Since the late 90’s, hundreds of thousands of smart cars found homes in European towns, villages and apartments. I first encountered the smart fortwo at my tribe’s annual Testfest. Canada’s finest motoring hacks caned the diminutive machine on highways, byways, roads and racetrack, where one burly journalist declared the smart as much fun as a fart in a wetsuit. And now the butt of a thousand headline puns is headed your way America, thanks to the otherwise sane metal movers at The United Auto Group.
Admittedly, my automotive tastes run towards aggressive-looking beasts with luxurious curves that bring shivers to places best not mentioned here. By that standard, the smart fortwo could easily be the named “the vehicle least likely to raise wood.” I just can’t get my head around the fact that the fourtwo is a car, and not a four-wheeled projectile fired out of battleship’s main guns. (Up close, it looks like a baby’s pram crossed with a Pokemon.) While I could fully deconstruct the utter strangeness of the fourtwo’s design, this paragraph is already longer than the car itself. Suffice it to say, the fourtwo is a four-wheeled two-by-four.
Of course, it would be easy to just let rip and have a good ole slagfest at the smart's expense. Sure, the cargo capacity sucks; there’s hardly enough extra space to pack a couple of Slim Jims. Yes, from a safety point-of-view, it’s SUV toe jam. And sure, the Canada-spec diesel engine only puts out 40hp, making the fourtwo only marginally faster than walking. [NB: a British lunatic dropped a Hayabusa bike engine, beefed up the suspension and created a 180hp track monster known as the "smartuki."] Well, guess what? It cain't tow nothin’ neither.
On the positive side, the fourtwo is an environmentalist’s wet dream. You can drive the snot out of it all day for under $13 in diesel, stick it in parking spots meant for two-wheelers, leave the atmosphere almost completely chemically unmolested and receive two thumbs up from academics and hairy socialist types who assume you give a shit about the environment. That’s not exactly my thing, but it’s still a refreshing change from the middle digit communication afforded the Hummer H3. Anyway, the fortwo is a very clever piece of engineering.
Forone thing, it’s amazing how much room there is inside the motorized fishbowl. The sloped windshield is panoramic, the side windows are bigger than my widescreen TV and there's plenty of head and legroom for life-sized human beings. The initial impression– that there’s nothing between you and oncoming traffic– is eventually dispelled by the enormous expanse of foam-padded dash twixt wheel and glass. While I've seen tougher-looking accessories on a Tonka toy, the fortwo’s instrumentation is hilarious; think iMac meets the Jetsons. The clock and tachometer are housed in globes atop swiveling stalks.
Despite the Mercedes Benz connection, the fourtwo’s switchgear errs on the side of cheap and cheerful, operating with all the precision and tactility of a cereal box top. By the same token, the optional clutch-free semi-manual transmission is entirely without grace. Generally I try these tip shift gizmos out once, just to say I did, and then ignore them. However, the fourtwo’s slapstick is infinitely preferable to the lag and lurch of automatic mode – which causes the back of your head to repeatedly meet the headrest, and not in that muscle car kinda way.
The smart fourtwo’s handling is the fourth Ace in the deck (after fuel economy, size and planet hugging street cred). It feels as if the smart has been bolted to a go-kart frame. Stiff and square, with a wheel at each corner, there's almost zero body roll and lots of road feel beneath your butt. Although it requires more forward planning than a Middle Eastern invasion, blowing by startled Mustangs and Hondas like a giant mutant high-top on steroids is a priceless experience. However, due to the fourtwo’s height and slab-sided-ness, understeer is out there… somewhere… and strong winds at highway speed require both hands on the wheel. In fact, the ride’s so squirrelly, it might as well have a farking sail.
Once I got over my initial reluctance to be seen in the fourtwo, I got a perverse pleasure from driving the wee beastie everywhere. It was hugely satisfying bringing it to car meets, provoking extended bouts of contemptous sniggering from stalwart hairy-chested muscle car guys. Almost without exception, the car’s sardonic detractors were eventually won over by the fourtwo’s practicality and spacious interior– even if they only admitted their enchantment begrudgingly. It’s true. Whether a grassroots grease monkey or an over-moneyed connoisseur of silken engineering, any true car nut is sure to find the smart Fortwo a compelling automobile-– even if they would never, ever own one.