safe car for the most part, due to its built in roll cage. The car performed well, receiving a top rating of "good" in everything but offset crashes. In offset crashes, the Fortwo performed poorly due to it's cramped interior. There was too much intrusion into the foot-well and a high risk of impact with the steering wheel. Its light weight caused the car to spin easily.

You said you wanted a safer Fortwo? I'll admit this mod is epic.

On fuel efficiency, the Smart Fortwo Coupe doesn't get high marks. The United States EPA estimated 36 miles per gallon of combined city and highway driving. It's good but it's not a major improvement over other small cars in its class such as the Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris, and Suzuki SX4, which get 30mpg combined and have engines twice the size. The Smart also requires premium gasoline while other sub-compacts use cheaper regular. The diesel option, while ideal, disappeared form North American models.

Obviously the Smart is designed for narrow European city streets, not long, high speed North American roads. Americans love their big cars. The promise of a cheap, 40mpg car isn't going to shake that. Due to it's cramped size and rough handling, the Smart is little more practical than the giant SUVs it seeks to replace. Aside from that, and I have to be frank here, you'd also look like a total wanker driving it.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia, Google Picasa

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